Duke Ellington opened at the Cotton Club
December 4, 1927
Duke Ellington opened at the Cotton Club in Harlem.
In 1923, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington first began to make his mark in New York with his band The Washingtonians, which took its name from his home city. He soon assembled a remarkable corpus of talented instrumentalists, whose qualities he exploited not only by showcasing them in dynamic solo passages, but also by joining them in astonishingly varied and colorful combinations of a kind never before heard in jazz. These achievements, in addition to Ellington's expertise as an originator of intellectually satisfying musical structures, made him the most celebrated and critically acclaimed of all jazz composers.
Ellington's orchestra began its four-year residency at Harlem's famous Cotton Club in 1927, providing music for sumptuous stage routines in which exotically dressed black dancers performed for an exclusively white audience. The band developed a new style of "jungle" music for these dances, which featured a growl technique of brass playing developed by trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist "Tricky Sam" Nanton. Ellington's other notable sidemen in these early years were alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges (famous for his sensuous tone), baritone saxophonist Harry Carney (whose agility on his potentially ponderous instrument was phenomenal) and clarinetist Barney Bigard (who personified a direct link with old New Orleans). In 1929, the virtuoso Cootie Williams succeeded Miley as principal trumpet.
A succession of popular radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club brought Ellington national fame, and his name became known around the globe after the successes of "Mood Indigo" (1930) and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got that Swing)" (1932). In 1933 he took his band on their first tour of Europe. By this time singer Cab Calloway had succeeded Ellington at the Cotton Club, and Calloway was in turn succeeded by Jimmie Lunceford in 1934. Racial unrest in Harlem in the following year forced the club to close down temporarily, but it re-opened in a different location in the autumn of 1936 and remained in business for a further four years. In the 1980s, the legendary venue inspired a movie by director Francis Ford Coppola (• p. 203).
Other important nightspots in Harlem during the heyday of the Cotton Club were Connie's Inn (which hosted performances by Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson and Fats Waller between 1929 and 1931), Small's Paradise (haunt of stride pianists Willie "The Lion" Smith and James P. Johnson) and the Savoy Ballroom (just one block away from the original Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue).