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The “Echoes of the Cotton Club” spring radio show re-creation at Western Carolina University will start preproduction Wednesday, Feb. 26, with a visit to campus by internationally known choreographer and dancer Mercedes Ellington.
Ellington is the president of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts in New York City and is the granddaughter of music legend Duke Ellington, a bandleader at the Cotton Club nightclub in Harlem on which the show, an original production written by WCU’s Don Connelly, is based.
She will be on campus working with singers, dancers and musicians preparing for the radio show. Ellington also will present a free public presentation on Friday, Feb. 28, about her professional life and the work of her grandfather and her father, Mercer Ellington. The event, to be held at 11:15 a.m. in the recital hall of the Coulter Building, is free and open to the public, and will feature performances of Duke Ellington’s greatest hits by the Catamount Singers and Electric Soul.
“Echoes of the Cotton Club” is the sixth in a series of academic-based entertainment projects mounted in collaboration with four departments and three colleges at WCU. Each of the shows in the series hearkens back to the golden age of radio, featuring a live orchestra and sound effects, and performed only once before a live audience. “Echoes of the Cotton Club” will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 24, in the John C. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $10 and proceeds will benefit scholarships in participating academic departments. The group’s first five shows have raised nearly $25,000 for student scholarships.
The show is under the leadership of director Steve Carlisle, retired associate dean of the Honors College; music directors Bruce Frazier, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music, and Jon Henson, music faculty member and assistant director of the WCU Pride of the Mountains Marching Band; writer and producer Don Connelly, head of the Department of Communication; and choreographer Karyn Tomczak, director of the dance program.
When work started on the project last summer, the group wanted some kind of connection to the original Cotton Club at 142nd and Lennox in New York that was open from 1923 through 1936. “A link to something that happened over 80 years ago in New York was not going to be easy. All of the musicians and dancers that performed at the Cotton Club have since passed away,” said Connelly.
Tomczak was a Radio City Rockette and performed professionally in the U.S. and internationally for more than 15 years in such shows as “42nd Street,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Will Rogers Follies” and “Funny Girl.” Through her associates in New York, Tomczak made contact with Marilyn Lester, executive director of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts.
One conversation lead to another and Tomczak presented the proposal for “Echoes of the Cotton Club” to Mercedes Ellington and the board of directors of the Ellington Center over dinner at Sardi’s Restaurant in New York.
“I was surprised to see how deeply interested the board was in our concept and proposal,” said Tomczak, who was invited back for a second meeting and shortly thereafter got word that Mercedes Ellington would come to Cullowhee to work with students and participate in the show.
Ellington cannot be on campus for the live April 24 show because her grandfather’s 115th birthday celebration is just days later in New York. Ellington will videotape her segments for “Echoes” while at WCU for playback during the show on a large screen located behind the band.
“The story line of ‘Echoes’ is woven around the critical role that radio broadcasts originating in 1927 from the Cotton Club played in changing the musical landscape in America. The ‘echoes’ from the Cotton Club are all of the rich musical styles and genres that originated in Harlem and are still influencing our popular culture,” said Connelly.
The show is the fourth Connelly has written for the group, and he says that it has been the most difficult because the story line spans nearly 90 years.
Frazier said that “Echoes of the Cotton Club” is a salute to the roots of jazz and the big band era music.
“To have Mercedes Ellington on campus for our students to work with as a direct link to this era is just incredible. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Frazier.
“Echoes of the Cotton Club” follows the significant musical developments through the decades to the present day – swing, blues, soul and R&B, Motown, funk, disco, hip-hop and modern singer-songwriters. Featured songs include hits by artists Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald, and the contemporary entertainers they inspire – such as Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake. In addition to the radio cast, the show will feature the Catamount Singers and Electric Soul.
Director Carlisle said the show is one-of-a-kind.
“It takes you on a nearly 90 year trip through time from Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club to Justin Timberlake,” said Carlisle. “The characters in the storyline are woven into the music showing how important music on the radio was and is in our lives.”
Every song selected to go with the story was or is currently a No. 1 hit, he said.
“Frankly, I don’t know how people are going to be able to sit there for 90 minutes; I want to dance to everyone of these songs,” said Carlisle.
Funding for the show is provided by the Office of the Provost, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Fine and Performing Arts, the Department of Communication, the School of Music, the School of Stage and Screen, and the Carol Grotnes Belk Endowment. Ellington’s participation is supported in part by a grant from the Chancellor's Visiting Scholar Fund.
Tickets for “Echoes of the Cotton Club” go on sale Monday, Feb. 24, at the Bardo Arts Center box office and can be purchased by visiting bardoartscenter.wcu.edu or calling 828-227-2479. The show starts promptly at 7:30 p.m. and no one will be admitted after it has begun.
For more information about Ellington’s visit, call the School of Music at 828-227-7242.