Preserving Harlem's jazz legacy: From the Cotton Club to present day

The Cotton Club in Harlem was once considered the epicenter of African American entertainment, boasting performances from the likes of Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. The soulful sound shaped culture and left behind a rich legacy that still resonates today. 

Edric Robinson

Feb 21, 2024, 11:54 PM

Updated 50 days ago

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The Cotton Club in Harlem was once considered the epicenter of African American entertainment, boasting performances from the likes of Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. The soulful sound shaped culture and left behind a rich legacy that still resonates today. 
"The music was astounding - the music was new," says Karen Taylor, founder and executive director of While We are Still Here, an organization marking historic landmarks throughout the neighborhood. 
Originally located on West 142nd Street, the Cotton Club served as a hub for Black talent and cultural expression in the 1920s and '30s
“Duke Ellington and his band brought jazz to America, we had the Cotton Club chorus here, Lena Horne was one of them,” says Taylor. 
The venue, initially called Club Deluxe and owned by heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, was later renamed when Owen Madden took over in 1923. Despite the club's acclaim, its history is marred by racial segregation. 
"The performers could not use the bathroom in the Cotton Club. It’s a metaphor for how Black people had to function within society. The indignities that the performers had to suffer, and they still created this trendsetting and innovating music,” says Taylor.
However, the spirit of jazz lives on in Harlem's local nightclubs and restaurants, where artists like TC The 3rd continue to honor and preserve this rich legacy.
“Every time I get an opportunity to give homage to someone, a composer or someone who wrote this or a memory, it’s my job to talk about it because if we don’t do it, who's going to do it?” says TC The 3rd. 
TC The 3rd acknowledges that the jazz landscape in Harlem has evolved over the years, with support for live performances not as robust as it once was.
“I want them to support live jazz. I want them to go out into the clubs like here at Patrick’s Place on 153rd and Frederick Douglass. I want them to go to all the different jazz clubs and support jazz musicians,” he says. 
Marcus Goldhaber, creative director of Room 623, echoes this sentiment, recognizing the challenges faced by legacy clubs like Lenox Lounge and St. Nick's Pub.
“Over the past 20+ years, we’ve seen them one after another not be able to keep their doors open, and that was before the pandemic,” says Goldhaber. 
In partnership with B2squared restaurant owner Adriane Ferguson, Room 623 aims to honor past nightclubs and revitalize late-night jazz in the neighborhood. 
“We’ve now been open for two years straight without having to close our doors. The momentum has been continuing, and we’ve added some nights now—Wednesday, Friday, and Sundays. We’re celebrating this beautiful legacy, and people have been responding in a positive way,” says Goldhaber
For Taylor and many in the jazz community, preserving this legacy is paramount. This summer, While We're Still Here will install a plaque outside the original Cotton Club location, ensuring that Harlem's global impact on jazz is celebrated and remembered locally.
"Keeping our history in the forefront of people's minds or else they’ll say we never did anything," said Taylor. 


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