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Edward “Duke” Ellington’s time as the house band leader for Harlem’s Cotton Club began on December 4, 1927 and lasted four years. The move enhanced Ellington’s career and that of his band mates and collaborators.

Ellington’s band received the opportunity to play at the Cotton Club after jazz bandleader King Oliver turned down the gig. This provided and opportunity for Ellington’s 11-piece band to move into the spotlight.

The racist themes of the segregated club were pervasive; Black dancers and workers were depicted as “jungle savages” or plantation workers to the rich white patrons in attendance. The venue generated criticism from noted poet Langston Hughes, one of the club’s rare Black patrons, for this reason.

With a weekly radio simulcast and a routinely packed club, Ellington scored a global hit with “Creole Love Call” with vocalist Adelaide Hall. In some accounts, Ellington was responsible for the club relaxing its racist policies.

Ellington worked at the club until 1931, giving way to Cab Calloway’s “Brown Sugar” revue, who worked there until the Harlem race riots closed down the club in 1936. A new location resurfaced in Midtown Manhattan, with Ellington returning with his band. However, the club shuttered its doors again in 1940.

A new version of the Cotton Club eventually opened back up in Harlem and still stands today.

 

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