No, it is not an ‘alternative’ night out for members of the local sewing group. It's 1920s New York, at 644 Lenox & W. 142nd; it is the Cotton Club, the legendary whites-only heart of Prohibition-era jazz that pumps bootleg booze and musical genius through the arteriolar networks of citizen and gangster communities. The careers of dancers, singers, comedians and variety acts are launched here, and tonight its syncopated arrhythmias pulse through the blood-red aisles of the Oxford Playhouse.
This evening, the music and dance of the Cotton Club were re-created by the Jiving Lindy Hoppers, dancer Lee Payne, and Harry Strutter’s Hot Rhythm Orchestra, featuring vocalist Marlene Hill and compère/vocalist Megs Etherington. At first glance, the stage was a sea of silvery heads peering at tidy sheets of music that rested on individually monogrammed stands. At this point, I thought I was in for three hours of the musical equivalent of bread and jam. I could not have been more wrong.
The orchestra have got Old Fogeyism down to a fine art, happily presenting themselves as being in some sort of jazzy purgatory, waiting for that final trumpet call to the Great Nightclub in the Sky. However, with the youthful earnestness of the others added to their own vitality – not to mention musical prowess –they turned out a repertoire bursting with variety, flavour and spice, featuring tributes to the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
To shed the image of the respectable, bespectacled musicians, I closed my eyes, and turned back time. Through the haze of smoke that now appeared, I saw sequinned dresses gliding from table to table, murmuring to tuxedoed gents. I heard tinkling laughter and clinking glasses; bets were laid, heists plotted, liaisons secured: West Egg on a Cotton Club plate. And when I opened my eyes again, limbs were moving independently of their owners, doing the Charleston; legs were splitting, Flappers flapping, shoes slow-shuffling, all of them earthy, yet electrifying. There it was, the essence of Harlem swing, distilled and ready to drink.
Minus, of course, the exoticism – that almost voyeuristic tendency of the white patrons of the time to construct absurdly stereotyped, romantic images of the mostly black performers. Megs Etherington, to his credit, alluded to the racial segregation that was taking place at this time. Langston Hughes, one of the great Harlem renaissance authors, described the Cotton Club as “a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites.” But it paid well, which is why so many talented black artists, like Duke Ellington, worked there. One song, ‘All God’s Chillun’, talks about having ‘no money or shoes’ but ‘rhythm to push away the blues’. This, to me, reflects the hope that wove itself into Harlem jazz, pushing against dire circumstance, towards an American dream open to all and not just a privileged few.
It was a toe-tappingly fun evening, and I only wish the show could have stayed for longer. If it ever comes back to Oxford, be sure to put your glad rags on and go.