Today I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Harlem Rhapsody. My post is presented with thanks to Stephanie Caruso at Frolic Blog Tours for inviting me on the tour and of course, to John Nuckel, for writing his guest post.
At 75,000 words, Harlem Rhapsody follows this turbulent era (1927””1937), from Duke Ellington’s debut at the Cotton Club, to the unsolved murder of Rothstein, and the machinations of a secret organization, the Volunteers.
Based on true events and real people (The Belle of Broadway; Titanic Thompson; Lucky Luciano) Harlem Rhapsody is the second book in the Volunteer series about Teddy Roosevelt’s band of men, with financial assistance from J.P. Morgan and John Rockefeller, who fight to take down corruption and Tammany Hall.
Harlem Rhapsody features a WWI hero and Harlem Hellfighter recruited to support the mission. His Volunteer boss is based on my grandfather, a former Irish freedom fighter revered in Ireland for his hunger strike aboard the prison ship Argenta.
John Nuckel’s post is entitled Live From The Cotton Club.
A decade and a half before Jackie Robinson stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets field in Brooklyn a significant event took place across the East River in Harlem. The first broadcast from the Cotton Club was aired over WHN radio in New York in the early 1930’s.
The exact time and date of the broadcast is in dispute but there is no question about the quality of the music. The broadcast featured Duke Ellington and his band.
How can an evening of music compare to Robinson’s courageous first season? Ellington’s band didn’t intend to change the world or to help advance the understanding between black and white in America. They were there to play. I’m sure Ellington knew damn well what was happening. When it came to his music and how it would be distributed and heard, no one was more aware of every note than the Duke.
The radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club were soon playing across the country. Think of the power of a black man leading an all-black group playing his compositions and musical arrangements through the radio in the parlors of southern and midwestern homes. Most of the listeners never heard Ellington’s music, most have never interacted with an African American their entire life. These broadcasts were their first real contact with another race. Listeners tuned in again and again because their first contact was with a musical genius.
Robinson changed the way baseball would be played using speed and baserunning to his competitive advantage, Ellington changed modern American music. He was the first band leader to combine Be-Bop, what we now consider Rhythm and Blues, with the brass band sound. The importance of this cannot be overstated. American music has a long history of white men playing music created by black men to make it more socially acceptable. The obvious examples are Elvis channeling little Richard, the Rolling Stones playing Chicago blues or Eric Clapton playing delta blues. This is a tradition that goes back many years. Bix Beiderbecke heard Louis Armstrong play on a river boat in Davenport Iowa and picked up the trumpet. Fletcher Henderson, Ellington’s predecessor at the Cotton Club went on to arrange and write music for Benny Goodman. It’s no wonder Goodman was called the King Of Swing. Much of his music was created by a black man.
Ellington didn’t need anyone to play his music to reach the masses. His greatness was more than his music. It was also his bearing. He was sophisticated, educated, intelligent, handsome, well read and well spoken. Duke Ellington was the whole package. He didn’t need a white musician or singer to validate him. His genius was clear.
In his way, Ellington helped improve the image of the African American in America. These were very different times. Racism and cruelty were a way of life. A black band leader who is respected and seen as a superior talent to the white men around him was revolutionary. In researching my book Harlem Rhapsody I came across many examples of everyday discrimination that I hesitate to share in this piece. I can share that Ellington was treated no different than his fellow black musicians early in his career. He was payed less than white musicians. The biggest outrage to me was his music being described as “Jungle Music.”
Like Robinson ignoring the taunts and hitting a stand-up double, Ellington would smile at the Jungle Music intro then remove his top hat and gloves, sit at the piano and play timeless music. The music was so precise, so well-orchestrated the band so tight that there was no way to deny that Ellington was on a higher plane. As he stood before the crowd at the Cotton Club and the applause played through the radio in homes across the country the reverence was clear to all.
Duke Ellington changed American music and along the way changed many minds about African Americans.
Can music change the way people think about their fellow man? I leave it you. All you have to do is listen.
Harlem Rhapsody is available from Amazon.
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