The Cotton Club isn’t what it used to be—it isn’t even where it used to be—but the current one is now older than the famous one at 142nd and Lenox, which closed in 1940. Also, people of color can go to the current one; several nights a week, crowds (of mostly tourists) show up at John Beatty’s joint at 125th Street and Twelfth Avenue to listen to tunes and buy nostalgia.
At least, they can for now. Columbia University covets the club’s land for expansion into Manhattanville above 125th. The odds may be against Beatty. Community Board 9 didn’t declare the club historic in its 197(a) plan, which lays out the priorities for the West Harlem district, and Michael Novielli, a Columbia University spokesman, notes: “This Cotton Club on 125th Street and Twelfth Avenue should not be confused with the original—and historic—Cotton Club.”
Beatty says Columbia first contacted him about a year ago to test his willingness to sell. He turned them down then, he says, and he’ll turn them down again if they ask. “Under no circumstances will I sell,” says Beatty, who already has a succession plan in place. “I want it to go down in history, go down through my family. That’s the American way, right?”
He promises war: “What do you mean, ‘not historic’? I’ll have Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson. . . . They’ll get a big fight, a big fight. Columbia’s crazy.”
When the school first approached Beatty, he says, its officials told him they were afraid he would sell out to a strip joint. “My theory,” says Beatty, “is Columbia doesn’t want any black folks in Harlem. But what Columbia doesn’t understand is that 85 percent of my business is white.” (Novielli won’t comment, saying that it’s Columbia’s policy not to discuss current or future land deals.)
In the meantime, Beatty’s planning for the future. “My grandson Tajh will take it over,” he says. “My other grandson, Malik, will be his partner. He’s 10.” Tajh, 18, attends business college in Westchester and works at the Cotton Club on some weekends, while Malik buses plates and glasses on some nights.
On a recent Saturday night, the club showed no signs of slowing. A six-piece band played originals and old Motown hits to a packed house.
“Philly, Washington—is anyone here from New York?” singer Pam Cornelius asked, to laughter. (Probably no one but the 25 employees on hand are from the city; three tour buses are parked outside.)
Inside the reincarnated hot spot, Beatty was reminiscing. “I opened it when I was 40 years old,” he said. “It was my dream.” Now 70, Beatty opens up only when he’s there, usually Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays. He’ll open with as few as 30 reservations, and when there aren’t 30, he keeps it closed. But when it’s open, Beatty can be found sitting near the door by the memorabilia for sale: ashtrays for $5, T-shirts for $20, leather jackets for $150. Snapping it up are tourists from all over the world, like the Czechs and Japanese who came on a recent Monday for an evening of swing.
OK, so it’s not the original Cotton Club. But pictures of Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington line the walls. On Saturday nights, waitresses, doormen, and Beatty himself don tuxedos, and coats are checked at the door. Cornelius and the six-piece band run through a menagerie of songs, heavy on the golden age of big bands. A buffet dinner of fried chicken, corn bread, and salad is served.
“My type of business doesn’t change,” says Beatty. Unless the bulldozers show up.