In the 1920s and 1930s, the Cotton Club in Harlem was the place to be for New York City’s most prominent jazz musicians. Jazz greats Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway served as the club’s band leaders. Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker are among the legendary talent who were reported to have performed at the club. It even inspired the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film The Cotton Cluband was quite the hot spot for nearly two decades until it closed for good in 1940.
Twelve years after the closing of the Cotton Club, Lillian Smith with Pinkley Real Estate in Washington, DC was looking to turn a room in her home at 22ndand P Streets into an elegant gathering place. Mrs. Smith envisioned poetry readings and music there and hired a designer from New York City who had worked at the Cotton Club to design the room. Her nephew’s friend, Sherman Harris, remembers the designer coming down from New York City and spending a week transforming the room. One of the pieces the designer installed was a piano that he told them had been played at the Cotton Club and sold at auction when the club closed. “I was amazed by how he turned four plain walls into a space that spoke of community,” said Sherman, who was in high school in 1952. “Mrs. Smith’s nephew, Kermit, and I watched the transformation as much as we could, but Mrs. Smith told us we were in the way and shooed us out.”
Eventually Kermit inherited the piano from his aunt when she passed away. When Kermit began suffering from heart problems in 1975 and was no longer able to use the piano, he gave it to Sherman. “My children were young at that time and they used it all through high school and college,” said Sherman. Sherman says he was hesitant to donate the piano due to the fond memories associated with the piano and its connection to his friend Kermit, but when his son suggested donating it to Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County’s ReStore, he agreed. “I just hope someone else will get the joy from it that my family did,” he said.