When people think of the Cotton Club -- one of New York's top nightclubs in the 1920s and 1930s -- they think of Harlem, an area that was once populated by Dutch immigrants but became synonymous with African-American culture in the 20th Century. The venue's original and most famous location was at 644 Lenox Avenue near 142nd Street in the heart of Harlem, but in February 1936 the original Cotton Club closed down. And when it reopened seven months later, it had moved down to West 48th Street in Mid-Town Manhattan's Times Square section. Not surprisingly, the owners of the new Cotton Club were anxious to book Duke Ellington, whose 1927-1931 engagement at the original Harlem location was legendary. Nor is it surprising that Ellington's return engagements in 1937 and 1938 attracted a lot of attention in the Big Apple. Radio broadcasts of his Cotton Club performances of March-May 1938 are the focus of this two-CD set, which offers sound quality that isn't great but is OK -- at least by 1930s standards. These generally solid performances aren't exercises in nostalgia; Ellington doesn't embrace a 1920s/early 1930s repertoire exclusively or try to pretend that he is still at the Cotton Club's original Harlem location. The Duke is mindful of 1938 tastes, and he is obviously playing for a swing era audience on material that ranges from "Rose Room" to Benny Goodman's "If Dreams Come True." Unfortunately, singer Athan Maroulis' informative and comprehensive liner notes are extremely difficult to read because Stardust uses a microscopic type size. It's a shame that you need a magnifying glass to read them, because they're very well written. Nonetheless, Ellington's hardcore fans will want this double-CD. Although not essential, Cotton Club Anthology: 1938 is a release that serious collectors will enjoy despite its imperfections.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2