Monday, September 27, 2021

Jazz Centenaries in The Decade of the 2020's - Duke at The Cotton Club

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This decade - the 2020’s - marks the 100th anniversary of many significant dates and events in the development of what Gunther Schuller’s excellent book on the subject categorizes as Early Jazz.

100 years ago, Jazz came up from New Orleans to Chicago and then went east to New York, a migration that took place throughout the 1920s [with a stop-over in Kansas City and a quick left turn to Los Angeles and San Francisco along the way].

Among many other highlights, the decade also saw the arrival on the Jazz scene of vocalist Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds, along with the advent of the Harlem stride school of piano playing led by practitioners James P. Johnson and “Willie “The Lion” Smith.

In the 1920s, Joe King Oliver and Kid Ory took their Creole Jazz trumpet and trombone stylings into Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens where trumpet legend Louis “Pops” Armstrong would soon join them.

The quality and quantity of Jazz recordings by vocalist Bessie Smith, Oliver, soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, Armstrong and many others helped transport their music into living room gramophones.

Pianist-composer- bandleader Jelly Roll Morton gave more structure to the instrumental aspects of the music as did the classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings by Pops on which he introduced a new level of virtuosity into the music.

Jazz was somewhat formalized when it hit the concert hall in the form of composer George Gershwin and orchestra leader Paul Whiteman’s collaboration on Rhapsody in Blue, a pioneering excursion into the realm of symphonic Jazz.

Singer Bessie Smith, whom some referred to as the Empress of the Blues, at the pinnacle of her career in the 1920s appeared in a Hollywood movie about W.C. Handy the composer of The St. Louis Blues.

Inspired by their Black idols [and informal mentors] White musicians also began to make their own contributions to Jazz during the decade in the form of recordings by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the advent of the Chicagoans also sometimes referred to as the Austin High School Gang, and the rise of individual soloist such as clarinetist Benny Goodman, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and trombonist Jack Teagarden.

Perhaps a fitting culmination to the nascent development of Early Jazz in the 1920s was Duke Ellington’s four year residency at the Cotton Club in Harlem which began in 1927, the details of which are recounted in the following excerpts from John Edward Hasse, Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington [1993].

The Cotton Club

The Aristocrat of Harlem

The owners were gangsters. The help and entertainment were black. The customers were white.

Located on the second floor, over the Douglas Theater, at the northeast corner of 142nd Street near Lenox Avenue, the Cotton Club opened in the fall of 1923, The English-born gangster Owney Madden, who was paroled in 1923, soon took it over. He made his bootleg liquor— "Madden 's No, 1" -at a plant on West 26th Street. He hired Harry Block as overseer and Herman Stark as general manager.

The club was forced to close in 1925 due to its violation of Prohibition laws, But it soon reopened — another of the estimated 32,000 to 100,000 - drinking establishments in New York City. The Cotton Club had a log-cabin exterior and interior and featured jungle décor, a proscenium stage, and a dance floor. Beginning in 1926, the irrepressible Dan Healy— singer, dancer, and comic — staged and produced the shows. Jimmy McHugh wrote the songs, usually with Dorothy Fields, through 1929. Lady Mountbatten dubbed the club “The Aristocrat of Harlem."

There were brutes at the door," observed Carl Van Vechten, "to enforce the Cotton Club's policy which was opposed to [racially] mixed parties." 

Occasionally, however, a star performer such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson or Ethel Waters could get a table for friends.

During Ellington's tenure, the club typically opened at 10 P.M. and closed

at 3 AM. There were two different shows nightly, one at 12:00 (or 12:15) A,M. and another at 2:00 AM. Showtimes were designed specifically to attract a high-spending after-theater crowd, "Join the crowds after theater," read one advertisement from 1929. "All Broadway comes to Harlem."

This was no ordinary nightclub, Printed programs announced the musical songs and sketches and identified the vocal and dance soloists. In time, the programs grew more high toned in their language, One from 1931 noted, "Entr'acte: Dance to the strains of the incomparable Duke Ellington and His Recording Artists."

The club could accommodate between 500 and 700 customers, seated at tables on two tiers by the dance floor and booths at the perimeter. Cab Calloway, who first performed there in 1930, vividly recalls the club;

“It was a huge room. The bandstand was a replica of a southern mansion, with large white columns and a backdrop painted with weeping willows and slave quarters. The band played on the veranda of the mansion, and in front of the veranda, down a few steps, was the dance floor, which was also used for the shows. The waiters were dressed in red tuxedos, like butlers in a southern mansion, and,,, there were huge cut-crystal chandeliers.”

