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The Crucible of the Cotton Club

By Eileen R. Mackevich | HUMANITIES, March/April 2005 | Volume 26, Number 2

Harold Arlen's style evolved in the crucible of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the centers was the Cotton Club, a popular nightspot originally owned by heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and then taken over by reputed mobster Owney Madden in 1924. Cab Calloway remembered the prosperous days of the Cotton Club: "We had the greatest shows, nightclub shows, cabaret shows, that were ever produced. And we had the finest music that ever was produced. . . . And we had beautiful girls with the music, and great talent."

One of those talents was Harold Arlen, a young songwriter from an orthodox Jewish family from Buffalo, New York. Arlen and lyricist Ted Koehler were plunged into the heady atmosphere of the Cotton Club in 1930, when they were brought on to produce songs for the review Brown Sugar--Sweet but Unrefined. They wrote songs for two Cotton Club shows a year for the next four years, composing along the way "As Long as I Live" for Lena Horne and "Stormy Weather" for Ethel Waters.

Arlen and Koehler originally wrote "Stormy Weather" for Cab Calloway, punching out the tune in half an hour at a party before heading out for a sandwich. As it turns out, Calloway wouldn't be part of the next revue, so Waters would perform the song. A preview recording of "Stormy Weather" by the Leo Reisman Orchestra created such a buzz that crowds of New Yorkers gathered on the opening night in 1933 just to hear Waters sing that tune.

The majority of Arlen and Koehler's songs tried to capture aspects of the experience of love: from its tentative first steps in "Let's Fall in Love"--To be/Or not to be,/Let our hearts discover. Let's fall in love,/Why shouldn't we fall in love?--to fear of separation in "As Long as I Live"--I never cared/But now I'm scared,/I won't live long enough./That's why I wear my rubbers when it rains/And eat an apple ev'ry day,/Then see the doctor anyway.--to its aftermath in "Stormy Weather"--Rain pourin'down, blind'n ev'ry hope I had./This pitterin' patterin',/beatin' an'splatterin',/Drives me mad.

Despite the club's policy of a white-only audience, a complex dynamic existed between the club's mix of artists. Earma Thompson, a Chicago-born pianist, said, "Working at the Cotton Club was like going to school. Other musicians and I didn't realize at the time that we had a workshop going! Musicians would come by the job like they were working. This happened every night. We would discuss everything, like playing tunes, learning tunes, learning different chords, and so on. . . . Everybody came by and played and exchanged ideas. If it was thought that a musician had potential, he or she would be given that extra push."

This exchange was particularly apparent between black and Jewish artists, apparent both to the artists themselves and to later chroniclers of the period. As Ann Douglas notes in Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, the majority of the Tin Pan Alley composers were Jewish immigrants for whom "ragging" or syncopating "came easily . . . because Jewish music with its Eastern and Mediterranean sources, its complex rhythms and preference for the minor keys, had something in common with the African-American sound." "Harold Arlen," writes Douglas, "once played a Louis Armstrong record for his father, an orthodox cantor. After one riff, or 'hot lick,' as Arlen called it, his father asked, amazed, 'Where did he get it?'"

Arlen's biographer Edward Jablonski marvels at the ability of Arlen and Koehler to produce "the kind of song that could be obtained only on the so-called 'race records,' specially manufactured for the Negro market." Writing in The American Scholar, William Zinnser asserts, "Arlen obviously had an affinity for the African-American sensibility . . . it was a fusion of Jewish and Negro elements." This affinity could be seen in his song "Stormy Weather," which was immediately accepted by the black community beyond the walls of the Cotton Club. The song was eventually recorded by more than seventy-five artists ranging from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

About the Author

Eileen R. Mackevich, former president of the Chicago Humanities Festival, wrote this article with Robert Kimball and John Vincler.

Funding Information

The Chicago Humanities Festival received $35,000 from NEH for yearlong events commemorating Harold Arlen, beginning with a concert on March 10 and symposium on March 11. Later activities include a film series and summer institute for teachers.