Thursday, June 24, 2010

Harvey G. Cohen's "Duke Ellington's America"

Harvey G. Cohen, a cultural and political historian, is a lecturer in cultural and creative industries at the Centre for Culture, Media and Creative Industries Research at King’s College London, in the United Kingdom.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Duke Ellington's America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my new book Duke Ellington's America (University of Chicago Press) deals with the overwhelming success the Ellington orchestra experienced when they left their 4-year engagement at the Cotton Club in Harlem in 1931 and embarked for the first time on a national tour. At the Cotton Club, Ellington featured nightly on coast-to-coast radio, a first for any African American band. In those days of segregation and Jim Crow in America, the band was relegated to a late-night midnight broadcast on the east coast because the radio network did not wish to feature black Americans during prime time hours, for fear of offending audiences and sponsors. But these live broadcasts aired simultaneously hours earlier in the midwest and on the west coast, and Ellington and the band were shocked at the huge crowds that awaited their arrival in places like Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. The power of national radio to break new music stars was just becoming understood at this time:
On the road, the Ellington orchestra raked in large audiences and paydays, despite the country’s economic calamity. A March 1931 Variety ad trumpeted the record crowds the band drew in the months following their Cotton Club exit. A few weeks later, after a thousand people waited outside while four capacity shows were being performed in Peoria, Illinois, the band, "the biggest sensation ever to hit the city in a theatrical way," agreed to do an unprecedented fifth midnight show. The Oriental Theater in Chicago served as the site of Ellington's most famous engagement of 1931. The band sold out six weeks at the venue over the course of the year, a feat that inspired a full page ad in Variety ("of course we're proud!"). Chicago fell particularly hard for the Ellingtonians in 1931: in addition to the six weeks at the Oriental, the band enjoyed four weeks at the Lincoln Tavern, while a show at Chicago Stadium drew 5,000 patrons. This kind of peak business lasted for years, all over the country. By autumn 1931, the band's asking price was a $6000 guarantee per week, or one thousand per night.
That was big money for the time, especially for an African American band working in the Great Depression, a bit over $85,000 a week in today's money, and usually the band was paid more than that because their sold-out crowds normally brought them a percentage of the evening's gross receipts in addition to their guaranteed weekly wage.

Page 99 also gives a first hint of how the quality of Ellington's compositions and the reception given his music would eventually inspire some of the first serious criticism of popular music in America, especially African American music, in magazines like Downbeat and Metronome and eventually in national newspapers:
During Ellington’s initial American tours, the press demonstrated a willingness to see a classic element in the orchestra’s “concerts,” but many of their articles betray an amateur quality, with their sensational writing style and clumsy references to classical composers. America did not yet possess a tradition of serious criticism of popular music works, as did England. Most American newspapers printed syndicated national columns concerning popular music geared towards glib promotion, rather than analysis and contemplation.
Page 99 resides in a chapter called "Serious Listening" and the biggest influence in bringing about such listening came with the pioneering "1933 Ellington European tour, and the critical reaction it generated, [which] played a crucial role in bringing more sophisticated popular and jazz music criticism to America." Other important themes in Ellington's successful drive to get Americans to engage in "serious listening" were: his eloquence in interviews, where he often made remarks about black history, music and achievement; his singular appearances in movies and advertisements where he was always portrayed as a composer and a "genius" in opposition to the stereotyped vision of blacks that commonly ruled in Hollywood films and on Madison Avenue; his pioneering early 1930s tours on the Publix theatre circuit, with audiences seated and appreciating his music without necessarily having to dance to it. In the music industry of the period, African American music was seen almost exclusively as "torrid" sexy music strictly for dancing. Ellington, more than anyone at the time, was breaking down these hoary and inaccurate conventions, creating new possibilities and identities for black music and musicians in the media, in the United States and around the world.
For more information on Duke Ellington's America, including an overview, chapter-by-chapter summary, reviews, excerpts and YouTube clips, visit the official website.

--Marshal Zeringue