In its heyday, New York City's Cotton Club was a launching pad for some of the biggest names in entertainment (Lena Horne, Duke Ellington and Count Basie among them). During the height of Prohibition, the Harlem nightclub was a marvelous dichotomy-a venue in a Black neighborhood that specialized in Black music and Black musicians, but that did not allow African-Americans in its audience. And dichotomies just like that were what kept the Club in the public's eye. It was exciting and it was dangerous. It was high-brow and it was low-brow. It was exclusive and it was inclusive. It represented both the best and the worst of New York during the 1920s and '30s.
Adriane Lenox" width="199" height="300" />No politics or social commentaries (or even dichotomies) are on stage at City Center, however, which has just reopened after a lengthy renovation to premier Duke Ellington's Cotton Club Parade, a 90-minute song-and-dance revue that captures a bygone jazz age with elegance and grace to spare. The show is entertainment in its purest form--fun, lightweight and utterly enjoyable.
It doesn't hurt that the evening's band is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Music Director Wynton Marsalis as a featured trumpeter. It makes sense: Marsalis is to modern jazz what Ellington was 80 years ago, and if any modern jazz group evokes the Cotton Club sound, it's JLCO. The Orchestra specializes in keeping jazz modern and relevant while also maintaining a traditional sound and style-a narrow tightrope to walk, of course, but one that suits this performance perfectly. (The revue is the first event in a partnership between City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center.)
It also doesn't hurt that the show, which was conceived by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel, has a wide range of singers, dancers and actors in its cast, offering a wide range of entertainment. Tony-winner Adriane Lenox shines in two solo numbers, jazz singer Carla Cook breathes new life into some standards, while KendRick Jones dances up his usual storm. In fact, the show has an ensemble of 11 dancers who recreate all sorts of era-appropriate dance routines. (The singing and dancing are nicely balanced, giving the evening just the right amount of energy and tranquility.) Brandon Victor Dixon (late of the off-Broadway run of Scottsboro Boys) serves as a charming host of sorts, quoting Langston Hughes poetry to verbally set each scene.
It is a pity that Cotton Club Parade is only running for this weekend-it should have a longer life as a classic song-and-dance revue, and also as a celebration of history. While there are plenty of jazz clubs in New York City, and plenty of dance troupes, it is rare to find a major event dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of pure jazz and dance.