Harlem Renaissance: The Making of American Music

As has been well documented, in the second decade of the twentieth century, a section of New York City called Harlem became the Mecca and magnet for the coming of age of African Americans. The synergistic and cross-pollination of literature, art and music, informed by a general aesthetic ethos, produced the foundation for America’s authentic music-jazz and blues.  This period in American history, known as the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, defined the direction and form of modern American music. Thus, the Harlem Renaissance, which is often defined and discussed as a footnote in American history (Ghettoized), is what gave birth to America authentic classical and popular music.

Although the Harlem Renaissance is known mostly for its literary production and writers- Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, and James Weldon Johnson- music was its true motive force. As Samuel Floyd points out, in his brilliant essay on the Harlem Renaissance, “The music of the black theater shows, the dance music of the cabarets, the blues, ragtime of the speakeasies and the rent parties, the spirituals, and the art songs of the recitals and concert halls all created an ambiance for Renaissance activities and contemplation.” The music was based on the black folk materials which the musicians used as a source of inspiration and point of departure for artistic creation. Moreover, Alain Locke, Father of the New Negro Movement, saw black folk material as a “direct route to a rich and virtually untapped vein of folk art, the [black’s] entire musical expression.”

Jazz and blues, therefore, emerged in the 1920s as the dominant American musical forms and cultural statement. Renaissance poet Langston Hughes referred to jazz as ‘the tom-tom of the revolt.” Further, Hughes, Nathan Huggins tells us “thought of himself quite akin to the jazzman and the blues singers…Like them, he had faith in the extemporaneous expression; art was innovation. Hughes saw himself as analogous to the blues singer, with his guitar and repertoire of songs-standards themes-to which he added innovations and new verses as they came to him.”

Moreover, it is well documented that the “call-and-response pattern has been worked into the blues, and the attentive ear can detect it as a primary feature of jazz instrumentation. The black tradition is also marked by the purposefully repeated phrase.” The black folk preacher used the “repeated phrase to give focus, an organizing principle. Here too are the parallels in the blues and the jazz rift. It served the common function of allowing the artist to mark time while he “composed” his next innovation.”

By 1920 it was preeminently clear that the polymeter, multimeter, call-and-response patterns certain pitch inflections-blue notes- were characteristic are elements of an oral tradition which the African American sustained, and these elements defined the body of American music called jazz and blues. Thus, a people almost fifty years out of enslavement, haunted by what W.E.B. DuBois characterized as a double consciousness- a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”- astonished the world by inventing an art form which spoke to all men and women, everywhere.

To be sure, jazz and blues were developed well before the Harlem Renaissance, with New Orleans and Chicago, serving as the midwives for the new art forms.  Yet, it was during the Renaissance that the new art forms vaulted into American popular culture. Men and women like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, pioneered this new music, which sprang from their own culture context. And, as Huggins notes, “Everywhere they looked they found white men mimicking them, trying to master their blue notes, their slurs, their swing, their arpeggios, and their artistic concept.”  They create a new art form and in the process rightfully placed jazz and blues in the pantheon of American civilization.


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