May 2, 2016

RPO Pops finale pays tribute to 1920s Harlem

Picture this scene. It’s the 1920s in Harlem. Despite the racial divide, the uptown crowd is flocking to a primarily black neighborhood to hear the talents of top entertainers like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and more. The scene is The Cotton Club, a whites-only establishment that showcased black entertainers. Broadway composers and other songwriters congregated at the club, and what they heard influenced their own writing, changing the face of popular music and ushering in the Jazz Era.

The RPO is pleased to celebrate the 2015-16 Pops Series finale with an ode to The Cotton Club, featuring trumpeter Byron Stripling, vocalist Miche Braden, tap dancer Ted Louis Levy, and percussionist Robert Breithaupt. Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik conducts A Night at the Cotton Club II on Friday, May 27 and Saturday, May 28 at Kodak Hall.

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith
 (performance photo from "The Devil's Music" in 2012)

“For me, this is real music— it has a story,” said Miche (pronounced "Mickey") Braden, a vocalist whose credits include portraying 1920s blues legend Bessie Smith off-Broadway. “The Cotton Club shows always featured ‘the girl singer,’ which is me; the ‘headliner musician,’ which is Byron; and a tap dancer, which is Ted. The RPO show brings us back to that era.”

For trumpeter Byron Stripling, a frequent guest to the RPO, the opportunity to collaborate with Jeff Tyzik again is pure joy.

“He has been a huge influence for me, and his musicality is second to none,” said Stripling, who is currently artistic director and conductor of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra in Ohio. Stripling met Tyzik when he was a freshman at the Eastman School of Music and Jeff asked him to join his big band. Since then, the two have performed for more than 40 symphonies around the world in pops concerts. “Jeff taught me to be an entrepreneur as a musician. Young musicians can look to his example of how to forage a career in the 21st century.”
Byron Stripling

Stripling also had the honor of performing as Louis Armstrong in an off-Broadway musical based on the performer’s life. While he is an accredited actor, Stripling and Co. won’t be performing “in character” for Cotton Club.

“This concert will give you the spirit of what it was like in this time period,” said Stripling. “This music was the saving grace for people during the Prohibition era and the Depression. It brought people together and let them know everything was going to be all right.”

A Night at the Cotton Club II is the sequel to an earlier show the RPO performed in 2012. This new edition features more songs by the artists who left their mark on the 1920s sound.

“I love the opportunity to improvise on this music,” said Stripling. “It’s like watching somebody think on their feet and it makes it new every time I get to perform it.”

If you go
A Night at the Cotton Club II
Friday, May 27 at 8 PM
Saturday, May 28 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $22
Visit for more details

Three performers from A Night at the Cotton Club II: Jeff Tyzik, Byron Stripling, and Robert Breithaupt perform a tribute to Louis Armstrong with the Malaysian Philharmonic in 2013.

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