A Night at the Cotton Club (Upcoming Book Sample)

All of Harlem was buzzing over Ellington and his band. He had been playing over a week but tonight was the first chance for Charles Merritt to see him. He dropped off a case of Rye and stood behind the bar near the exit door. He made sure to have his best suit on, it seemed like the thing to do. The club was packed and Charles spotted the Mayor, Dutch Shultz and Babe Ruth in the audience. The emcee walked out to center stage.

“Introducing America’s greatest master of jungle music. Duke Ellington.”

Charles was shocked. Jungle music? It was an insult that landed much harder than any put upon him. Having only heard a few scratchy recordings of his work, Charles knew that Ellington was playing at an elevated level, far above crass prejudice. He lowered his head in disgust to raise it when the applause died down.

The curtain had been opened and the band was in place. All of the members were wearing white tuxedos, dressed finer than any man in the audience. Then The Duke came out. He was also wearing a white tux with long tails. He had a white top hat and gloves. He was tall and handsome with a rakish smile. His eyes seemed to scan the room. He acknowledged the applause then slowly removed his hat and put it on the top of the piano. He removed his gloves and placed them in the hat. He sat and picked up the hat and turned toward stage right and Belle Turner walked out and took the hat to the sounds of whistles and catcalls. Oh that walk Charles thought and his heart skipped a few beats.

Without a word Duke went right into East St. Louis Toodle-Oo. The dancers pea-cocked out from the stage left. They were wearing feathered outfits and revealing more skin than Charles had ever seen at the club. Their costumes were little more than strategically placed garnish. Belle was out front and her body was writhing sensuously. Bubber Miley stood with his trumpet. He blew and manipulated his mute to make it growl. The sound was earthy and raw yet in time and rhythm with the composition. The song ended before Charles could fully comprehend what he just saw and heard. He couldn’t yet define Ellington’s gift but he knew he had seen something unlike anything he had seen before.

They went right into Black and Tan Fantasy with an up-tempo beat. Charles had heard both of these tunes on scratchy records but to see the band in motion as they played; the coordination, the discipline was mesmerizing. He found himself falling onto the music. Charles would do this as he played but never before as he listened. He was out of time and place. The music wrapped itself around him. He felt a physical touch, an embrace on his skin. Miley’s growling trumpet, Sonny Greer on the skins and the Duke; the Duke playing effortlessly and driving the sound. He wasn’t pressing on keys, he was laying hands, and Charles was lifted.

Charles came back the next four nights. Owney Madden had spotted him the second night but didn’t say a word. Charles knew there as likely a threat or a reprimand coming but he stayed to listen. Over that time, he heard traces of King Oliver; Sydney Bechet and even the Armstrong himself. All played in Ellington’s unique style. It took Charles days to define what he was listening to. He knew it was something new, something different than he had ever heard. On the third night he got it. Ellington had figured out how to orchestrate the blues and Jazz. He created anew genre of music and changed how rhythm and harmony syncopate together. Every song they played had that touch. During every stage show it was as if Duke and the band were a part of it and above it at the same time.

The fourth night was a night of what Charles could only describe as magic. After the “jungle music” introduction and the curtains opened Duke walked out to the center of the dance floor. He was wearing a black tux tonight as was the band. He stood tall and handsome with his hands folded in front of him.

“Tonight I would like to debut a new song dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Florence Mills.”

Mills was one of the country’s top entertainers. A rare talent that played for and with whites and negroes equally. She was loved by all. Mills died suddenly two months earlier. The wound within the colored community was still raw and even some of the white folks assembled tonight squirmed in their seat at Dukes mention of her name. Her death was a great loss to entertainment world.

After a pause, Duke didn’t elaborate. “I call it Black Beauty.”

He strolled over to the piano in silence. He flipped back his tuxedo tails and sat. 

Charles had seen Louis Armstrong play just once. A year or so ago at the Savoy. That night for the first time he witnessed a man and instrument as one. The trumpet to Armstrong’s lips seemed as natural as the nose on his face. He played with the power and virtuosity that matched his spirit. The sounds that came out of that horn were unlike anything Charles had heard. His ability was a gift from god. There was no other way to explain. He never thought he would experience anything like it until tonight.

Ellington laid into the keys and melancholy, loneliness and appreciation for what once was flowed out of the piano strings. It was a simple melody made grand by the silence on the room. Then Sonny started stroking the snare drum with his brush. Swooshing the same swaying beat. Charles envisioned Florence Mills with her arms wrapped around herself rocking to the tune and smiling her precious smile. Bubber joined the duo and his smooth muted horn added a soulful swing to the beat. Charles closed his eyes and rocked from side to side himself. The music came to him and wrapped around his legs. Up to his torso and held tight to his spine. He was transcended. The horns joined in now, countering Bubber’s growl. All the while Duke and Sonny played masterfully in the background. Keeping beat, marking time. The song ended and the room was dead silent for a moment. Charles took a breath and waited. The room broke into a rapturous applause.

    Charles opened his eyes and looked at the people, the rich white people with tears of joy and sorrow hopped onto their feet. Charles realized right then the genius of Duke Ellington. The white customers looked at him with such reverence that it was clear that they have never seen a colored man like this. Great black musicians have played the blues and jazz for years, even Armstrong, the greatest musician in the world could not do what Ellington did with that one little song. He showed this crowd that a colored man could live on a higher plane than they. Ellington’s talent, his disciplined and tight band, his manner and bearing, his elegant artistry was comparable to the great artist of the world. Beethoven, Mozart, Armstrong. He stood with them and the people knew it. This one song confirmed for Charles the most important marker in his life. The language of music is a means of breaking down barriers.

John Nuckel

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