I’ve been waiting months to write about Second Life‘s Virtual Harlem, a pair of sims that aim to simulate 1920s Harlem and two of its most historic landmarks, the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, Both locations are remembered for their contributions to American and especially African-American music, and to write about either building, even their virtual versions, without the music that brought them to life, would be to write in a vacuum. So I waited, and on Memorial Day weekend, it happened. Trowzer Boa and his Robot Band played the virtual Cotton Club.
Although remembered for its stream of African-American music greats, the Cotton Club was a coldly racist place, as was most of America in the 1920s. Opened in 1923 by gangster Owney Madden, the Cotton Club offered a venue for great African-American musicians including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday to perform, but although African-Americans were onstage, they were rarely allowed to be in the audience. The Cotton Club closed in 1940.
Second Life’s Cotton Club is happily not authentic in one way: blatant racism is absent. Unlike the historic Cotton Club, where African-American performers were regarded as exotic savages, in Second Life on Memorial Day weekend, the performer was white (accompanied by AI "robots"!) while African-Americans in the audience danced alongside other races. Playing from his Philadelphia area basement, Trowser Boa and his AI Robot Band were excellent. The music they played wasn’t entirely authentic, some of it having been composed after 1940, including some by Boa himself, but I doubt whether anyone cared. I didn’t. It was good.
Guests were asked to wear "1920s glamor" attire. Most complied. For women, this meant dressing in the styles of the 1920s and while I don’t know enough about style to judge their accuracy – some hairstyles in particular looked distinctly contemporary – the overall effect was one of glamor of a lost age. Men had an easier time dressing for the evening because styles for men on occasions like this haven’t changed much since the 1920s. Most men were suits – I wore a zoot suit – and one wore a sailor’s outfit. The few who didn’t wear suits nonetheless seemed to fit in. This was Second Life, after all, most of the musicians were robots, and the dancers were all avatars. This wasn’t a static museum display. It was the 1920s brought back to life, but in a new century and in a virtual world that no one in the 1920s could have imagined.
I’m looking forward to future events in the two Virtual Harlem sims and in the third sim in the group, Montmartre. These sims are the only place I know of where you can walk out of Harlem, cross a bridge on foot, and find yourself in France, in an entirely different historic period! I expect I’ll be writing more about all three sims in the future. Candice McMillan, events manager for Virtual Harlem, told me that they are antipating about one event a month at the Cotton Club. Second Life members can be assured of learning about them by joining the Virtual Harlem Events and Activities group in Second Life. On Memorial Day weekend, I went as a reporter taking pictures. The next time, I may leave my reporter role behind and take a date instead of pictures. This is a great place to dance, to enjoy, and to get at least a taste of life eight decades ago in New York’s Harlem, minus the racial discrimination of those days.
You can hear Trowzer Boa and his Robot Band at his Second Life club, Firehouse 59; Second Life members can teleport to it by clicking slurl.com/secondlife/Absentia/197/90/22. If his Cotton Club performance is any indication, you won’t be disappointed.
Second Life members can teleport to the Cotton Club by clicking slurl.com/secondlife/Virtual%20Harlem/124/7.