The horns blared out the doors, crowds of Black and white jazz fans waited impatiently to cram in, and bunches of kids stood around the back door trying to get a listen. On any given Friday and Saturday night through the late 1950s, Jim Bell’s Club Harlem was one of the very best places to listen to live jazz in Omaha.
While the Dreamland Ballroom gets all the press, it wasn’t the only jazz club in North Omaha. Located in the heart of the Near North Side neighborhood at N. 24th and Lake Streets, Club Harlem was a hopping place to be. This is a history of Jim Bell’s Harlem in North Omaha.
Who Was Jim Bell?
For a generation, Jim Bell (1884-1959) was Omaha’s main African American entrepreneur and entertainment guru. He was a big man from the South, and constantly took a gamble on opening businesses in the Near North Side. His efforts included several restaurants, a few clubs, a saloon, and other ventures. North Omaha establishments including De Luxe Cafe, the Midway Cafe and the Off Beat Cafe were all run by Jim or his wife Carrie. He also owned Murphy’s Chicken Palace at 42nd and Center, too.
But everyone knew that Mrs. Bell was the one who actually ran the show: She managed the employees, kept the books, scheduled the performers, and made sure everything ran smoothly. Their only child, a daughter named Dorothy, was lavished with attention and made a lot of girls in the neighborhood jealous.
What Was Club Harlem Like?
Opening in 1953, Club Harlem was the fanciest nightclub in Omaha. A massive group of chorus line dancers and a regular twelve piece orchestra framed every night’s performance with excellent comedians, singers, and emcees. The Bells brought in semi-big name performers and up-and-coming local talent. A 1953 Central High newspaper reported that, “Jim Bell’s Harlem the favorite after-the-dance spot of Centralites.”
In his autobiography, Omaha jazz great Preston Love wrote,
“The lure of Club Harlem was like a giant magnet near a pile of nails. Every night would find a crowd of teenagers glued to the back windows in the alley behind the club… Occasionally Jim Bell would slip out the back door and shoo us away, but we were usually permitted to stay and ogle until we got tired and dispersed to our respective homes.”
The twelve-piece big band playing at Club Harlem included trumpets, trombones and a rhythm section that included an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, drums, and a piano. The popularity of Club Harlem drew wealthy white people to the club, along with work class and middle class Blacks from across North Omaha.
Popular singer Wyonnie “Mr. Blues” Harris got his start at Jim Bell’s Club Harlem. While singing the blues, he also showed his remarkable dancing skills. During the next five years, Harris became the top singer in Omaha. Partnering with Velda Shannon, they became popular enough to travel to New York to sing in Harlem.
Towards the end of the big dance and jazz era in late 1958, the numbers started dropping dramatically at Jim Bell’s Harlem. By late 1958, the club had been retooled and was relaunched as Swingland.
You Might Also Like…
- A History of Omaha’s Near North Side Neighborhood
- A History of the Carnation Ballroom
- A History of Social Clubs in North Omaha
- Love, P. (1997) A Thousand Honey Creeks Later: My Life in Music from Basie to Motown—and Beyond. Wesleyan University Press.
- “Wynonie Harris“, Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.