Ellington Begins Performing at the Cotton Club Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Duke Ellington began a three-year engagement at Harlem’s Cotton Club, he launched his career as the most important composer-arranger-leader in jazz history.

Summary of Event

With Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington (Edward Kennedy Ellington) is one of the greatest figures in jazz and twentieth century American music. His importance rests on his achievements as a composer, orchestrator, and pianist-leader of the remarkable orchestra he headed for almost half a century. When he and his band made their debut at New York City’s Cotton Club in 1927, Ellington was still a musician with a modest if growing reputation. He already had acquired the nickname that reflected his suave good looks and courtly manner when he emerged as the leader of a small black cooperative dance band that had moved to New York City from Washington, D.C., in 1923. [kw]Ellington Begins Performing at the Cotton Club (Dec. 4, 1927) [kw]Cotton Club, Ellington Begins Performing at the (Dec. 4, 1927) Music;jazz Jazz Cotton Club [g]United States;Dec. 4, 1927: Ellington Begins Performing at the Cotton Club[06930] [c]Music;Dec. 4, 1927: Ellington Begins Performing at the Cotton Club[06930] Ellington, Duke Miley, Bubber Nanton, Tricky Sam Mills, Irving Hodges, Johnny

Ellington’s debut at the Cotton Club on December 4, 1927, is now recognized as one of the most important openings in jazz history even though the unprepared band’s first few performances there were unimpressive. The band soon mastered the demanding fifteen-act program and also played for dancing and radio broadcast. It quickly became a major attraction in itself, as Ellington used the opportunity to transform his dance-show band into a collaborative vehicle for superior artistic expression.

The Cotton Club was one of the best-known and most successful of more than a dozen Harlem establishments that catered exclusively or mainly to a white clientele. Ellington’s white manager, Irving Mills, had arranged for the job at the club. Its success was based mainly on its exotic and relatively sophisticated ambience, the quality of its all-black entertainment, and the sale of illegal alcohol. The elaborate shows, which usually featured comedians, dancers, vocalists, a chorus line, and the house band, were staged by experienced Broadway show people with original music by Jimmy McHugh.

The engagement at the Cotton Club enabled Ellington to build and consolidate his all-star band. It also spurred him to create a body of distinctive compositions and orchestral arrangements that drew on the African American tradition and expanded and elevated the vocabulary of jazz. Many of the club’s acts appealed to white fantasies of exotic and primitive Africa, and the muted brass growls that the Ellington band had developed were labeled and marketed as “jungle style.” Compositions such as “Echoes of the Jungle” served a functional purpose at the Cotton Club; they also transcended that context and, together with other original works, made an impact when heard on records and radio.

Nationwide radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club on the fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network made Ellington’s name and music familiar to millions. Records by Duke Ellington and His Famous Cotton Club Orchestra sold widely and were heard in Europe, where Ellington became a celebrity before his first visit there in 1933. In 1929, Mills arranged for Ellington to lead his band in Florenz Ziegfeld’s theater production of George Gershwin’s Show Girl. The band performed with Maurice Chevalier, then traveled to Hollywood to make the film Check and Double Check (1930). Ellington was included in a group of important African Americans invited to the White House in 1931.

In addition to writing arrangements in the jungle style, Ellington mastered the sectional formula developed by Fletcher “Smack” Henderson Henderson, Fletcher “Smack” for his own much-admired orchestra. Henderson’s model became the basis for many big band arrangers. Ellington frequently departed from the formula, mixing instrumental voices from across the trumpet, trombone, and reed sections to produce unique and sometimes haunting blends, as in the muted trumpet, muted trombone, and clarinet sound of “Mood Indigo” (1930).

