The Harlem Club: Spokane’s Lively Jazz Club

Jun 15, 2024 | Stories

The Harlem was a restaurant and jazz club established by Kansas native, Ernest J. Brown. Brown relocated his family to Spokane in 1926 after visiting the city previously when working as a chauffeur. Brown and his first wife, Myrtle, first established a small café in 1927 called the Sawdust Trail due to the sawdust floors. Ernest Brown stated in an article in the Spokane Chronical in 1958 that the Sawdust Trail was, “Spokane’s first drive-in restaurant.” The restaurant was a huge success due to the introduction of delicious African American and Southern cuisine such as fried chicken, lemon pies, and barbecued spareribs. Brown was unsure about starting the business due to the lack of black culture and food in Spokane and even stated that at first, “people didn’t even know what barbecued spareribs were.” But the café made such incredible profit that the family decided to expand the business, and the legendary jazz club was born.

Club Harlem - overlooking Spokane River Valley with a panoramic view of the city.

Advertisement from Club Harlem, showcasing the jazz club and restaurant.

Pirates Den to Club Harlem

1930s promotion for Spokane's Pirates Den night club

Photograph from the early 1930’s of Ernest J. Brown (far right), the owner and proprietor of the Pirates Den, (later renamed the Harlem Club) standing by a truck carrying jazz musicians advertising the club. Photograph was provided by Doris M. Aaron, Brown’s daughter.

Originally named the Pirates Den, the restaurant was built in 1929 at Fancher Road and Sprague Avenue. A large billboard stating, “DINE DANCE”, marked the location of the establishment. It boasted famous chicken dinners and had the slogan, “Sizzling Syncopation”, to advertise the lively jazz music played at the club. The club was renamed The Harlem Club or Club Harlem around 1936 and a Brown family legend stated that either Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole suggested the name of the club be changed. It was said to remind them of the famous Cotton Club in Harlem and told Brown that he should rename the club after the well-known establishment. Brown said, “Well, I don’t want to call it the Cotton Club, but I’ll call it the Harlem Club.”

A Family Business

Vintage advertisement for Club Harlem's kitchen.

Another advertisement for Club Harlem, showcasing their famous southern-styled cooking.

It was truly a family affair as most of Brown’s children worked as musicians, dancers, cooks and waiters in the club. Every night the Brown daughters would perform a tap dance for the guests alongside wonderous jazz music. Due to the political and societal racial issues occurring in America at the time, Club Harlem catered to serve and entertain the white citizens of the Spokane Valley at least five nights a week. On Sunday or Monday nights the club would close and Brown would invite the African American citizens of Spokane to come and enjoy the food, dancing and music offered by Club Harlem. Despite the restriction on African American visitors, the black community of the Spokane Valley was said to understand this economic decision made by Brown and continued to frequent the club despite the segregation of white and black customers. Brown’s daughter, Doris Mae, highlighted how important her father was in the black community, including his leadership position in the black Masons of Spokane.

The End of Club Harlem

In July of 1951 a tragedy struck the Brown family. A fire started in the upstairs section of the club resulting from faulty electrical wiring. The entirety of the club was destroyed and Brown was unable to rebuild due to the damages costing approximately $30,000. Following the fire, Brown reportedly worked at a shoe shine parlor for a few years then was employed by the McCollum Ford car dealership in 1955 until his death. Earnest J. Brown passed away in February 1965 at a hospital in Spokane. The club brought a lot of success to the Brown family and allowed many of Brown’s children to attend college and live successful lives. Club Harlem created a fun and lasting memory on the history of Spokane and Earnest J. Brown established a one-of-a-kind business that provided something to Spokane that the city had never experienced before.

Researched and written by Sarah Davis