The Cotton Club

The Legendary Speakeasy

by Aaron Chi

When the Prohibition Act was passed in 1920, banning the sales of all alcoholic beverages, Americans began looking for ways to obtain liquor from an underground market. What better means to do so than going to a speakeasy, like the Cotton Club in New York City!

The club was first opened in 1920 by Jack Johnson, a retired African American heavyweight boxing champion, under the name of "Club Deluxe." In 1922, the notorious gangster Owney Madden took ownership of the club and restricted the clientele to whites-only, renaming the club "Cotton Club." Its popularity skyrocketed when word spread of its world-class musicians and excellent chorus. African Americans did in fact have a way into this club, as performers. The club provided the perfect environment for jazz musicians, who largely consisted of Americans, to flourish and make this new musical genre known. Perhaps the most famous musician of the Cotton Club was Duke Ellington, who was hired in 1927 with his entire orchestra as the house band. Though whites called African American music styles "jungle music" and portrayed them as "savage," they quickly grew to enjoy jazz and even began to learn it for themselves.

The Cotton Club was closed for a short time in 1925 for violating the Prohibition Act, but the venue soon reopened without any problems, resuming the sale of liquor. Presumably, law enforcement officials did not view the Prohibition Act seriously, considering it a pointless law. In 1935, race riots in Harlem erupted, and the area was no longer considered safe for whites, bringing about the closure of the Cotton Club. Though it reopened in another location a year later, it never saw the same success that it enjoyed during the Roaring Twenties.

Works Cited

"Cotton Club." Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <>.
        Encyclopedia Britannica effectively summarizes the establishment, the booming era, and fall of the Cotton Club.

"Cotton Club." PBS. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <>.
        PBS presents a detailed analysis of the Cotton Club's history, emphasizing the famous musicians who performed there.