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The Cotton Club Parade Marches Backward

An origin narrative needs grounding in place, and the myth of jazz’s maturation during the Harlem Renaissance positions the music in the nexus of black expression, white emulation, cross-exploitation, and kitsch at the Cotton Club. From the time of its rise in the Prohibition Era, the club has been notorious for packaging African-American performance as exotica for white oglers. A newly staged production at City Center in New York, Cotton Club Parade, does some repackaging of that packaging for the 21st-century. A bit mixed-up in concept, the show is exhilarating in execution, much as the original Cotton Club shows probably were.

A collaboration between City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Cotton Club Parade features the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, and a sizable troupe of singers and dancers, including the fine jazz vocalist Carla Cook. Musically, the show generally focuses, one way or another, on Marsalis’s idol and role model, Duke Ellington, who led his orchestra as the Cotton Club house band from December 1927 to February 1931. His residency at the venue was pivotal to Ellington’s early development, as he explains in his memoir, Music Is My Mistress. “Sometimes I wonder what my music would sound like today, had I not been exposed to the sounds and overall climate created by all the wonderful, and very sensitive and soulful people who were the singers, dancers, musicians and actors in Harlem when I first came there,” Ellington wrote in 1973, a year before his death.

Ellington also benefited considerably from the exposure the club provided him through radio broadcasts of the Cotton Club shows, which were relayed nationally and overseas. At the same time, he further exploited the new technologies of the day by taking his Cotton Club repertoire into the recording studio. In thirty-eight months, Ellington recorded 150 of the pieces he was playing on the club bandstand—original compositions, in many cases, as well as songs by teams of apprentice tunesmiths, black and white, Irish, Jewish, male and female, who combined their sensibilities in service to the black experience as they knew or imagined it. For various Cotton Club shows, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields wrote “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Diga Diga Doo”; Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote “Stormy Weather,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” and many other standards.

Ellington’s recordings of these songs, in most cases transcribed by the deft and inventive David Berger, are the heart of the City Center program. Berger delicately enhanced most of the original arrangements in the course of expanding them to accommodate the 16 pieces of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. (Ellington had had only a six-piece band until he expanded his group to eleven pieces to meet the Cotton Club’s audition requirements.) The program slips in a couple of Ellington compositions from his long post-Cotton Club career, as well: “Daybreak Express,” a programmatic piece that simulates the sound of a barreling train, and “The Gal from Joe’s,” a swinging ballad from the late 1940s. Why not? The original Cotton Club revues were hardly models of conceptual rigor.

For an only mildly doctored taste of the shows’ always-doctored flavor, we have the remarkable document of Ellington in the short film Black and Tan Fantasy, from 1929, complete with the Cotton Club Chorus Girls and the dance team of the Five Hot Shots performing the “one-man dance,” a routine recreated nicely at City Center eighty-two years later.