Condos to replace club that hosted Jordan, R. Kelly

On any given weekend, the line to enter the Cotton Club snaked down Michigan Avenue and bended around the corner.

People with VIP cards haughtily marched right to the front. Patrons dressed in clothes better than their Sunday best. Limos glided up to the entrance, basking in the outdoor strobe lights.

This was during the 1980s when the Cotton Club thrived, its glamour matching the decade of decadence and self-indulgence. The bar often ran out of champagne. Michael Jordon was a regular. Waitresses pushed 'cognac carts,' peddling shots for $115. Those sold out, too.

During the late 1990s, the crowd changed and the glitziness tempered as the dress code relaxed. But the bar remained a fixture in the South Loop even as some other black clubs came and went – until now.

After 20 years of open mics, jazz in a room dedicated to Cab Calloway and live entertainment, the Cotton Club closed this week – unable to compete with neighboring urban renewal. Located at 17th and Michigan, it was once the premiere black club in Chicago.

It's where Bernie Mac plied his comedic trade. It's where R. Kelly was known as simply Robert Kelly on open mic nights. It's where Mary Wilson came when she wanted to perform for a black audience.

Owner Yvon Nazon said he reluctantly sold the nightspot to developers who are building condominiums to his right and his left. The battles with contractors got to be too much. Condos will eventually replace the Cotton Club, which is sandwiched between construction.

'I feel a little depressed but I feel good. God blessed me for 20 years. We had 20 good years,' said Nazon, an obstetrician and native of Haiti. He said the club's legacy is 'that music is a part of us.'

Monday night marked the official Cotton Club farewell. It was bittersweet. As the night progressed, the crowd swelled, thicker than the smoke. Old friends ran into each other as the reminisced over cosmopolitans. Former longtime patrons came to give warm hugs to Nazon. Drinks only cost one dollar; customers stacked their paper plates with fried chicken and spaghetti. Couples in fur coats and fedoras mugged for the throng of news television cameras.

Toasts and well-wishing filled the front room.

In the back, steppers danced to a mini R. Kelly mix. Little has changed in the club; the bar, furniture and fixtures are the same. Art deco is still the décor. Purple and teal adorn the walls. Christmas decorations have yet to be taken down.

Designed to aesthetically mirror Harlem's historic Cotton Club, Chicago's version opened in 1986 as an inspiration to Nazon's love of jazz. That sense of nostalgia quickly attracted people and gave them quality entertainment.

A who's who list quickly resulted. Any black celebrity who came in town made a stop at the Cotton Club. Many of their autographed pictures decorate the walls. Eddie Murphy, Sinbad, Forest Whitaker, NBA stars and Scottie Pippen all made appearances.

Channel 7 once aired a program called 'The Cotton Club Revue' that was an hour-long tribute to Lena Horne and Duke Ellington. There was also the 'Miss Cotton Club' pageant.

Men had to wear a suit jacket and tie in the early years. One man recalled on Monday night – to no one in particular – how he almost got turned away from the club on his 25th birthday for improper attire.

Best friends Robin Price and Herman Baggett worked at the Cotton Club its first year. She did booking and accounting. He did contracting. Both made sure the staff was dressed in tuxedos. Baggett was known to send waitresses home if their fingernails were too long.

'Oh, I hate that this is closing,' Price said. 'We'd open at 5 p.m. and the line from the door wrapped around the corner. We put tents in the parking lot.'

'Happy hour was legal back then,' Baggett said, as the two recalled the political parties held at the club, 'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek doing karaoke and the time local television anchor Diann Burns had a surprise birthday party.

The Cotton Club's closing also signifies something deeper to the patrons.

'This was the only place downtown that accepted us,' said V103 radio personality Tornado, lamenting about the closure. 'It hurts me.'

When the club opened, it was surrounded by warehouses and abandoned buildings that had yet to become trendy, high-priced lofts. 'South Loop' had yet to be a real estate term or an area teeming with panache.

Black clubs The Clique (and later E2) and Chic Ric's are gone, and the Cotton Club was one of the few places black-owned near downtown.

'I miss the heritage it [Cotton Club] represents,' said Megon Hill-Washington.

This stretch of Michigan Avenue is famous in its own right. Chess Records, a few blocks south, was home to some of the most important blues and rock and roll recordings.

'This is an emotional time for me,' said George Daniels, owner of George's Music Room on the West Side. 'Some of ya'll don't understand the history of this street. This is the last bastion of our music. This street was known as record row.'

He added that perhaps someone should take the initiative and move the Cotton Club to the South Side.