The world of jazz entertainment has probably never had a better or more unwitting ally than the stiff and upright U.S. Congressman Andrew Volstead, Republican of Minnesota. Congressman Volstead was the floor manager and chief promoter of the act that bears his name, which enforced the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages throughout the land. The Volstead Act, which ushered in prohibition, had many unintended consequences, including the rise of organized crime, and the creation of the American speakeasy. It was in these illegal but largely public nightclubs that jazz found its first secure foothold with the broader American public. And no speakeasy was sexier, more glamorous, or more popular than Harlem's Cotton Club, which opened in 1924.
The club was the brainchild of bootlegger Owen "Owney" Madden, who was doing a stretch in Sing Sing at the time. His motivation had nothing to do with music; he was looking for an outlet to sell beer. But he reasoned that the bigger and classier the crowd, the more beer he could sell, and that the price might be directly related to the reputation of the joint he was selling it in. Hence, The Cotton Club, Harlem's ritziest address, where the entertainers were black, the audience was white, and the promise of a sophisticated brush with the hip lush life was irresistible.
Much has been made of the Club's racist policies, which played into stereotypes we now find shockingly antediluvian: chorines were young and uniformly light-skinned African-Americans, décor and performance style featured a "jungle" motif, and the audience, until Duke Ellington made enough of a fuss about it, was absolutely "restricted." Madden didn't want his patrons made uncomfortable by having to associate with denizens of Harlem; the customers paid their money to be entertained by them, not to socialize.
But within this indefensibly restrictive atmosphere, something extraordinary was happening every night on stage: musicians, singers and dancers were creating a form of entertainment of a quality and style that had never been seen before. Jazz voices were blending with Broadway entertainers and bending two performing traditions toward each other, changing definitions and giving voice to a kind of egalitarian expression of joy. There was no real structure, no plot, not much in the way of comic routines or sketches. But fueled by a new class of African-American stars, The Cotton Club was presenting the greatest floorshow on earth.
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