BY BILL RUDMAN
There’s never been anything else like it. One nightclub in one city that presented (and in many cases, introduced) so many great singers, dancers, songwriters, instrumentalists and bandleaders—nearly all of them African-American and all of them living and breathing jazz.
To drop just a few names: Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Harold Arlen. In “Curtain Up at The Cotton Club,” we’ll drop many more names as we document a thrilling chapter in both jazz and musical theater history. TMTP is joining forces with Cleveland Jazz Orchestra because this concert requires “forces” to do it right.
Of course, it’s not all a celebration. Though the Club thrived for 17 years—12 of them uptown in Harlem, five downtown on Broadway—the glory of its productions could not mask the terrible racism of its policy: Blacks on stage, but only whites in the audience. In fact, the performers were sent to the kitchen for their supper.
In preparing for the concert, I sat down with CJO artistic director Paul Ferguson, jazz pianist Joe Hunter, and two of the three singers in our show, Evelyn Wright and John Morton (the third singer, Treva Offutt, is equally thrilling).
BILL: Paul, the first time our two organizations worked together on “Swing’s the Thing!”, we kept it pretty simple: Two of our singers and our rhythm section supplemented by you and a handful of horns. But this time you’re thinking bigger.
PAUL: Indeed we are. It’s going to be the whole Cleveland Jazz Orchestra—16 strong! Plus three singers and three of your stalwarts—Joe Hunter on piano, Bryan Thomas on bass and Ray Porrello on drums. I know that you and I want to make this a real showpiece concert.
JOE: I’ve gotta say the idea of presenting this show with a full big band is very exciting to me.
BILL: What else are you looking forward to?
JOHN: Since I was born too late to go there, the Club is a cornucopia of history that I know I’ll find fascinating. For example, who would we be surprised to hear frequented the Club? And how did it permanently affect the culture of New York?
BILL: “The Cotton Club” is still a magic phrase, isn’t it? When you hear those words, what do they make you think of?
JOHN: They conjure thoughts of the place where the really hip people congregated in the 1920s and 1930s. Folks from all over New York knew that it was “the place” where you could enjoy the best entertainment that the Big Apple had to offer.
EVELYN: It makes me think of class and elegance. And unfortunately, it also makes me think of the undercurrent of discrimination and racism that the performers had to endure, even though what surfaced was art. Iconic art.
BILL: And the story of the Club is, of course, a key chapter in the history of the Harlem Renaissance, which dates from about the end of World War I through the mid-1930s. Cleveland’s own Langston Hughes—a great poet—was a star of that Renaissance, but there were African American stars in all the arts.
JOE: It’s huge! We’re talking about a period that saw the emergence of progressive intellectual thought combined with inspired work in art, music, literature and dance. The Cotton Club was pivotal in the whole arena of music and stage production. So many of our great songwriters, bandleaders and performers were profoundly impacted by their time there. Duke Ellington, for instance, had some of his early breakthroughs while working at the Club.
PAUL: For sure. You’ll hear his “jungle sounds” and some of his popular songs. That’s an unfortunate term today, but he was experimenting with the use of flutter-tongue mutes and even bathroom plungers! Exotic, and also very artistic. I’m an Ellington fanatic, and the early material is amazing. We’ll show how it points to his later work. He really took people along with him on an incredible musical journey.
BILL: Two whites—composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Ted Koehler—wrote dozens of songs expressly for the Club, and Arlen went on to a major career on Broadway and in Hollywood. We’ll do a good sampling of Arlen and Koehler, with “Stormy Weather” at the top of the list. Evelyn, as the First Lady of Cleveland jazz vocalists, am I right that this song is in your blood?
EVELYN: Oh, I’ve performed it many, many times. And of course what always comes to mind is seeing and hearing Lena Horne. It is so heartfelt. I had the pleasure of seeing her one-woman show and hearing how and why “Stormy Weather” played such an important role in her life. An inspiration for me—blues at its finest.
JOE: And Bill, you’ve uncovered some gems most of us don’t know. I always look forward to those.
BILL: John, you’ll have a couple of songs introduced at the Club by Cab Calloway—not only as bandleader, but vocalist. You’ve got a kind of Cab “energy” that’s just terrific. What attracts you to his style?
JOHN: He was an entertainer in the truest sense of the word. He told stories through song, and he immersed himself in the delivery of them in his facial expressions and movement on stage. He gave all of himself to every arrangement, and he inspires me to surrender to the moment in my own performance.
BILL: Paul, you’ll be doing a lot of arranging for this show.
PAUL: With some help from Howie Smith and Brad Wagner. Of course, we’ll want to recreate the early Ellington sound using some of his own arrangements, but we’ll also hint at what Ellington was destined to become a bit later on. And I’m looking forward to arranging music by Harold Arlen as well. These men are giants.
BILL: As African Americans, when did you first become aware of the racism there?
EVELYN: At a very young age, when I first began to explore this music. During the Cotton Club era, blacks were known as “coloreds.” Not only was there discrimination, but an effort to pit artists against each other. My parents were from the South, and they helped me understand the ignorance of such behavior.
JOHN: Since racism was the social norm in America during that period, its presence at the Cotton Club came as no surprise to me. Lyricist and singer Jon Hendricks shared with me the breadth of the indignities suffered by those people of color who were under contract.
JOE: In spite of the Whites Only policy for patrons, there was integration among the artists, and that is at the heart of jazz.
EVELYN: Yes, this music brings many cultures together, but the racism still exists, doesn’t it? We have the chance to transport the audience and tell what was so good—and what was so painful—about that time and place. It’s quite a story.