Monday, 25 July 2011

Jazz and Negroes: Cole Porter in the Twenties


From The Venice Lido by Robin Saikia: Jazz, Negroes and Noah's Ark.

Between 1923 and 1927 the Cole Porters came every summer to Venice where they gave a series of elaborate parties, some staged on an enormous float, permanently moored in the lagoon and known by Venetians as l’arca di Noe, ‘Noah’s Ark’. These excesses were greeted with disgust by Diaghilev, who complained strenuously about the jazz, the ‘negroes’ and the nightclub. In addition, he cannot have been anything but dismayed by another philistine raid on the Ballet Russes’ citadel, Porter’s brief but intense aff air with the dancer and librettist Boris Kochno. Despite Diaghilev’s protestations, the revellers voted with their feet and Cole Porter’s elaborately orchestrated tumulte noire was there to stay: he shipped in the all-black Leslie Hutchinson jazz orchestra to perform at Chez Vous; the legendary black singer Bricktop sang at Jane di San Faustino’s charity gala in 1926; chorus lines of flappers were taught the Charleston on the Lido beach. Some of the more outrĂ© fringe performances that took place during Porter’s reign included a ukulele routine by an Indian nobleman, Prince Jit of Kapurthala, and an appearance by the short, stout and irrepressible Elsa Maxwell, wearing a blonde wig and a short, tight skirt, singing ‘I’m a little old Lido lady’. As to Porter’s patronage of gondoliers, it would have rendered gay gondola-chasers like Symonds and Brown speechless, for he routinely employed no fewer than fifty gondoliers as footmen at his parties in the Ca’Rezzonico. In a hothouse such as this, it was only a question of time before ‘Lido’ was rhymed with ‘libido’. Porter duly obliged, improvising a lewd stanza touching on a supposed liaison between the ‘leader of the Big-Time Band’ and the well-known French author George Sand.

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