Somewhere Fannie Mae Duncan is smiling.
The Black entrepreneur's famous jazz joint, the Cotton Club, which opened in the '50s and was torn down in 1975 as part of an urban renewal program, is set to reincarnate downtown. Not at 25 W. Colorado Ave., where her original club stood, across from the Antlers hotel, but on the third floor of The Gold Room at 18 S. Nevada Ave.
"We want to stay true to the genres Fannie used to bring in," said Gold Room owner Evan Hooton. "But with how diverse Colorado Springs has become, we will entertain all genres of music. Some may not fully fit, but we do want to stay true to Fannie Mae’s original Cotton Club outreach, which was jazz."
Hooton hopes to open the 8,000-square-foot Cotton Club in June. Along with the new performance space will come a Fannie Mae Duncan Lounge on the second floor of the 1933 art deco building and a 5,000-square-foot rooftop lounge with fire pits. The changes will require some repurposing of the 30,000-square-foot building, including the possible addition of an elevator to the fourth- floor rooftop lounge. The first-floor Gold Room, currently an entertainment venue, will stay put, but Hooton plans to transition the room into a small business event space.
Since forming in 2005, the Pikes Peak Diversity Council, a nonprofit that advocates for diversity and inclusion, has worked to carry on Duncan's mission, says Shirley Martinez, the council's vice president. Without a physical venue like the Cotton Club, she said "something has been missing.
"It's about making something brick and mortar and making something that people can see and feel," Martinez said. "It's about bringing it (The Cotton Club) back to life."
Duncan brought scores of important Black musicians to her club, where she was known for the black-and-white sign in her front window that read 'Everybody Welcome." There was Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Sammy Davis Jr. and Fats Domino.
It was a time when The Broadmoor and Antlers hotels only allowed white performers. Duncan's was the first business to allow patrons of all races.
That had a big impact, says Martinez.
"It opened the doors for people to come in, celebrate, sing and enjoy different cultures," she said. "It was a place for people to go to feel welcome."
The Springs is rich with jazz musicians, says Hooton, though there hasn't been a dedicated jazz club downtown for at least a decade. Recently he's featured local jazz groups on Thursday nights at The Gold Room, with the hopes of building a following that he can transfer to the Cotton Club. His vision for the new venue includes regional, national and international jazz groups.
"Most of the jazz scene community is used to more traditional jazz, like the Pikes Peak Jazz and Swing Society," said Hooton. "They don’t know we have Latin jazz, alternative jazz, smooth jazz, swing jazz, big band jazz, blues jazz, fusion groups — every jazz group or genre you can come across. I want to expose the full jazz scene we have going on in Colorado Springs. The talent we have definitely needs to be recognized."
The new Cotton Club will be a place where all kinds of jazz, and music, are celebrated.
"The place Fannie Mae owned is gone, but not really," Martinez said. "It’s in the hearts and minds of people who were there and in the hearts and minds of those us moving that vision forward."
That includes Hooton, who about a dozen years ago began working with the Pikes Peak Diversity Council on an annual Cotton Club event. One of the events featured Denver blues and jazz singer Hazel Miller at Stargazers Theatre, which is owned by Hooton's parents, Cindy and John Hooton. Soon, such events won't be limited to one day of the year.
"Every day we’re adding to the conversation," Evan Hooton said, "and the wonderful things to capture the history of Fannie Mae and everybody welcome and what she did with the Cotton Club."