‘Cotton Club Parade’ brings back musical history
By Valerie Gladstone
Cotton Club Parade opens with the robust Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, directed by Daryl Waters, swinging into “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” offering a tantalizing taste of what’s to come.
Composed by Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh, the music sets the scene for a rollicking, sexy, funny and joyful recreation in song, dance and novelty acts of the legendary Harlem club where Ellington perfected his style in the ’20s and ’30s. Conceived by City Center’s Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel and Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, whose numerous credits include Chaplin, the 90-minute show returns to City Center from Nov. 14 to 18, after a hugely successful debut last winter.
When Viertel and Marsalis began working on the inaugural collaboration of Jazz at Lincoln Center and Encores! in the spring of 2011, Marsalis liked the idea of starting off with Ellington. “Wynton calls him the font of everything that he’s done,” Viertel said recently. And what better way to celebrate him than at the Cotton Club, they agreed, where he perfected his array of styles between 1927 and 1931.
“There was entertainment at the club of an elegance no one had seen before,” Viertel says. Line-ups would feature greats like Bessie Smith, the Nicholas Brothers and Lena Horne. Hitting its zenith during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, it thrived in a neighborhood bursting with writers, artists, musicians, playwrights and fiery politicians; a period when Langston Hughes celebrated blacks’ history and gifts in his poetry.
But neither he nor Marsalis would ignore the Cotton Club’s racist policy of headlining blacks, yet not allowing them entry. That is at least until Ellington made such a fuss about it that the rules were eased. “We didn’t want to be overtly political,” says Viertel. “We felt in the very beauty and artistry of the performers, in their self-respect, that we would convey the atmosphere of the time. You can be sure that Wynton wouldn’t have allowed anything patronizing.”
They created a link between past and present through their choice of performers. Viertel gives Carlyle and Marsalis credit for choosing 25 singers and dancers of incomparable individuality and talent. Master tapper Jared Grimes, singers Adriane Lenox, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Amber Riley and all the others each have their moments in the spotlight. No one will forget Floyd’s crooning Ellington’s “Creole Love Call.” “When I talked over my interpretation with Daryl and Wynton,” Floyd says, “I said I thought I should sound like an angel. They thought I should sound like a sexy angel. There are no words, so I just make musical sounds. I do it differently every night – sometimes sad, sometimes fun and flirty. But Ellington’s music is so classic, no matter what you do, everyone relates to it.”
That’s what Carlyle likes about working with Floyd and other members of the cast. “We selected people who are innately musical,” he says, “who can translate music through their bodies. I’m using them like instruments. They have to get what the Cotton Club was all about, how very special it really was. Its time is lost to us now. We’ve all done our period research and checked out performers from the club on YouTube. But we weren’t going to do something old and dusty. For 90 fleeting minutes, we want the audience to experience what the Cotton Club was all about as if it were today.”
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