Friday, January 2, 2009

The Way We Were

Kenneth Rexroth on the Cotton Club:
One of the most ridiculous things I ever read was a description, by some French aesthete, of the old Sunset, made immortal by Armstrong, as though it was some sort of musical tempestuous Unit Meeting of the “exploited Negroes of Chicago’s stockyards and steel mills.” I have read similar things about the Cotton Club. Now I almost never went to the Sunset because, although I knew the owner, it cost in the neighborhood of thirty dollars to take a girl and dance or sit through a couple of sets. As for the Cotton Club — lest I be thought chauvinistic, let me quote Langston Hughes’s autobiography, from his chapter entitled in bitter irony “When the Negro Was in Vogue” and which you should certainly read:

White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and moneyed whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles (Robinson).

I have been to the Cotton Club, and let me say that in addition the acts were vulgar and chauvinistic past belief. If one of them were put on today the NAACP would have a picket line which would fill the block in front of the place. On the platform above the horrors of chorus and comics was the Ellington band, imperturbable, elegant, and infinitely contemptuous. Duke earned that famous dignity the hard way. As a matter of bitter literal fact it was cheaper to dance or listen to a white jazz band than to the more famous colored ones. I think it cost fifty cents to go to White City and enjoy the music of McPartland, Tough, Teschemacher, and Bud Freeman, and even the Coon-Saunders Band at the Blackstone was cheaper than the Sunset. Obscure gutbucket bands played places like the Fiume where only very bohemian whites ever dared to go.

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