Time Travel Destination: The Cotton Club

There are many remarkable eras and specific moments in history that I wish I could have experienced or participated in for a myriad of reasons.  If you know me personally, you know I love talking about them.  So why not introduce a new blog series dedicated to just that?  You guys cool with it?  Ok then, in the words of David Alan Grier’s “In Living Color” character Calhoun Tubbs, “Like ta hear it? Here it GO…”

I call this new series, “Time Travel Destination”. First entry, “The Cotton Club”.

Painting Credit: Artist Kathleen Carrillo

Summer 1988 – Chicago, Illinois

I sat on the floor next to my Aunt Delores’ bed, talking to her about all of the incredible lines and scenes from the 1981 movie “The Cotton Club” (starring Richard Gere, Gregory Hines), which we had just finished. I had loved watching movies with her since I was a child and being home from college, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for more one-on-one time with my favorite aunt. Most often, I spent movie time eating Twinkies and Doritos while drinking root beer from her mini-fridge as she sucked down those cigarettes and drank her 7-Up. It’s a wonder either of us had an appetite when she eventually made her world-famous chili, rivaling only that of my father’s recipe.  

After expressing my desire to have seen the real thing during its heyday, she smiled and hugged me, telling me she always thought I played like (John) Coltrane and was born in the wrong era.  I chuckled because she always compared me to him, even though I admittedly preferred the Bari-Saxophone when I played in jazz bands, often patterning my style after the great Gerry Mulligan.  She told me she had faith that I would preserve the “purity of jazz”, as she and my cousin and musical mentor John (“Pasquale” or “Pot”) often put it.  I told her I wished I could have played in the Cotton Club, more than anything.

Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Orchestra

For anyone that doesn’t already know, the legendary Cotton Club was the “it” spot in Harlem, New York for decades. As a speakeasy it was operated by New York gangster, Owney Madden, who used it as an outlet to sell his beer during the prohibition era.  Its doors opened in 1923 and until 1940, showcased the talents of the most popular and skilled entertainers of the time.  Featuring everything from musicians to tap/modern dancers to singers, it lured audiences from around the world, all eager to see the nation’s most famous entertainment club.  Notable talents included:

  • Musicians – Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Count Basie, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson.
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong
  • Vocalists – Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Bessie Smith, the Dandridge Sisters and Ethel Waters.
Cab Calloway and Lena Horne
  • Dancers – Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, The Four Step Brothers, Stepin Fetchit and Leonard Reed, among others.  
The Nicholas Brothers (Harold and Fayard) in the movie, “Stormy Weather”

Trivia: You may remember dancing Nicholas Brother, Harold in his memorable roles as “Little Seymour Pettigrew” in “Uptown Saturday Night” (starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier) and as drunken choreographer “Sarge” in Robert Townsend’s “The Five Hearbeats”.

Harold Nicholas
Brothers Maurice and Gregory Hines perform a dance number in the movie, “The Cotton Club”

Let me get this car back on the road.  You should know that I love my trivia and am quick to share. Get used to it.

It was also famously known for its “Celebrity Nights” where you could find notable personalities like Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, Mae West, Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice, Judy Garland and many more.

Unfortunately, because it operated during the U.S. Prohibition and Jim Crow eras, blacks could perform, serve tables, cook and clean, but were not allowed to enter and enjoy the club from the audience until 1935.  Another part of its darker history was its reproduction of the racist imagery of the era.  This would include the horrific depiction of black people as savages in exotic African jungles or ignorant, child-like “darkies” of the plantation south.

Despite its rules and practices, it was the dream of many aspiring young African Americans seeking growth and notoriety in the entertainment industry, in addition to a steady paycheck.  

Me personally, I would love to have been a saxophonist under Ellington or Cab Calloway, as I mentioned earlier.  Having performed in high school, college and city jazz bands/orchestras, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to play in various big bands with the likes of jazz trumpeter Scottie Barnhart and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon.  I played a benefit concert in the backup band for Suzette Charles (successor to the “dethroned” Miss America, Vanessa Williams) and enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime jam session with multi-Grammy Award winning Jazz/Classical Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (the photo I took with him is in a photo album, in a box, under a pile of boxes, in the unfinished side of my basement, in a remote corner of the Milky Way – but I promise to dig it out someday and add it to this post and maybe some Throwback Thursday social media picture – sorry everybody). 

