In Cotton Club Parade, Encores! Imagines the Days When Floorshows Shook the Floor

By Jack Viertel
07 Nov 2012

Duke Ellington

In the earliest years Andy Peer's band was on the stand, but, according to jazz historian and Jazz at Lincoln Center curator Phil Schaap, "Duke Ellington opened at The Cotton Club on Sunday Dec. 4, 1927 after the illustrious and notorious hot spot had reorganized and was ready for a new season with a new show. Maestro Ellington recognized this gig as the pivotal one of his career thus far. Duke always stated that he had been lucky to do the right thing at the right time before the right people."

Ellington wrote a lot of the music for the club, and much of what he wrote was seminal, lifting jazz composition to an unforseen level of brilliance. He was creating music that transcended mere popularity. Other top-flight composers and lyricists who provided hit tunes that happily coexisted with Ellington's jazz compositions. Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields penned "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Digga Digga Doo," using them in Broadway revues, and a young Harold Arlen cut his eye teeth at the club with lyricist Ted Koehler. "Stormy Weather" and "I've Got the World On a String" were written for the club's shows, among Arlen and Koehler's many hits. But between 1927 and 1931, Ellington set the musical style, and set his own future in motion in the process. According to Schaap, "The Cotton Club employment allowed Ellington to finalize the personnel and the Big Band size of his ensemble. The exposure was of the highest profile, and Duke Ellington became a big name in the Big Apple. Network broadcasts and prominent Victor recordings made Ellington a national superstar." By 1930, Ellington was famous enough to decamp for Hollywood.

The singers and dancers fronting the show were also virtuosos — including the Nicholas Brothers, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Snake Hips Tucker, Peg Leg Bates and a 16-year-old Lena Horne. Others, like the largely forgotten singer and tapper Cora La Redd, can still be glimpsed on YouTube, displaying a startlingly commanding style and power. Many of these gifted artists operated in the shadow of the white entertainment business, consigned to working the TOBA vaudeville circuit, a black touring route that played to black audiences in largely segregated enclaves of American cities. (The initials, which stood for Theatre Owners Booking Association, were widely understood by the artists involved to mean Tough On Black Asses.)