Lately I’ve been digging a little deeper into the history of a place that’s always intrigued me, New York’s historic jazz spot known as the Cotton Club. At the height of its popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it provided a showcase for many future legends.
One of the biggest was Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington, the son of a White House butler. The Duke built his fame as the leader of a dynamic orchestra that virtually owned the stage at the Cotton Club from 1927 to 1931, and it was there that he first ran into Ivie Anderson. The California-born singer was at that time appearing with some of the other musical groups at the club, including those of Earl Hines and Anson Weeks. Her vocal talents eventually led to a job offer from the Duke.
Ironically, Ivie officially joined the Duke’s orchestra just about the time he was finally saying goodbye to the Cotton Club. During his time there he’d managed to occasionally spot his band in other venues too, including Broadway and even a stint in a movie, so he felt the time was right to take the group on tour.
It’s been said that Ivie was the first vocalist to be really appreciated by Ellington, and she certainly was one of the best. For the next decade she was a strong presence in the orchestra, and helped introduce a number of songs that would become classics. Among them was “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” a song that helped give a name to a new era in jazz. Ivie also turned in a strong performance on the Duke’s “Mood Indigo,” and introduced “Stormy Weather” to a national audience by singing the song in one of the orchestra’s filmed shorts.
Unfortunately, her health began to go downhill and in 1942 she left the band and full-time music behind. Returning to her native California, she opened a spot called Ivie’s Chicken Shack and continued trying to sing part-time in area clubs. She also made a few records, but chronic asthma kept her from being able to perform as often — or as well — and she would have liked. Ivie Anderson died in 1949 at the young age of 44, leaving behind a short but important legacy in early jazz.