I’m not name-dropping and I hope this doesn’t appear to be self-serving, but I’m damn proud to have shared stages with numerous artists over the years.  And every time the curtains opened, I imagined myself being seated among the jazz greats of yesteryear in an all-star ensemble (yeah, appearing in black and white as well – lol).      

I’ve loved playing in symphony orchestras (my french horn, alto sax and bass clarinet days), R&B, rock and funk bands over the years, but let me tell you, there’s nothing like performing contemporary and traditional jazz and swing.

Playing in a jazz band is like participating in organized team sports, winning as a result of a die-hard collaborative effort.  I have a tremendous love for the camaraderie among musicians, from breaking out in near-fights after endless hours of practice to the playful musical banter we enjoyed as we dueled one-another during our solo spots. My favorite on-going war was with jazz/salsa trombonist David Cruz. As a result of our hilarious rivalry, bandmembers called us “Mambo/Jambo” (we never could figure out who was Mambo and who was Jambo.  I told him I was Jambo because I was jammin’ and he was Mambo because he played like my mom (who couldn’t play anything).

What I enjoyed most was the harmony shared in high school and college in the sax family of two Altos, two Tenors and me, bringing up the bottom on Bari. I later went on to 1st Alto, but Bari-Sax was always “my sweet baby”, as I often called it.  Someone jokingly accused me of sleeping with it and I did once, but nothing happened between us.

I cherish the wonderful memories of sitting upright, leaning slightly forward and head-bopping from left to right, engaging in a “call and answer” with a guest singer (we actually recreated the magic of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie The Moocher”). I vividly recall laying it down in a fierce attack on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca”.  I remember us mesmerizing the crowd as the sax section glided through the harmonious swing during the climax of “Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sax” and I remember the solo spots in moody ballads like “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “I Remember Clifford”.  And I can never forget the renditions of “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Benny Goodman’s classic, “Sing, Sing, Sing”.  Let me tell you, I love jazz bands.

Regarding the Cotton Club, I truly appreciate and respect the difficulties of living as a black man during those times and I’m well aware that it was a package deal, accepting the bad with the good.  But something about that era and the dedication to a craft that would set the foundation for so many genres… DAYUM.  It was nothing short of extraordinary.  Having the challenge of soloing through a frantic barrage of Locrian, Aeolian and Mixolydian scales in what can only be described as genius application… …what jazz entertainer WOULDN’T love it?  If only I could have experienced the escapism from the troubles of the day, huddled up with the best of the best, creating magic each and every night (while catching a glimpse of those gorgeous, long-legged dancers).  Man, that truly had to be something. I’m not saying I would have been as good as them, but I definitely would have worked hard at it so I could fight for a spot. To quote Maurice White in Earth, Wind & Fire’s Chicago Blues, “…send that drummer home and let me plaaaaaay”.

Anyway, as far as the Cotton Club goes, that was the life for me…

Tallahassee, 1988. Ain’t nothin’ like the low frequencies and vibrations of my bari-sax.

I hope you get the gist of it.  If you do, you get where Aunt “D” was coming from.  Maybe you’ll understand why my favorite event was the annual Cool Jazz Festival, held at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park, Chicago. Maybe you’ll understand why I couldn’t wait for the day that my younger brother Terry joined us. May you’ll understand why I cherish the memory of performing a jazz rendition of “Moon River” with Terry, Cousin “Pot” and my baby brother Craig on bass. Maybe you’ll understand why I stood and watched Pot with pride, in a solo performance years later, gliding up and down his vibraphone with a fluency that rivaled the great Lionel Hampton or Milt Jackson of “The Modern Jazz Quartet”.

Yeah, that was the life for me…

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to pull the lever to return me (and you readers) to 2019. 

*sigh* Everybody out of the pool.

After all, this is my first time using this machine.  I need it to recharge so I can take another trip to a beautiful spot in time. I hope you have the same eagerness and come back for more…

Thanks for reading.

For more of Kathleen Carrillo’s amazing artwork, click here.

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