Rant ‘N’ Roll: Buckle Your Seat Belt

NEW YORK, NY—The crowd at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on 47th Street got into a time machine to go back to 1932 and revel in the “jungle music” of The Duke Ellington Orchestra. Deep in the heart of Harlem, The Cotton Club was the slightly dangerous mob-run destination for whites only seeking thrills and black music. The overpriced food, liquor (during prohibition, no less!) “high yellow” scantily-clad light-skinned black female dancers (who would come out to the tables and meet the rich white patrons and possibly take them in the back rooms) and music of Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson and Duke made it a must stop if you had the money and the guts. Hell, the shows didn’t even start until after midnight.

What must it have been like to see a world-class big-band like Duke’s in 1932?

“After Midnight” answers that question. I don’t think I as much as blinked for its 90 non-stop minutes. No intermission! We were in at 8:00, out at 9:30 and sat with our jaws dropping at the girls, the songs, the rampaging big-band of Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz At Lincoln Center All-Stars, and the gravity-defying, loose-limbed, double-jointed tap dance routines. Then there’s the low-down blues of Sippie Wallace [1898-1986] as sung by the sultry Adriane Lenox as a piece of advice (“keep your mouth shut and don’t advertise your man!”) in that classic of classics, “Woman Be Wise.”

The songs fly by in a wink of an eye: it’s a revue and the energy stays high. Rock ‘n’ rollers know Cab Calloway’s 1931 hit “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” by George Harrison’s 2002 cover, released posthumously. Here, it’s a show-stopping female trio who glamorizes it. Rock ‘n’ rollers know “East St. Louis-Toodle-Oo” by Steely Dan’s 1974 roots-reverent cover but here it is in all its syncopated glory as Duke first recorded it in 1927 only better, complete with gorgeous choreography. It’s a sensory overload! From such instantly recognizable fare as “I’ve Got The World On A String” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (Vanessa Williams nailed it!) to “Stormy Weather” and “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” the nostalgia aspect is completely absent and that’s what makes this so vital, alluring and provocative: these songs still stand supreme some seven decades later. Many of the songs were written by one of America’s greatest songwriters—Harold Arlen [1905-1986]—expressly for The Cotton Club revues. 16 of the show’s 21 songs are either by Duke or Arlen.

The star of this show is the orchestra. The roof-raising moments are when the dancers—as great and exciting as they are—disappear, and the entire bandstand moves from the back of the stage up front to really blow their brains out on the show-closing “Rockin’ In Rhythm” or when the wild dancers share the orgasmic swing of the “Cotton Club Stomp”: saxophones honking, trumpets bleating, drums rolling, this, after all, might be the greatest big-big in the land in 2014. Wait a minute! Might be? This is it, baby. There is no more sublime sound on the face of the earth than the aggregation that Wynton Marsalis has put together at Lincoln Center. Who else could play the Ellington Orchestra with such verve, flair, sophistication and one dramatic crescendo after another?

There are comedic moments and breaks in the action where the audience gets to catch their breath. I loved Duke’s “Braggin’ In Brass,” the male quartet on “Diga Diga Doo,” the all-out wildness of the entire company on “The Skrontch” and other highlights like “Hottentot Tot,” “Zaz Zuh Zaz” and “The Mooche.” Maybe most riveting of all was getting to hear arguably Duke’s greatest compositional masterpiece of all, “Black And Tan Fantasy,” done live and in-your-face fit to die over.

Duke Ellington [1899-1974] always wanted to write a successful Broadway musical and never could. He was man of prodigious appetites, a glutton even, and he took credit for a lot of music that other people wrote. But he was, indeed, a genius of assimilation, used his orchestra like an artist would use his palette and paints. “Sophisticated Ladies” finally brought Duke’s music successfully to Broadway but he had been dead for seven years by then. “After Midnight” does it again. Righteously. Royally. And oh-so-satisfyingly.