"The floor shows at the Cotton Club," recalled Marshall Stearns, "were an incredible mishmash of talent and nonsense which might well fascinate both sociologists and psychiatrists." The shows combined hot music, snappy dancing, vaudeville, and even burlesque. The job of chorus girl was highly coveted. A chorus girl had to be no older than twenty-one, at least five feet eleven, light-skinned ("high yaller"), dance and carry a tune, and be glamorous. "Them girls stopped the show", recalled drummer Sonny Greer.

Oh, just the girls, the chorus. Stopped them cold...Sixteen of them, they were handpicked, like you pick a beauty contest.... The prettiest colored girls in the world,...You better believe they could dance! Because they made plenty of money, couldn't nobody hit on them, because they had their pocketbooks full of money.... My wife was one of the Cotton Club girls. [At first] she couldn't see me with a telescope.

The costumes were sensational, as Calloway testifies;

“The sets and costumes were stunning and elaborate, like operatic settings almost, The chorus girls changed costumes for every number, and the soloists, dancers, and singers were always dressed to the hilt—the women in long flowing gowns, if that was appropriate, or in the briefest of brief dance costumes. Talk about the String — these chicks wore less than that. Low cut and very, very risque.”

The cast could be large; the spring 1929 review had thirty in the company, plus Ellington's orchestra. The fall 1930 show had an even larger cast, and the club advertised “50 -  most beautiful Creole - 50."

On one level, the Cotton Club provided a hell of a good show. A well-produced, fast-paced string of acts, unusual music, original songs, sexy dancers, a racy song or two, a professional announcer, in a place to be seen in, with exotic decor, that served illegal (and expensive) booze in Prohibition America. But on a deeper level, the Cotton Club served as a safe haven, however highly stylized and restricted, for whites to encounter aspects of black culture. In a decade when the Ku Klux Klan was nationally resurgent, and opportunities for whites to encounter blacks were circumscribed in many ways, the Cotton Club provided a view of black Americans as handsome, accomplished, gifted, and yes, elegant. That view was highly stylized and limited; the African-Americans at the Cotton Club-Ellington included — all wore invisible theatrical masks.”

Composing at the Cotton Club 1927-1931

“Night Life is cut out of a very luxurious, royal-blue bolt of velvet," Ellington once said. As the 1920s progressed, Harlem was becoming more of a magnet, pulling in many whites to explore its rich and seemingly exotic nightlife. In the fall of 1927, Harlem's prominent nightspot the Cotton Club had a vacancy. Andy Freer, the leader of the house band, the Missourians, had died in May. Bandleader King Oliver reportedly turned down the job because the money was too low, and Sam Wooding refused it because he wanted to perform in the Broadway area. The club was overdue to start its autumn show, and, with no new house band in late November, its management grew worried.

There are conflicting versions of what happened next. By banjoist Fred Guy's account, while performing in Dance Mania, Ellington was approached by the management of the Cotton Club. Songwriter Jimmy McHugh, who was writing a new revue for the club, liked Ellington's music and convinced the general manager, Herman Stark, and Dan Healy, the show producer, to hear Ellington. They liked what they heard and went to a tavern adjoining the Lafayette Theater. There, they persuaded Ellington to sign a contract to perform with his orchestra in the forthcoming Cotton Club revue.

By Ellington's account, the club held auditions. He and his orchestra arrived late, after six other groups had shown their stuff. By chance, the club's overseer, Harry Block, was late, too. Not having heard the other groups, he hired Ellington's. "That's a classic example," Ellington remarked, "of being at the right place at the right time with the right thing before the right people." If this is what indeed happened, then it may represent the luckiest thing that ever befell Ellington. (His other great break of the 1920s— meeting Irving Mills—seems in retrospect to have been more a matter of fate than luck: the two men, both very ambitious and both seeing possibilities in African-American jazz, with places of employment a mere two and a half blocks apart, were perhaps fated to connect.)

Yet, in the meantime, the band had a commitment to play in a road version of Dance Mania on the Keith-Albee theater circuit. Their first stop was in Philadelphia at the Gibson Standard Theater. Before they could finish their two-week run, the Cotton Club called them back to New York. What about their obligation in Philadelphia? The Cotton Club's gangster owners sent an associate named Yankee Schwarz to see the theater manager in Philadelphia. "Be big [generous] or you'll be dead," he advised. The manager decided to be big.

