Harlem's Cotton Club was once the jazz hub of the golden age. Black musicians, singers and dancers entertained an all-white clientele in this hot spot of the 1920s and '30s.
The likes of Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and many other amazing talents found their rhythm and sound welcomed there, with occasional celebrity guest appearances that included Mae West, Irving Berlin, Judy Garland and Al Jolson.
This weekend, The Florida Orchestra will re-create this pulsating world in "A Night at the Cotton Club." Jeff Tyzik will conduct an all-star cast featuring trumpeter Byron Stripling, tap dance artist Ted Levy and vocalist Carmen Bradford.
The program includes songs such as "Minnie the Moocher," "Dinah," "Bill Bailey," "Stormy Weather," "I Got Rhythm," "St. Louis Blues" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."
"Jeff and I conceptualized the show together … seven years ago," said Stripling, artistic director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. "That period of time was so vibrant. Everything was percolating in New York. Live entertainment was what got people juiced then. Jeff and I thought, 'What a great period. Let's have the same feeling of entertainment, the same vibrancy that people would have gotten in the '30s.' "
The famous nightclub opened in 1920 under the name Club de Luxe. Three years later, while still incarcerated in Sing Sing prison, gangster Owney "The Killer" Madden took ownership and renamed it the Cotton Club. The club provided an opportunity for black entertainers to develop their art and find success. Ellington and his band especially thrived there, as did Cab Calloway, Adelaide Hall and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
"The best way to practice creativity is to be creative, but you need a venue. The Cotton Club allowed that to composers, dancers, arrangers. The Cotton Club was important because it was a place where people got to experiment, have a canvas to paint on and express their artistic needs," Stripling said.
Stripling has enjoyed a prolific career. His expansive musicianship blends the professionalism of past performers with modern sensibilities.
I have "been able to sit onstage with people like Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie and Buck Clayton. I sat at their feet and learned from them. I sat on the bus with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. The lessons they taught were basically onstage — how they handle the audience, what's their personal demeanor, how do they interact with people after the show. It's all part of the package.
The Atlanta native began playing trumpet when he was 10 or 11, sang in his dad's church choir and jump-started his career touring with Hampton. He joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1985, and that's where he met Gillespie.
Stripling said the most important elements of music are rhythm, melody and harmony. "A Night at the Cotton Club" is intended to capitalize on this trifecta in the form of orchestration, song and dance — the triple threat that made the Cotton Club so great.
"We're going to bring the spirit of what the Cotton Club experience was like," Stripling said.
'A Night at
the Cotton Club'
When, Where: 8 p.m. Friday at the Straz Center, 1010 N. Macinnes Place, Tampa; 8 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg; 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater
Tickets: $15 to $45; (727) 892-3337 or (800) 662-7286 or www.floridaorchestra.org