February 12, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Jump for Joy
During the early months of 1941 Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra was the featured attraction at the Casa Mañana Ballroom in Culver City. The Casa Mañana was the new name for what had been Sebastian’s Cotton Club. One night in February, after the last set at the Casa Mañana, Duke Ellington and the Orchestra were guests at a party in the
Hollywood Hills at the home of screenwriter Sid Kuller. Kuller was under contract at MGM and responsible for creating zany bits for the Marx Brothers.
It was a typical Hollywood party that lasted until dawn and included a mixture of movie stars, musicians, composers, writers and comedians. Guests that night included John Garfield, Lana Turner, Hal Bourne, Groucho Marx, Paul Francis Webster, Jackie Cooper and Mickey Rooney. As the guests mingled, Duke and the band jammed in the background. At one point Sid Kuller looked around and loudly exclaimed “Hey, this joint sure is jumping.” “Jumpin for joy” responded Ellington from across the room at the
Kuller immediately exclaimed “what a great idea, a musical by Duke Ellington.” By the time the sun came up the American Revue Theater had been formed and $20,000 pledged by those present. As the ideas for the show started to formulate it was determined to present a show that would allow the artists to present satirical material from the point of view of black people looking at whites.
This was extremely revolutionary in 1941. Over the next few months Duke and Billy Strayhorn worked on the music while Sid Kuller, Paul Francis Webster and others
worked on the skits and the lyrics. The show opened the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles on July 19, 1941 and ran for 12 weeks. Performers included
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra with featured vocalists Herb Jeffries and Ivie Anderson. Joe Turner was added to the cast to sing the blues. The cast included comedians such as Wonderful Smith and Paul White as well as performers like Marie Bryant and Dorothy Dandridge.
The show was timely and some of the sketches were controversial. During the first week of the show’s run a number of phone calls came through to Sid Kuller claiming to be
members of the Glendale Ku Klux Klan. They demanded that “I’ve got a passport from Georgia” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a Drive-in Now” be removed from the show.
Even with the threat of violence the show carried on. Several Ellington classics were premiered including “I’ve Got it Bad and that Ain’t Good,” "Rocks in My Bed," "Brown Skin Gal in the Calico Gown" and the title number "Jump for Joy."
It was a monumental achievement and a show that was way ahead of its time. In the 1960s a group of demonstrators challenged Ellington as to his position on civil rights asking him “why don’t you ever make a statement?” Ellington replied “I made my statement in 1941 in 'Jump for Joy' and I stand by it”.