Ellington often borrowed or developed the ideas of his musicians in creating music for his band. The frequent use of unwritten “head arrangements,” which gradually evolved as suggestions were incorporated, contributed to the collaborative expression of the band but sometimes made the question of authorship difficult, even though the organizing intelligence was clearly Ellington’s. In his more formal and personal arrangements, Ellington sometimes used sound in much the same way as the pointillists used paint. His impressionistic compositions, skillful use of dissonance, and unusual textures led to comparisons with such modern European composers as Claude Debussy, Frederick Delius, and Maurice Ravel, of whom Ellington probably had little knowledge. In his career of more than fifty years, Ellington wrote approximately twelve hundred compositions of an amazing variety, including simple blues, popular hit songs, dance tunes, showcases for individual musicians, short orchestral pieces, extended works designed mainly for concerts, film music, television themes, ballet and opera scores, and religious music for his “sacred concerts.” Ellington’s abiding inspiration was the black American community and its culture, which he sought to portray in compositions such as “Black Beauty,” Black, Brown, and Beige, “Harlem Airshaft,” and “My People.”

One of Ellington’s greatest achievements was the creation of an orchestra unrivaled for its stability, longevity, and number of influential musicians who stayed within its ranks for prolonged periods. Throughout his life Ellington was in an almost constant state of exploration, reevaluation, and development; his music is so various that it defies classification. He kept the band together, sometimes at great personal expense, because he needed to hear his compositions and arrangements played on the instrument for which they were intended: his orchestra.


The Ellington orchestra’s success was in part a result of the talent of its individual members, many of whom became models for thousands of other artists. Johnny Hodges was one of the preeminent alto saxophonists in jazz, influencing almost all who came after him, even tenor saxophonists such as bandmate Ben Webster and modernist John Coltrane. Harry Carney, who was with the band from 1927 until Ellington’s death in 1974, is known as the father of the baritone saxophone, which he established as an important ensemble and solo voice. Trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton developed the plunger-mute techniques on their respective instruments that created the “jungle sounds” that were an important characteristic of the Ellington orchestral style. These expressive techniques sprang from the roots of the jazz instrumental tradition and subsequently were used by brass players everywhere. Miley’s successor with Ellington, Charles “Cootie” Williams, became an influence in his own right, as did trombonist Lawrence Brown, trumpeter Clark Terry, and saxophonist Ben Webster. In his short life, Jimmy Blanton established the path followed by most jazz bass players since 1940. Ellington himself was a competent if not outstanding pianist who began by playing mainly in the “stride” style that had developed out of ragtime. He also developed an effective accompaniment style and ways of voicing chords that are widely imitated. Imitations of Ellington’s influence can be heard in the work of the modernist pianist/composer Thelonious Monk, Monk, Thelonious who made a piano-trio recording of Ellington compositions.

Ellington’s appeal to jazz musicians has transcended periods and styles and proved timeless; there are few who have not acknowledged his influence in one way or another. Ellington’s life and musical interests spanned the first seventy-five years of jazz history. He recorded and sounded comfortable with the greatest artists of every period, including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane.

Because they seem so quintessentially to belong to his orchestra, Ellington’s longer compositions are seldom heard performed except on his own recordings. They are demonstrations that the American dance band can be an extremely flexible vehicle, both for popular entertainment and for high artistic expression. Although the Ellington spirit and influence permeate big band music, few arrangers (aside from his collaborator and musical alter ego, Billy Strayhorn) Strayhorn, Billy have been able to duplicate Ellington’s unique orchestral sound. The bands of Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman at times provided rough approximations, aided by the fact that both leaders were saxophonists in the style of Johnny Hodges. The persistence of Ellington’s influence as a composer and orchestrator can be heard in the modern works of Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, and Oliver Nelson.

Ellington’s compositions have been played by groups large and small since the 1930’s, and his legacy is perhaps most alive in the thirty or so short compositions that are still part of the working repertoire of most jazz musicians around the world. Melodies such as “Satin Doll,” “In a Mellow Tone,” “Solitude,” and “In a Sentimental Mood”—works on a par with those of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irvin Berlin—can be heard wherever jazz is played. Ellington’s compositions have been recorded thousands of times by musicians ranging from traditionalists to the avant-garde and have been reinterpreted as they have been discovered by each succeeding generation.

In his many tours abroad, some under the aegis of the U.S. government, Ellington took his music and the American ideals of individuality and freedom of expression within a cooperative group context to thousands of people. In addition to his influence on musicians and leaders such as Ted Heath of Britain and Francy Boland of Belgium, Ellington absorbed and later (often with Strayhorn) transformed foreign musical influences in such works as Far East Suite, Virgin Islands Suite, and Latin American Suite.

