Today we’re mixing the Duke cocktail for the anniversary of the evening, December 4, 1927, that Duke Ellington opened at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. His stay at the Cotton Club is one of the enduring legends of jazz. It generated national attention through weekly radio broadcasts, hit records and widespread accolades.
December 4 is only one day before Repeal Day, the glorious day on which Prohibition was relegated to the dustbin of history. We’ve honored Repeal Day with the Colony cocktail and Bee’s Knees drinks. So we’ll limber up for Repeal Day with a drink to honor the most significant composer of the time. Here it is with the Duke cocktail.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in 1899 to parents who were both pianists. The family lived in Washington, D.C. and Ellington began to take piano lessons at age seven. His friends noticed his casual, offhand manner and dapper dress, so they figured a title of nobility fit and began calling him “Duke.” Ellington credited his friend Edgar McEntee for the name.
Ellington started sneaking into a pool hall when he was fourteen years old and hearing the pianists there ignited his interest and he began to take his lessons seriously. The next year, while working as a soda jerk he wrote his first composition, the Soda Fountain Rag. He did it by ear as he hadn’t yet learned to read and write music.
By 1917 he formed his first group, The Duke’s Serenaders, and they played throughout the Washington area. By 1923 they got a gig in Atlantic City and soon after moved to the Hollywood Club at 49th and Broadway in New York. They stayed for four years, his bands played under various names, and he recorded many records.
In May of 1927 Andy Preer, who had been leading the house band at the Cotton Club died. They tried to hire King Oliver’s band, but they didn’t offer the money Oliver was looking for and he turned them down. Duke Ellington and his men got the job and history was made.
The Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was located at 142nd St. and Lenox Ave. in Harlem from 1923-1936 and then in Midtown until 1940. It had actually been started by a boxing champion named Jack Johnson in 1920 under the name Club Deluxe, but after the prominent bootlegger and gangster Owney Madden was released from prison in 1923 he took it over, made Johnson the manager and renamed it the Cotton Club.
As you may have noticed, this was during that unfortunate period in which Prohibition was in effect. Madden used the club to sell his illegal beer and liquor to the crowd. They were shut down briefly in 1925 but soon reopened without police interference and went back to selling booze.
This was during the years of Jim Crow laws and segregation, and the Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment. It bore the racist imagery of the era, with décor modeled after the old South of plantations and slavery. But the waiters and entertainers were all African-American.
Ellington’s contributions to the establishment were huge. In 1937, after it had moved to midtown, the New York Times wrote “So long may the empirical Duke and his music making roosters reign – and long may the Cotton Club continue to remember that it came down from Harlem.”
Duke’s fame spread far and wide as the Cotton Club did radio broadcasts of the shows. He was the first black performer to have his work on national radio and his career never looked back. He became a prolific composer, writing or collaborating on more than a thousand songs. He’s considered the driving force behind the popularity of big band jazz.
The Duke Cocktail
The Duke cocktail was created in New York, near where the Duke plied his trade, at Daniel. That’s Daniel as in chef Daniel Boulud, the Michelin-starred restaurant where expense accounts are handy and jackets are required. The head bartender, Xavier Herit, created it there around 2011, and it was published in the book Daniel Boulud Cocktails & Amuse-Bouches; for Him and Her.
Mr. Herit is an accomplished bartender, having had stints at Experimental Cocktail Club and NoMo SoHo. He is currently the National Brand Ambassador for Grand Marnier.
The Duke cocktail recipe is a straightforward equal-parts drink. To our Editorial Board it looks like a Cognac-based, Negroni variation.
The Duke Cocktail
- Old Fashioned Glass
- Add all ingredients to your trusty mixing glass.
- Add ice and stir to chill.
- Strain into glass over ice, preferably a single, large cube.
- Express orange twist and add to glass.
- Queue up some Duke Ellington tunes.