While the Cotton Club employed blacks as entertainers and waiters, it admitted only whites as customers, a policy that was not unusual at the time. However Ellington felt about it, he must have decided that the advantages of working there outweighed the disadvantages. He was always a practical man who maintained his personal dignity and realized when to play the sly fox. After all, the Cotton Club promised a prestigious venue with steady work, good money, new kinds of experiences from which to learn, lots of opportunities for exposure to the press and other influential people, not to mention pretty young women who danced and sang in the show. How could he not accept this offer? His problem was to make sure he and his band took full advantage of the opportunity in the spotlight.

Ellington and his men, who had been rehearsing for the new show while playing in Philadelphia, hurried back to New York on December 3. On Sunday, December 4, they opened at the Cotton Club. Because his engagement there would prove pivotal to his continued artistic and commercial growth, Ellington's opening is now regarded as one of the most celebrated premieres in American music. Yet at the time, opinion was divided. Ned Williams, later Ellington's publicist, heard the orchestra that first month. "I can't say I was too impressed with the Ellington crew on that visit," he said.

There are several reasons that Ellington's orchestra may have gotten off to a slow, if not bumpy, start. First, there were several temporary musicians in the band, including a violinist. At the Cotton Club, many of the pieces they played were chosen by the singers and other acts they accompanied. Yet, the band was used to playing Ellington's music, which various members sometimes had a hand in creating. At this Cotton Club revue, however, they had to play other people's music. In addition, the band could not sight-read music very well. And it had precious little time to rehearse the new Cotton Club show.

Ellington's orchestra was ten strong, comprising trumpeters Bubber Miley and Louis Metcalf; trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton; reedmen Otto Hardwick, Rudy Jackson, and Harry Carney; guitarist/banjoist Fred Guy; drummer Sonny Greer; bassist Wellman Braud; and the maestro himself at the piano. At that time, the orchestra neither had nor needed a regular vocalist, since the Cotton Club revue featured its own singers.

Ellington's first Cotton Club revue was a long, demanding show —fifteen numbers for singing or dancing, plus encores. Jimmy McHugh wrote the music, and the young Dorothy Fields supplied the lyrics. Ellington's orchestra accompanied the singing by Aida Ward and Edith Wilson, sinuous dancing by Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker, and other acts. They played for both the midnight and 2:00 A.M. shows, and in between provided dance music for the patrons.

Working as part of a slickly produced show, night after night, Ellington and his men soon learned how to pace their programs. Although it did not perform on stage, the orchestra served as an important part of the entertainment. The engagement undoubtedly served to stimulate the theatrical flair Ellington had shown as a boy.

There was a more profound connection between Ellington's music and the theater. "I am a man of the theater," Ellington declared years later. As Charles Fox has observed, "His music has a theatrical dimension, soloists being deployed rather like characters in a play, their comings and goings planned and orchestrated." Playing on the phrase "dramatis personae" in his memoirs, Ellington discussed his musicians under the heading "Dramatis Felidae" (the "cats" in the play). During the Cotton Club period, Miley and Nanton provided bursts of dramatic solos that Ellington wrote his compositions to highlight.

The specific talents of not only Miley and Nanton but of all the members of his orchestra, then and later, helped determine what Ellington would compose. Like the playwright fortunate enough to have a repertory company of actors for which to write, Ellington was able to compose specifically for the various instrumental voices in his band. He would work hard to keep his principal players together for years (and decades), assuring himself of leading and writing for a group with great continuity, which Ellington managed to sustain for fifty years.

The mobsters who ran the Cotton Club reportedly did not like Ellington's music at first. "Too weird," they are said to have responded. But soon they relaxed: business evidently picked up as Ellington won over not only the old Cotton Club customers but musicians and critics. They were impressed with his orchestra's unique sound, especially its so-called jungle music, which had antecedents in American popular music. For several decades it had shown a fascination with far-off or exotic peoples: there were vogues for oriental fox-trots, Hawaiian songs, and songs about American Indians and Africans, among others. Under the veil of exotica, a songwriter or performer could do all sorts of raucous, bold, unconventional things. The Cotton Club was decorated with southern and African motifs, and the whole experience was intended to give its patrons a respite, however brief, from the cares of the present time. The audience would be transported to some far-off, exotic place for an hour of fast entertainment, energetic dancing, skimpy costumes, and unusual music.

