Sunday, May 23, 2010

Duke Ellington’s music and race in America.


More than half a century after the Civil War, the most famous night club in New York was a mock plantation. The bandstand was done up as a white-columned mansion, the backdrop painted with cotton bushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy extended well beyond décor: whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discomfited by the presence of non-entertaining Negroes.

All the performers were black—or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait—and all the patrons white, if not by force of law then by force of the thugs at the door. Ellington had to ask permission for friends to see his show. Ironically, it was the Cotton Club that allowed Ellington to expand his talents, by employing him to arrange and compose for a variety of dancers, singers, miscellaneous acts, entr’actes, and theatrical revues.

His most extraordinary talent, however, may have been for making the best of tainted opportunities. For the big revues, with their plots about black savages and threatened maidens, he devised music of sophistication and cheekily exotic allure, under such titles as “Jungle Blues,” “Jungle Night in Harlem,” and—sinister little masterpiece—“The Mooche.” But even before the band sounded a note it delivered a statement: impeccably dressed in matching tuxedos and boutonnières, its members were of a class with the biggest swells in the room. And Ellington was the swellest of all: unfailingly soigné, magisterially presiding over the urban jungle, he stood untouched and never lost his smile.

No comments: