Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cotton Club Roars on in Midst of Change

Cotton Club Roars on in Midst of Change
By Daniel Amzallag

In the midst of a quiet and barren Manhattanville street, a small but historic club roars with jazz and uninhibited merrymaking. But behind the high spirits of decades-old regulars lies an apprehension about the future of Harlem’s Cotton Club.

At least, that was the sentiment before Columbia announced it would revoke its plans to build a park on the club’s site as part of the University’s Manhattanville expansion.

“If you’ve been reading some of the newspapers, you know there’s a little bit of a war going on between Columbia and the Cotton Club,” the club’s MC says to shouts of agreement.

The regulars, many of whom have been coming to the club for decades, say they most fear losing its unique atmosphere—an organic spirit of community and ease, as regulars trade dancing partners, switch seats, and laugh with members of the 12-person orchestra. The club is a sanctuary of jazz, withdrawn from the outside world, where nothing exists but the present moment.

“This is something that can’t be replaced. I’m here every week and have been coming here for 20 years, and it’s been the same band and everything. It’s just a place like a neighborhood, a home away from home,” Anthony Cattafe, resident and Cotton Club attendant, said in between dances.

Strangers dance with each other without a trace of self-consciousness, in an environment that seems universally friendly and welcoming.

“This represents a merger of multicultural attitudes in Harlem. It’s a real melting pot,” Cattafe said.

The mood becomes more lively as it gets later into the night. The lights dim and the band plays loudly and more passionately. Tourists, sitting on the side of the room opposite to the regulars and still clinging to their inhibitions, become drawn into this purely New York phenomenon.

“I can’t even see the possibility in closing something down that’s been around for so long. It’s part of our roots,” Mike Grey, a trombone player at the club, said. “You take that away, you’re really taking away something. You’re taking our soul.”

While the club had faced risk of being shut down in the face of the Manhattanville expansion, Community Board 9 has since passed a resolution calling upon the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the Cotton Club as a city landmark. The resolution was drafted in CB9’s Landmarks Committee days before Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin announced that Columbia’s expansion would not affect the club.

“This is the last dance club in Harlem, there isn’t any other,” Maritta Dunn, former CB9 chair and sponsor of the landmark resolution, said. “There’s not that much black history left in Harlem—why would you want to take away?”

“This is sacred ground. Leave sacred ground alone because nothing comes good with messing with sacred ground,” club regular Jackie Maynard said. “We kill enough. Let something live. Let the Cotton Club live.”

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