Phil Schaap Jazz

Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club

Duke Ellington opened at the Cotton Club in Harlem on Sunday, December 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 pivotal to his career; Duke always stated that he had been lucky enough to do the right thing at the right time before the right people. The Cotton Club residency allowed Ellington to finalize the personnel and Big Band size of his ensemble. The exposure it offered was of the highest profile, and soon Duke Ellington became a big name in the Big Apple. Still further, network broadcasts and the prominent Victor recordings made Ellington a national superstar.  For four years, Ellington’s orchestra provided the instrumental component of music at The Cotton; however, Duke himself composed only one of the seven productions performed during his tenure at the club. That composition was “Blackberries of 1930”, the penultimate production of his time at the Cotton. After 1931, Duke Ellington rarely appeared at the Cotton Club. Duke had gone to Hollywood to appear in the film “Check and Double Check” as well as to play the West Coast Cotton Club. Back in New York, the replacement band—The Missourians, fronted by a very young Cab Calloway—were thrilling the Cotton Club audience, and the management finessed Ellington’s manager, Irving Mills, into relinquishing Duke’s position as the club’s main attraction. For all of the clout and wonder of the uptown Cotton Club, it did not survive the Great Depression. With the advent of Jazz’s becoming the prime pop music during the Swing Era, the Cotton Club either reopened in Harlem or relocated to a new venue at 200 West 48 Street in Midtown Manhattan. It was a completely different scene, and Duke Ellington was not initially involved. This changed. The Duke Ellington Orchestra appeared at the Midtown Cotton Club in 1937, and in 1938 the Maestro was hired and commissioned to compose for the revue/show. This show was labeled with different (though fairly similar) names of which the “4th Edition of the Cotton Club Parade” was often quoted.