The chief exponents of the jungle-music style were Miley and Nanton. As a composer-orchestrator, Ellington succeeded in transforming their growls from novelties into real art — a sign of his growing originality and skill. The jungle could also be suggested by Barney Bigard's sometimes mysterious-sounding clarinet, and by certain somewhat exotic chord progressions Ellington wrote, such as, for example, the opening of The Mooche. Ellington also suggested a jungle connection with the titles of some of his pieces— Hottentot, Harlem River Quiver, Jungle Blues, Jungle Jamboree, and Jungle Nights in Harlem. After leaving the Cotton Club, as Mark Tucker has observed, Ellington "moved away from the stylized primitivism" of these pieces, and found ways to work "its surface manner deeper into the substance of his music."

At this early stage, it was Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton who exerted the greatest influence on Ellington. Miley, in particular, helped compose some of the orchestra's most characteristic and illustrious recordings of this period.

The Cotton Club engagement was affording Ellington an opportunity to experiment and find his own way as a composer and arranger, stimulating him to pursue two formal problems inherent in jazz arranging. Ellington was taking up what Andre Hodeir and Gunther Schuller have called "the formal problem of jazz arrangement— how best to integrate solo improvisation." This was really two problems.

First, how do you integrate the soloist with the group without overwhelming either one? In other words, how do you achieve a balance? In many of his early recordings, before Ellington learned to achieve a balance, Bubber Miley seemed to dominate. To prevent a soloist from dominating the proceedings, Ellington learned to assign several soloists to take their turns, at the right moments; this was common practice among jazz arrangers. Beyond that, however, to achieve a balance, Ellington, in the words of Hodeir and Schuller, "learned to exploit expertly the contrast produced by the soloist's entry, so as to project him into the music's movement and entrust him with its development. This partly explains why even Ellington's finest soloists seemed lusterless after leaving his orchestra." He also learned to compose striking musical accompaniments for his soloists, so that the audience would find musical interest in both solo and orchestral background, thus enriching the listening experience.

The second problem was, How do you allow for spontaneity within a controlled structure without giving way to musical chaos? Put another way, how do you maintain musical order while offering the excitement and spontaneity of an inspired creation of the moment? To achieve a balance between composition and improvisation, Ellington sought to create works that had carefully laid-out spaces for a soloist to improvise. The space could be as brief as two or four measures, though six and eight bars were more common. Ellington planned these spaces in such a way that they provided a high degree of contrast, maintained musical interest and forward momentum of the pieces, and made for a musically satisfying whole. There would be a few pieces in the Ellington repertoire that seemed to be loose jams — the C-Jam Blues of 1942, for example. But even this piece would be deceptive — Ellington had a master plan, a hidden script and structure, behind all the blowing. Another of the ways Ellington achieved a balance between the preordained (the composition) and the spontaneous (improvisation) was by employing, beginning in the 1930s, what could be considered a musical sleight of hand: writing solos that, when played by his musicians, sounded improvised. Old Man Blues of 1930 is a good early example of Ellington's gift for balancing soloist and group, as well as balancing improvisation with composition.

Most orchestral composers — whether classical or jazz — wrote for sections of players — trumpets, trombones, etc.; Ellington often composed for individual players. Thus, increasingly he was limited only by the number of permutations that his musicians could produce.

The importance of the Cotton Club engagement to Ellington's development as a composer cannot be overemphasized. It represented, as Gunther Schuller has written, a kind of "prolonged workshop period." Ellington had to compose, not just arrange, works; he tried his hand at different kinds of music to accompany diverse acts; every six months there was a new show to write for: because he played six or seven nights a week, he could learn intimately the abilities of his players and could fine-tune his creations. The other leading black band of the day, Fletcher Henderson's, played mostly dances, and so Henderson did not have the opportunity to write the varied music that Ellington had.

"You know what?" Ellington once asked big-band expert George T. Simon. "My biggest ambition was to sound like Fletcher. He had such a wonderful band. But his was basically an ensemble group, and in our band the solos — you know all the various stars we have had — always dominated everything." Ellington was being modest: what would increasingly set his music apart from the others were his growing gifts as a composer and orchestrator.”

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