Stanford music scholar redefines the jazz and cabaret culture of 1920s Harlem

Musicologist Nate Sloan's investigation of Harlem Renaissance jazz portrays a diverse, multisensory experience where music, place and race influenced each other in profound and lasting ways.

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Musicologist Nate Sloan’s investigation of Harlem Renaissance jazz includes a detailed study of the Cotton Club, highlighting the racist history of the legendary venue.

From 1926 to 1935, the Cotton Club was the hottest jazz hub in New York City’s vibrant Harlem neighborhood.

Not only did the club launch the careers of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Lena Horne, but it also attracted celebrity clientele like Jimmy Durante, Walter Winchell and even the Prince of Jordan. Owned and run by mobsters who sold their bootlegged liquor there, the Cotton Club regularly sold out its highly lucrative revues.

As festive as the Cotton Club may have seemed on the surface, the research of Stanford musicology PhD candidate Nate Sloan highlights “the largely forgotten racist history of a legendary musical venue.”

A fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, Sloan is studying the ramifications of a major paradox of the Cotton Club and similar Harlem cabarets: While black musicians provided the club’s entertainment, black patrons were altogether barred from the shows.

A practicing musician and composer himself, Sloan characterizes these imposed racial limitations as “discriminatory policies that helped forge a diverse palette of jazz” during a period he refers to as a “vanguard moment in African American music.”

The bold timbres and sophisticated harmonies of Duke Ellington, the wailing “hi-de-hos” of Cab Calloway and the bluesy torch songs of Harold Arlen were “signature sounds of early jazz developed on the stage of the Cotton Club, and all were shaped by the complex racial politics of the venue,” says Sloan.

Cotton Club productions acted as a key draw in the burgeoning nightlife economy of the neighborhood – propelled by “those upper-class white New Yorkers who got their kicks ‘slumming’ in Harlem,” Sloan explains. Sloan coined the phrase “the Harlem moment” to describe this unique era in jazz history.

This voyeuristic aspect of the revues is clearly present in surviving ephemera from that era. Sloan has assembled an impressive collection of artifacts – from programs and sheet music to dining menus – whose minstrel and primitivist imagery convey what the scholar describes as “an experience very much mediated by white concerns and white control.”

Intrigued with the role artifacts like these can play in jazz scholarship, Sloan sees himself as part of a moment in jazz studies in which musicologists are “filling out certain lacunae in jazz history with detailed and focused micro-histories of a single place and time.”

Along these lines, Sloan also works to repatriate overlooked figures of jazz into mainstream history.

Sloan dedicates another chapter of his dissertation to the Jewish American composer Harold Arlen, who wrote the standard “Stormy Weather” while working as a staff songwriter for the Cotton Club. Arlen went on to compose indelible entries in the American pop canon, such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and the music for The Wizard of Oz.

Sloan sees Arlen’s work as a site to examine how mainstream composers manipulated African American musical practice into something palatable for the sheet music market and to “deepen the understanding of the artistic exchange between white songwriters and black musicians.”

The ‘jungle’ stereotype

Since there are no surviving films or recordings of actual Cotton Club revues, Sloan had to reconstruct performances through careful examination of 78rpm recordings, oral histories of performers and clippings from African American newspapers.

He learned that murals on the club’s walls depicted faux jungle scenes, while fake cotton trees emerged from the stage to remind the audience of a Southern plantation. Dancers known as “Copper-Colored Gals,” whose skin color couldn’t be darker than a brown paper bag, would perform in tribal outfits.

Sloan says the decor and stage spectacle were designed to make patrons feel as if they were experiencing an authentic encounter with a racial other, even though the setting was thoroughly “policed, mediated and distorted by reductive views of black culture.”

To illustrate this interaction, Sloan focuses on the technique of the brass players in Ellington’s band, famous for their ability to create distinct growling and “wah-wah” sounds through the use of plungers.

“His trombonist, ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton, could make his instrument sound like a human voice talking. And trumpeter ‘Bubber’ Miley produced striking timbral effects that no one else in Harlem could mimic,” Sloan says.

Such approaches developed out of African American vernacular practice, rooted in the blues and Southern “gutbucket” horn playing. Those tones, though, combined with Ellington’s odd harmonies and drummer Sonny Greer’s stomping four-beat rhythm, were marketed by the Cotton Club as “jungle style,” a nickname that sought to establish Ellington’s signature sound as the site of white primitivist fantasies of jazz.

“Such are the fascinating antimonies of the Harlem moment,” Sloan says, noting that “even as Ellington’s jungle sound carefully assimilated old and new forms into jazz, its jungle label reduced it to an expression of unconscious African American creativity.”

Despite the racist stereotypes that pervaded the Cotton Club performances, Sloan also notes that the club created opportunities for black musicians and entertainers on a scale that had never been heard of before, and that this was a source of pride for Harlem locals.

Beyond the Renaissance

As dramatically as the Harlem moment burst into the national imagination in the late mid-1920s, Sloan says it ceased just as stunningly in 1935, with a devastating riot sparked by an alleged incident of police brutality. The deepening Depression, along with the rise of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller’s brand of big band swing, officially ended the Cotton Club’s heyday. In 1936, the club relocated to midtown Manhattan and closed for good in 1940.

Sloan says the Cotton Club’s move south signifies “both the end of a constructed image of Harlem as the nightlife capital of New York – in which local jazz practice was packaged for mass consumption – and the end of a period of relative prosperity and free expression for African American performers.”

Nevertheless, Sloan asserts that the resonance of that moment has not completely disappeared from the cultural memory. “Even now, if you say the word ‘Harlem,’ music might be one of the first associations that comes up,” he says.

As recently as last year, one of the top-grossing shows on Broadway was After Midnight, a revue of songs from the Cotton Club with an all-black cast. In addition, copycat jazz venues have sprouted up in Paris, Amsterdam and Tokyo, indicating that the club continues to be recognizable as a jazz icon.

In both these international nightclubs and the After Midnight show, however, no mention is made of the more pernicious racial legacy of the Cotton Club. Sloan’s research subverts such historical whitewashing, recognizing that the defining sounds of the Harlem moment were forged in a crucible of simmering racial tension.

Sloan further points to Harlem’s recent urban revitalization as influenced by the neighborhood’s musical legacy. He describes how both white and black upper-class professionals are moving into Harlem and altering its look and feel. One of the reasons the neighborhood still appeals, Sloan posits, is this lingering cultural memory of the Harlem moment.

“Whether you consider that gentrification good or bad, it’s a result of the lasting legacy of the Harlem moment. Understanding the racial politics effecting that moment will prove essential for not making the same mistakes of the past.”