Letters from alumni about The Cotton Club
March 19, 2004
I was delighted to read in PAW (From the Editor, March 10) that a group of 30 Princeton faculty, students, and staff, led by Ayana Harry '05, didn't merely venture halfheartedly into Harlem on a recent February Saturday, but took the full measure of that neighborhood's cultural richness. It is indeed a vital, welcoming, irreplaceable cultural center.
It is also brimming with musical talent as I was fortunate enough to discover when I paused one afternoon in 1986 to watch a grey-bearded older man sing the blues, play virtuosic electric guitar, and accompany himself on an old hi-hat cymbal attached to his sidewalk chair. His name turned out to be Satan "MISTER Satan," as he repeatedly reminded his fans and I turned out to be the partner, on harmonica, that he'd been waiting for. We played together for 12 wonderful years, half of them on 125th Street not far from the Apollo Theater and half of them driving and flying to clubs and festivals around the world. Sterling Magee was Mister Satan's "real" name, but cold, dull fact meant nothing in the face of his passion to re-create himself and express the new life surging within him. During my graduate years at Princeton, in the mid-90s, I wrote a memoir about that experience entitled Mister Satan's Apprentice (1998). Much as I love my alma mater, I will always be proud of the musical education I received on Harlem's streets: the sort of gift that no amount of money can buy.
I thought back on that whole period when I read in Editor Marks's column about how Ms. Harry and her Princeton adventurers headed "to the Cotton Club, a once white-owned club in the heart of a black community." "Today," wrote Marks, "the club is owned by an African American; Harry said the students wanted to visit the Cotton Club to 'be part of the history of reclaiming it' for Harlem."
Reclamation is good, but the truth is slightly more complex than this. The original Cotton Club, which opened in 1923, was indeed white-owned and restricted to an all-white clientele; at Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street, it was very much in the heart of Harlem. That Cotton Club closed down in later decades and has not reopened--although the unoccupied building may possibly remain. Some time much later, in the 1980s, a Harlem entrepreneur named John Beatty was investigating various business possibilities and discovered that nobody actually owned the rights to the name "Cotton Club." So he found a building for sale in a very different location on the very edge of Harlem West 125th Street, just off the river and created a whole new Cotton Club from scratch.
I know that this is the true story because Mr. Beatty told it to me personally one evening in the late 1990s when I went to the new Cotton Club to listen to the Melvin Sparks Band. At least I think it's the true story. For all I know, Mr. Beatty may have told Ms. Harry a different true story. The true story in Harlem, as Mister Satan made clear to me, is never merely a matter of the name they christened you with on the day you were born. Soulfulness, imagination, and iniative are crucial, too.
I think it's wonderful, in any case, that the Cotton Club or "a" Cotton Club has been reclaimed from the invidious whites-only policy that marked its early days. I salute Ms. Harry and her fellow Princetonians for reaching out and connecting with one of America's richest cultural legacies.
Adam Gussow '79 *00
i have read with great interest your From The Editor comments in the March 10 issue. I would like to draw to your attention Live from the Cotton Club produced by Bear Family Records(email@example.com) that includes a superb history of The Cotton Club and others that copied its name as well as a CD of old recordings made at The Cotton Club.
The book on the Club is well written and gloriously illustrated. Anyone interested in the subject will find it a great resource. As a jazz fan and one who has taken many photographs of musicians in performance I can only wish that i could have visited the club years ago. My dearest friend Doc Cheatham is pictured in Cab Calloway's band in 1934.
Frederic S. Sater '56
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