He played the jazz, had a ball, took the money, and ran with it, that’s what.
I’m still vamping ‘till ready on my penultimate pluralism post, which is still under the working title, Facing up to Relativism: Negotiating the Commons, and Beyond. Yesterday I ran up a post about Disneylands across the sea in Paris, Tokyo, and now Shanghai. I now want to give notice to another, and somewhat different, setting of cross-cultural commerce.
This is a piece from Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 263-265) on Duke Ellington’s stay at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. This is the gig that put Ellington firmly on the national cultural map. I follow that with a comment on Roger Zemeckis’ film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Not long after Armstrong began recording his Hot Fives and Sevens, Edward Kennedy Ellington, also known as Duke, took his band into New York City's framed Cotton Club, where he played and broadcast for five years. Located at 142nd and Lenox in Harlem, the Cotton Club was owned and run by gangsters—Owney Madden, Frenchy DeMange, and Harry Block. It seated five hundred people amid fake palms and real booze, and featured shows elaborately staged, often with an exotic jungle motif. The club’s clientele was exclusively white, the performers exclusively black—a common arrangement in those days. This is how Ellington described the ambiance[in his autobiography, Music is My Mistress]:
The Cotton Club was a classy spot. Impeccable behavior was demanded in the room while the show was on. If someone was talking loud while Leitha Hill, for example, was singing, the waiter would come and touch him on the shoulder. If that didn’t do, the captain would come over and admonish him politely. Then the headwaiter would remind him that he had been cautioned. After that, if the loud talker still continued, somebody would come and throw him out.
While the clientele behaved impeccably, they watched light-brown show girls dance erotically, impeccably costumed in very little. The jazz historian Marshall Stearns describes a Cotton Club skit where
... a light-skinned and magnificently muscled negro burst through a papier maché jungle onto the dance floor, clad in an aviator’s helmet, goggles, and shorts. He had obviously been “forced down in darkest Africa,” and in the center of the floor he came upon a “white” goddess clad in long golden tresses and being worshipped by a circle of cringing “blacks.” Producing a bull whip from heaven knows where, the aviator rescued the blonde and they did an erotic dance. In the background, Bubber Miley, Tricky Sam Nanton, and other members of the Ellington band growled, wheezed, and snorted obscenely.
The show was phony, the eroticism was not, and the music was hot. This glamorously absurd setting is where Duke Ellington worked out the basic elements of his musical style. He was able simultaneously to satisfy his own expressive needs and those of the white clientele. Their need for exotic jungle nonsense did not get in the way of his music.
What is so very remarkable about Harlem's Cotton Club is that black musicians of the highest caliber were able to excel in a setting where the racial divisions and accompanying stereotypes could hardly have been more extreme or explicit. Yet if Ellington ever felt that his integrity was compromised or his human dignity insulted, he never gave voice to such an opinion within earshot of anyone prepared to write about it. As far as we know, Ellington thrived at the Cotton Club. He was doing what he wanted to do, in the way he wanted to do it, and white folks were footing the bill.
However extraordinary this situation may look, it is but a variation of a common social arrangement. As Alan Merriam observed, in societies that are complex enough for part- or full-time musical specialists to emerge, those specialists tend to be socially marginal. Their status is low, but their services are highly valued and often well rewarded. That is certainly true of musicians in the United States.
Thus while Africans were brought to North America to work at hard labor, through a long, difficult, and often violent social process we had created, by the beginning of the 20th century, a social structure in which a talented fraction of their descendants could begin prospering as musicians, comedians, dancers and athletes. Nor were African Americans the only ethnic minorities entering this niche. Jews and Italians have been very important in both jazz and classical music, and Jews have also been prominent in theatre, comedy and motion pictures. The highly rhythmic musics of various Spanish-speaking ethnics have been consistently popular. Thus one of the many gradients ordering individuals into social and vocational classes in America is one where wealth, power, and prestige accrue to old-money people of English descent while darker-hued ethnics become entertainers and athletes.
The Cotton Club’s pattern of segregation is one facet of its social function. When its well-off white patrons entered Harlem, they were leaving the mundane, disciplined world in which they worked for a living and entering ritual ground where the ordinary rules of polite society were suspended.
We are now deep in the cultural territory we entered at the end of the previous chapter, where the romantic notion of artistic genius meets the noble savage, where high art meets primitive and folk art. The same cultural system that allowed the aesthetic descendants of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahams to stage a primitive ritual under the guise of Le sacre du printemps, allowed a collateral line of descendants to construe Harlem as a primitive jungle where people lived free of the artifice and constraint of civilization. That, however, is not how Harlem was experienced by those who lived, worked, and worshipped there. For them, Harlem was a city within a city, a world within a world, and part of a nation within the larger state.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
You, that’s who. And me and all the rest of us.
The opening paragraph of an old post on the film:
Robert Zemeckis's 1989 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit uses cartoon characters in roles which Hollywood had assigned to blacks back in the thirties and forties--suggesting that Disneyland is basically the Cotton Club in which black performers have been replaced by mice, ducks, dogs and other cartoon characters. The basic technical gambit, and triumph, of the film is to mix animated characters with live actors. This technical wizardry is thematically important.
So, we have an analogy that goes like this:
In the Cotton Club, black performers are to the white audienceASFictive cartoon performers are to the fictive human audience in the fictive Ink and Paint Club
What does all of this have to do with cultural change, and what does cultural change have to do with history?