Wynton Marsalis, one of the most impressive and influential musicians to appear in the 1980’s, has stated that “Duke Ellington is what jazz is, he is the greatest jazz musician . . . because he addressed most comprehensively what jazz music actually is . . . the fundamentals of group improvisation, vocalization, and a swinging optimism.” Marsalis has devoted much of his considerable talent to educating young musicians in the value of Ellington’s music and in performing the composer’s works with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, as on the recording Portraits by Ellington.

Ellington’s musical achievement elevated jazz as an African American art form and brought increased acceptance and respect to its practitioners. His personal sophistication and dignity made him an important representative of the black community. Ellington’s hundreds of honors and awards, including many honorary doctorates, also served to acknowledge the contributions of black people to American society and culture. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday, a celebration was held at the White House during which President Richard Nixon presented Ellington with the highest civilian award of the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

During the height of big band popularity in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, Ellington’s band was not as commercially successful as many white bands, but his organization was often the standard against which other bands were measured, especially by musicians. Through courage, hard work, and artistry, Ellington was able to sustain his band after all but a handful of others had disappeared. When Ellington died in 1974, the leadership of his still-functioning band was taken up by his son Mercer, who continued to present his father’s music to the world until his own death in 1996. Music;jazz Jazz Cotton Club

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Well-written, scholarly, and sometimes controversial biography of Ellington sets his work within its historical, social, and musical contexts. Examines the importance and role of Ellington’s musicians, both as instrumentalists and as contributors to compositions generally ascribed to their leader. Includes musical analysis, photographs, discographical note, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dance, Stanley. The World of Duke Ellington. 1970. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000. Collection of articles, interviews, memorabilia, sketches of musicians, and diary entries written mainly in the 1960’s by a longtime Ellington associate and observer. The whole adds up to a fascinating picture of the personalities and interrelationships of many of the most important members of the Ellington musical family. Includes photographs, selective discography, index, and chronology from 1899 to 1970 highlighting the major events in Ellington’s life, band personnel changes, important compositions, and performances.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music Is My Mistress. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. Ellington’s autobiography reflects his lively and at times eccentric mind, his sophistication, and his ironic sense of humor. A potpourri of straight memoir, flights of imagination, sketches of more than one hundred musicians and other associates, anecdotes, religious meditations, poems, prose poems, a libretto, and journals of various foreign tours. Rich in personal commentary but of uneven literary quality, this work reveals Ellington’s love of life and passion for music, but, as always, he guards his privacy and the essential man remains elusive. Includes photographs, lists of honors and awards, list of compositions, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellington, Mercer, with Stanley Dance. Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir. New York: Da Capo Press, 1978. Written after Ellington’s death to supplement the autobiography and the Dance book cited above. Reveals the darker side of Ellington’s personality, his love-hate relationship with his son, his amorous liaisons, and his professional and artistic struggles. Includes photographs, copyright and discographic information, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haskins, James. The Cotton Club. 1977. Reprint. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994. The story of the nightclub that, between 1923 and 1940, brought Broadway-type entertainment to Harlem, although for white audiences only. The club introduced and served as a showplace for many of America’s greatest black artists. Despite some inaccuracies, a good introduction to an important chapter in entertainment history. Includes photographs, notes, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawrence, A. H. Duke Ellington and His World: A Biography. New York: Routledge, 2001. First Ellington biography written by a jazz musician draws heavily on interviews with the composer’s colleagues, friends, and family members, including his son Mercer. Features list of compositions, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schuller, Gunther. “Duke Ellington, Master Composer.” In The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Examines Ellington’s music into the 1940’s. Successfully combines historical detail with a systematic analysis of the music in terms best understood by trained musicians. Features many transcribed musical illustrations and select discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Ellington Style: Its Origins and Early Development.” In Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. 1968. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Focuses on Ellington’s music as recorded from 1926 through the Cotton Club period to 1931.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vail, Ken. Duke’s Diary, Part I: The Life of Duke Ellington, 1927-1950. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. First of two volumes covers the period in Ellington’s life when his career began to take off. Illustrates the progress of his success through photographs, newspaper articles, advertisements, reviews, and other documents from that time.

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