Cab Calloway. Bessie Smith. Lena Horne. Duke Ellington. For a couple decades starting in the 1920s, these legendary performers put on some of their greatest shows in a Harlem nightclub that proved to be a dichotomy – both a celebration of African American art and one of the most racially exclusionary and offensive landmarks of the era. The Cotton Club. For our season-opening concert, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is going to celebrate the great music that emerged from that infamous club, but also provide a historical retrospective of the artists who played there, and to champion one of the great cultural movements in American history, the Harlem Renaissance.
Beginning after World War I and lasting through the mid-30s, this golden age of African American culture was sparked by the Great Migration, when large numbers of former sharecroppers and southern workers, frustrated by poor economic opportunities and segregationist laws, moved north, where industry needed workers, and the hope for a better life – socially, politically, economically – beckoned. Leaders like W.E.B. DuBois worked to spark a Black Pride movement, exploring the idea of Black Americans finding a cultural identity in a white-dominated New York City. Writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston found success, and musicians playing hot jazz music at the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club caught fire.
The Cotton Club was madly successful, but very exclusionary. White folks in New York wanted to enjoy the Harlem nightlife, but some didn’t want to socialize with people of color while doing it. Gangster Owney Madden, a Chicagoan, created the Cotton Club on 142nd St. & Lenox Avenue to be a whites-only club, except for the entertainers and staff. The African American employees were depicted as exotic savages or plantation residents, and the music was often orchestrated to bring to mind a jungle atmosphere.
At the same time, some of the greatest music of the 20th century emerged from this racist institution. Duke Ellington began leading the house band in 1927, and even though he was asked to write “jungle music,” he flipped that into an iconic, prideful sound. Originally, blues music was sung by slaves as a way of defiance against the worst possible human experience. Slaves would sing blues: songs about sad situations but with a positive, enthusiastic rhythm that would, effectively, “stomp the blues away.” Ellington was the embodiment of blues inspiration at the Cotton Club, as he created some of the greatest, most inspirational Black American Music of all time, music that people loved and admired and came in droves to see, hear, and dance to, and that would shape art in the world from then onward.
We are going to do our best to celebrate that music, that spirit, those artists, this great Black American culture. The joy of art and creativity from luminaries such as Duke Ellington is so large, so encompassing of all human beings on the planet, how can you not tap your feet and shake in your seats, feel uplifted and exhilarated? We want to swing this one out for Duke, for Lena, for Langston, for you and everyone else. Won’t you come and join us? Tickets still available at www.kcjo.org – get some now!
–Clint Ashlock, KCJO Artistic Director