The 6 Most Iconic Jazz Clubs in New York City

Marquee of the Apollo Theater in 1946. Photo by William P. Gottlieb from the Library of Congress.

Jazz music originated in New Orleans in the early 1900s, with African American musicians creating the style of music to celebrate their heritage while striving to fit into the broader American music scene. As the 20th century progressed, the country’s youth began to crave more exciting music, and jazz rose to fill that desire. In 1917, due to various factors including the Spanish flu pandemic, New Orleans jazz musicians began to leave for Chicago. However, the popularity of jazz music in Chicago declined during the 1920s and musicians again migrated, this time to New York. After Jimmy Walker was elected mayor in 1926, speakeasies – establishments known for encouraging free talk and the sale of bootleg liquor – were legalized, becoming the perfect breeding ground for jazz to flourish. Learn about the overlap of jazz culture and speakeasies in New York City and hear original recordings of New York’s iconic jazz clubs on our “Legendary Jazz Clubs of New York City” virtual tour coming June 16 at 12 p.m. EST. New York Uncharted Insiders can attend this event for free (a first full month of membership is completely free with code JOINUS!)

Exterior of the Apollo Theater.

Visit legendary New York jazz clubs

As jazz took hold of the New York music scene, clubs sprung up across the city to satisfy the growing demand for unique performances. From the Cotton Club – which hosted the Duke Ellington Orchestra – to the Apollo Theatre, which helped kick-start Ella Fitzgerald’s career, these jazz clubs have transformed New York into a haven for jazz musicians. Read on to learn about the legacy of some of New York’s most famous jazz clubs!

1. The cotton club

Cotton Club's Cab Calloway on stage with his band.
Cab Calloway and his orchestra performing at the Cotton Club in 1930. Courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The Cotton Club opened in 1920, then known as Club Deluxe, under the management of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who rented the upper floor of a building on the corner of 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem. Smuggler and gangster Owney Madden took over in 1923, changing his name to Cotton Club. Soon after, Johnson and Madden entered into a partnership in which Johnson remained the club’s manager while Madden was free to use the space as a place to sell illegal alcohol during the Prohibition era. Although the Cotton Club only operated for two decades, it became a cultural hotbed, training some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day, including Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. At the same time, the Cotton Club remained a whites-only establishment – ​​with rare exceptions reserved for black celebrities such as Ethel Waters or Bill Robinson. Reflecting the socially accepted racist ideologies of the time, images of black people from exotic jungles or slaves working in the Deep South on plantations were seen throughout the facility. A prime example of this could be seen in a 1938 menu that displayed illustrations of naked black men and women dancing around a drum in the jungle. Poet and social activist Langston Hughes criticized the Cotton Club after visiting the facility, calling it “a Jim Crow club for gangsters and rich whites”.

Each year, the Cotton Club hosted two musical revues, which consisted of dance, song, and comedy numbers presented for a chance to eventually become a hit show on Broadway. These musical reviews would help relaunch the careers of many artists such as Andy Preer who conducted the club’s first orchestra in 1923. From 1927 to 1931 the Cotton Club orchestra moved to Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and in June 1935 the club of the the doors were eventually opened to black patrons. After the Harlem race riots of 1936, the Cotton Club temporarily closed but reopened later that same year in a new location on Broadway and 48th Street. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Calloway then conducted the club’s most extravagant revue on September 24, 1936, with 130 performers. Robinson’s involvement ended up costing the club $3,500 a week, the highest salary ever paid to a black performer in a Broadway production. Eventually, amid rising rent prices and a federal investigation into tax evasion by many Manhattan nightclub owners, the Cotton Club was closed for good in 1940. The Latin Quarter nightclub was quickly took its place, focusing on hip hop, reggaeton and salsa with similar music. vibes that matched its fiercest competitor, the Copacabana. Since its closure, the Cotton Club has been widely featured in American pop culture, with examples including the music video for Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz’s “Oye Como Va”, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film The Cotton Club, and a 2013 episode of White collar titled “Empire City”.

Next: #2 The Apollo Theater

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