Duke Ellington and The Cotton Club

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Duke Ellington and The Cotton Club

February 13, 2018- Today's Harlem Topic: Duke Ellington and The Cotton Club

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The Cotton Club was billed as “The Aristocrat of Harlem” and was the undisputed jewel of Harlem nightlife.

It originally opened in 1920 as the Club DeLuxe, located upstairs at the corner of 142nd and Lenox Ave. The original owner was Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion.

In 1923 the club was taken over by Owney Madden, an infamous underworld figure who had just been released from Sing Sing.

Madden re-named it The Cotton Club and had it decorated to create a stylish Plantation atmosphere with an exotic jungle motif. It featured a strict segregation policy with the idea of attracting wealthy white Manhattanites who were fascinated with Harlem nightlife.

From a business perspective it was first and foremost an outlet to sell illegal prohibition era alcohol including his own Madden #1 beer.

From time to time he would show up in his bullet proof Duisenberg to make sure things were going as planned.

The Cotton Club Reviews were spectacular featuring top black entertainers performing songs written by top broadway songwriters. Waiters in red tuxedos served exotic dishes from the midnight supper menu. The bandstand was a replica of a southern plantation mansion with the band set up on the veranda. The dance floor was a few steps down from that. Tables surrounded the dance floor in a horseshoe pattern.

The original house band at the Cotton Club was Fletcher Henderson followed by Andy Preer and his Missourians.

Shows at the Cotton Club were musical revues that featured dancers, singers, comedians, and variety acts. By 1927 Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields were writing the songs.

Preer died unexpectedly in 1927 leaving an opening for a new band. The spot was offered to King Oliver who turned it down. McHugh suggested Duke Ellington who he had heard at the Kentucky Club in Times Square. Madden and the other mobster bosses were apprehensive to hire Ellington. They preferred to hire someone from Chicago and they thought his music sounded weird. They decided to give it a try and were immediately happy with the results.

Ellington’s elegant style and persona was the perfect fit for the image Madden was going for. The Cotton Club staged a new review every six months which required the band to accompany the singers and dancers as well as playing their own music.

Doors opened at 10pm where Duke and the band would play for the patrons. There was a regular nationwide broadcast every week that soon would make Duke Ellington a household name.

The floorshows were at midnight and 2am. Ellington came into his own while working at the Cotton Club. It was an ideal workshop to try out new musical ideas and Duke made the most of it. Using the unique individual voices of trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton he perfected his “jungle style” and introduced many of his early hits including The Mooche, Rockin in Rhythm and Mood Indigo.

Ellington led the house band from 1927 to 1931, and returned sporadically over the next few years. When Duke left in 1931 he was replaced by Cab Calloway launching the next chapter in the history of one of the most legendary jazz venues of all time.

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