Monday, December 5, 2011

Jazz Babies: Cotton Club Parade

In the 1920s and especially the ‘30s, the Cotton Club in Harlem represented the intersection of white and black popular culture – talented white songwriters like Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields wrote material for extraordinary African American performers like Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Avon Long, and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (who also, of course, performed Ellington’s own compositions and those of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn). The club was on the corner of Lenox and 142nd Street; originally the Club Deluxe, it was opened by Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, in 1920, and when it failed a white gangster, Owen “Owney” Madden, and his syndicate bought it up, renamed it and staged a flamboyant reopening in 1923. The bitter irony was that, for the next seventeen years – as long as the Cotton Club operated – it welcomed white audiences only; even the families of the performers were denied admission. Yet for a black musician or dancer, appearing there meant you had catapulted into the white show-business world. (If you want to find out more about The Cotton Club Revues, Jim Haskins’s The Cotton Club: A Pictorial and Social History of the Most Famous Symbol of the Jazz Era, published in 1977, is helpful. Stay away from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 movie The Cotton Club, which is fiction – and lousy fiction at that. And of course you can get the original recordings remastered on CD, some of which come from live broadcasts. One you don’t want to skip is Fields and McHugh’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Ellington’s band, sung by his favorite vocalist Ivie Anderson, she of the bourbon-and-water contralto, and featuring a tasty solo by soprano sax player Johnny Hodges at the beginning a truly sublime one at the end by trumpeter Lawrence Brown. It’s heaven.)

The Encores! series at Manhattan’s City Center normally doesn’t gear up until February, but the weekend before American Thanksgiving it collaborated with Jazz at Lincoln Center on a special event called Cotton Club Parade, and I was fortunate enough to catch it from the second row of the orchestra. My odometer tells me I drove home to Massachusetts afterwards, but my best recollection is of floating there on a cloud. The program consisted of nearly two dozen numbers in eighty intermissionless minutes, performed by twenty-eight extraordinary singers and dancers accompanied by the exuberant Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra with its music director, Wynton Marsalis, on trumpet. Most of the music was either written by Ellington or played in his arrangements. The show began with Brandon Victor Dixon in a pinstripe suit at a street lamp, reciting an excerpt from Langston Hughes’s “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” The literary branch of the Harlem Renaissance was recalled through Hughes’s verse one or two more times during the night, but these weren’t the highlights of the production, which really began with Ellington’s locomotive-evoking “Daybreak Express,” danced by the company. The most eye-catching dancers in this joyous opening were DeWitt Fleming Jr. and Kendrick Jones, whose athletic combinations here, in “Happy as the Day Is Long” and later on a bridge and step unit in a medley of “Raisin’ the Rent” and “Happy as The Day Is Long” (sung by Alexandria Bradley), seemed like loving recollections of Harold and Fayard Nicholas, sibling vaudevillians who landed a contract at 20th Century Fox in the late thirties and used to show up in swing musicals like Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. (You really thought of the Nicholas Brothers when Fleming and Jones executed splits on the steps.) Fleming has a velveteen voice; Jones, who looks maybe nineteen, is a vibrant beanpole with a mini-Afro.

The cast of Cotton Club Parade dances at Manhattan's City Center. Photo:Joan Marcus

There were a number of standout dancers, and aside from Fleming and Jones the most astonishing ones soloed toward the end: Nicolette DePass in Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” as the spirit of the dead girl Carla Cook sang about in “The Gal from Joe’s,” and the distinguished tap dancer Jared Grimes in “Goin’ Nuts,” whose combinations can make your eyes pop out. (The Broadway veteran Warren Carlyle staged and choreographed almost all the numbers, but Garth Fagan stepped in for “Black and Tan Fantasy” – Grimes is one of the principal dancers in his company – and Grimes performed his own choreography.) Earlier in the evening, in “Peckin’,” five men in tuxes danced close, as if glued together; eventually they accordioned out, only to pull back in a clump as if reined in by an invisible string. One number was built around red balloons (“I’ve Got the World on a String,” natch). “The Skrontch” and “Freeze and Melt” were specialty ballroom dances. Cook, a marvelous balladeer with a surprisingly modest – reserved – way with the audience, also sang “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and (with Dixon) a medley of “Ill Wind” and “Stormy Weather.” And Adriane Lenox took the sassy honky tonky numbers, “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.” I’d only known Lenox previously from her Tony Award-winning performance in the Broadway production of Doubt (in a role Viola Davis inherited in the movie) and had no idea she was a musician too. She was red-hot and hilarious, especially in “Women Be Wise,” one of those cautionary songs about the inadvisability for women of promoting the sexual virtues of their men to their covetous gal pals. (Arlen and Koehler wrote a straight version called “Tess’s Torch Song” for Dinah Shore, of all people, to sing in the Danny Kaye movie Up in Arms, and Eddie Cantor did one by Irving Berlin called “You’d Be Surprised” in the 1919 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.)

The evening provided those of us who worship Ellington a rare chance to hear a first-rate orchestra on “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “Creole Love Call” (with vocal solo by Carmen Ruby Floyd), “Black and Tan Fantasy,” Cotton Club Stomp” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” But it was as much a tribute to Ellington’s fellow songwriters, Field and McHugh (“Diga Diga Doo,” “Hottentot,” “Freeze and Melt” and of course “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”) and especially Arlen and Koehler, who wrote many of the trademark songs for the Cotton Club Revues. Here they were represented by “Happy as the Day Is Long,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Ill Wind,” “Stormy Weather,” “Raisin’ the Rent” and “Get Yourself a New Broom.” Cotton Club Parade was an inspired idea. I hope there’ll be more in this vein in future seasons.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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