On March 19th, 1935 at approximately 2:30 pm a young Puerta Rican man of color named Lino Rivera walked into the Kress Five and Ten store on 125th st in Harlem and tried to steal a simple 10 cent penknife. Noticed by the store owner and manager a scuffle ensued. What happened next shook the city and ended a cultural institution. The police came to take the young Rivera away through a back exit as an ambulance arrived to inspect the store manager and shop owner for superficial wounds, but when it left empty the growing crowd grew suspicious. As misfortune would have it a hearse happened to pull up across the street at what one would deem the absolute wrong time. The people of Harlem feared the worst (and for the time with good reason). The truth was that the hearse’s driver was actually visiting his brother-in-law but these series of events were the final spark that would ignite the Harlem Race Riots. They also helped to set a stagnant stain on America’s perceived view of culture, diversity and race. It solidified an economic wall for the haves and the have nots and was the end to an American institution that launched careers for legends like Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lena Horn and the suave leader of one of the greatest jazz ensembles of all time, Duke Ellington… The Cotton Club
During the turn of the 20th century the Brahman of old Harvard yard began to discuss what the great American music would be, and who would be our Bach, Mozart or Paganini. At the time the assumption that this gift to the world’s stage that would inspire an organic growth in culture due to their godly talent would be one of their own. Not just by education but by birth right (which at the time would have been one in the same).
Never in their wildest dreams would they have thought that names like Jelly Roll Morton and Bessy Smith would become the biggest names in American pop culture. Those names became the grandparents to rock and roll, funk, disco, R and B and hip hop.
At the time many of the premier clubs like the Cotton Club were whites only establishments but the elaborate choreography and exotic numbers by the all black performers were too much for people not to want to see. When the the club began in 1920, boxer Jack Johnson opened it under the name Club Deluxe without much fan fare. It took a bootlegger turned mob boss to transform the softly spoken speakeasy into the screaming lion as these musicians roared their swan songs into the heart of the roaring 20’s. Owen Madden purchased the club while incarcerated at Sing Sing prison in 1923. Johnson remained as the house manager but by then the venue was mostly used to sell Madden’s beers and liquors to those who were clambering for more dancing, music and libations in a way that they had never seen before. In 1927 the club was looking for a new house band and a young, handsome man who was known simply as the Duke walked in and and changed music forever. It was quoted in the New Amsterdam News that “Ellington until recently now was a comer, today he has arrived. Watch his dust from now on.”
I’m sure that the Harvard elite would have been happy to sit and excitedly watch the lovely Lena Horn dance to what was called Ellington’s “Jungle Music” and still wonder where our Mozart was, all while snapping their fingers and tapping their toes.
On April 29th 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington D.C. to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington both accomplished pianist. At 7 he began to play the piano and was surrounded by what his mother considered “dignified” women to help him distinguish manners from barbarianism. He had an easy way about him. This along with his dapper, crisp appearance made people take notice of the young man. His friends soon called him Duke because of his noble air. At 15 he wrote his 1st peace, a fun and jumpy rag time number called “Soda Fountain Rag.” At this point it was apparent that Duke was no ordinary child. He was already a serious musician and composer. In 1917 Duke’s Serenaders (his 1st band) played to a packed house at True Reformer’s Hall where he took home a whopping 75 cents and played dual roles as band leader and booking agent.
The 1920’s were an explosion of culture, art and music in Harlem. The music scene was extremely competitive and those who made it had to be at the top of their game. Duke was relentlessly hard working cutting 8 records in 1924. In 1925 he helped to compose songs for Chocolate Kiddies which was an all African-American revue that introduced European audiences to the sights and sounds of the black experience.
When the now infamous Cotton Club had a house band opening, Duke was recommended for the job. His small 6 piece band had to grow to 11, as was the house rule, but it was obvious at the audition that no one else would be better suited for the job and began on December 4th 1927. The Cotton Club was a widely known speakeasy. Like most of the day, if you were “off the give” there was someone “on the take” as blind eyes turned eagerly to stare at the “Tall, Tan and Terrific” dance girls swinging their hips to the Dukes suave and effortless style of orchestration. The Cotton Club’s weekly radio show helped to bring curious whites from the safety of their neighborhoods into the Harlem nights seeking drink, music and sexuality. Duke was like a drug to them and they couldn’t get enough. In 1929 a short film called Black and Tan Fantasy” as filmed by RKO where Duke Ellington was set as the star of this all African-American cast.
It would seem by many that Duke Ellington had arrived and achieved what the Harvard elite would have thought impossible as famed Australian composer Percy Grainger had once said “The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very ill but we are happy to have with us today The Duke.” In 1931, the Duke left the cotton club to broaden his musical focus, craft his style and technique and help many young writers like Billy Strayhorn compose jazz standards such as “Lets Take the A Train.” He was a musical genius and a savvy business man who developed a gratuitous and self-sufficient empire. What he created was not “jungle music” or just another form of jazz, swing, big band or bee bop but what he simply called American Music. This is the sound of our soul, or legacy and our culture. He was and is our Mozart
When the Harlem Race Riots erupted in 1935 the Cotton Club relocated to a safer midtown, but after the repeal of prohibition and without the life and color of Harlem the club lacked the vibe, flavor and passion that was one of the most well known, outspoken and culturally important movements this country had ever known.
keeping in the tradition of Prohibition I wanted to concentrate on spirits that would available at the time so we stayed with gin and rum both named for Ellington songs.
1 1/2 oz Aria Portland Dry Gin
3/4 Barenjager Honey Liqueur
3/4 lemon juice
3 dashes Peychauds bitters
Shake and double strain into a cocktail glass
garnish with a rosemary sprig that is draped with rose water (this will give the aromas of spring without an intense piney flavor that rosemary can add)
1 1/2 oz Barbancourt 8 year Rhum
3/4 dry vermouth
1/2 Ramos Pinto 10 year Tawny Port
1/4 Belle de Brillet
2 dashes Fee Bros. Aztec bitters and 1 dash Bittermans Hell Fire bitters
Stir and strain into a cocktail glass
garnish with orange oil and a cinnamon stick (this will change the aromatic as you drink)
During the height of prohibition and the allure of the speakeasy
two names stand above all else: Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club.
Join us in Saloon on April 29th for a $45 three course dinner and pairing with
music, dancing and drink in celebration of the 115th birthday
of Jazz great Duke Ellington with the Lyle Brewer trio
as they play through some of the most iconic jazz selections
from a true jazz master.
The music starts at 7 and the drinks will flow until the well is dry.