Tag Archives: Harlem Renaissance

Musical expressions of the Harlem Renaissance: An annotated bibliography

Emerging from a New York neighborhood in the early 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance was a period of vibrant intellectual and artistic development in the African American community. Considered a turning point in Black history, the Harlem Renaissance offered African American writers and artists the chance to express their cultures and experiences during a time when they continued to face racism and discrimination. The end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 brought many African Americans in the South newfound freedoms and hopes for inclusion economically, politically, and socially within society. Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed by white supremacy and the rise of Jim Crow Laws that legalized racial segregation on state and local levels. Such laws existed for nearly the next 100 years, making African Americans second class citizens while denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, and become educated.

Many Southern Black people were denied ownership of land and were exploited in a system of sharecropping, a form of farming where families rented small plots of land from a landowner in exchange for a portion of the crops they had grown. Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan also terrorized Black communities through murder and intimidation, discouraging Black communities from exercising their newly won rights. Conversely, Northern cities offered industrial jobs in fast growing economies to people of all races. Many African Americans left the South in search of such opportunities, leading to what was termed the “Great Migration” in the 20th century.

The Cotton Club in New York City

The Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan during this period drew more the 175,000 African Americans and quickly became one of the largest concentrations of Black people in the United States. African Americans of all social backgrounds congregated in Harlem based on their shared experiences of racial oppression, slavery, emancipation, and future aspirations as a free people. Harlem also served as a cultural node where artists and writers lived and creatively shared their ideas of modernity, folk culture, and religion. In this sense, the Harlem Renaissance represented a rebirth not only for intellectuals and artists but for all Black people, providing a cultural space to reshape the existing predominant narratives on Blackness.

In this context, it is nearly impossible to explore the Harlem Renaissance without considering its music. Despite being known as a genuinely American art form today, jazz emerged from small urban bars, clubs, and halls to the national stage during the Harlem Renaissance, announcing the arrival of renowned musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith. These early jazz artists reconfigured African American folk musical elements into expressions that were more distilled and elegant, and ready for mass consumption.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra

Like other Harlem Renaissance writers and visual artists, musicians such as Josephine Baker (pictured at the beginning of this piece) were in continuous conversation with audiences beyond Harlem and the United States. In Europe, Baker became an icon of the early jazz age as many European audiences had never seen such a visually striking Black chanteuse who could sing fluently in French and perform such suggestive dance moves. In this context, the Harlem Renaissance sounded in the rhythms of jazz and swing a radically new and modern Black subject that was central to the development of international modern art. It also made Harlem (and venues like the Cotton Club) the place to be modern in the early 20th century.

The selected texts below taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature reflect the diverse expressions of the Harlem Renaissance and its lasting impact on music, theater, visual art, poetry, and other fields in the arts. The bibliography foregrounds the significant contributions of jazz women, including Florence Mills and Melba Liston, as well as themes of voice, community values, modernism, migration, and the paradoxical qualities of Blackness.

–Written and compiled by Russ Skelchy, Editor, RILM

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Newton, Elizabeth. “Ethnic irony in Melvin B. Tolson’s Dark symphony”, Journal of the Society for American Music 15/2 (May 2021) 224–245. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-2157]

Abstract: Historicizes musical symbolism in Melvin B. Tolson’s poem Dark symphony. In a time when Black writers and musicians alike were encouraged to aspire to European standards of greatness, Tolson’s Afro-Modernist poem establishes an ambivalent critical stance toward the genre in its title. In pursuit of a richer understanding of the poet’s attitude, the poem is situated within histories of Black music, racial uplift, and white supremacy, exploring its relation to other media from the Harlem Renaissance. The changing language across the poem’s sections is analyzed and informed by Houston A. Baker Jr.’s study of mastery and deformation, the poet’s tone is theorized. While prior critics have read the poem’s lofty conclusion as sincerely aspirational toward assimilation, here the ambiguity, or irony, that Tolson develops is emphasized: he embraces the symphony’s capacity as a symbol to encompass multiple meanings, using the genre metaphorically as a mark of achievement, even as he implicates such usage as a practice rooted in conservative thought. The symphony, celebrated as a symbol of pluralistic democracy and liberal progress, meanwhile functions to reinforce racialized difference and inequality–a duality that becomes apparent when this poem is read alongside Tolson’s concurrent poems, notes, and criticism. Such analysis demonstrates that Dark symphony functions as a site for heightened consciousness of racialized musical language, giving shape to Tolson’s ideas as a critic, educator, and advocate for public health.

Doktor, Stephanie. “Finding Florence Mills: The voice of the Harlem Jazz Queen in the compositions of William Grant Still and Edmund Thornton Jenkins.” Journal of the Society for American Music 14/4 (November 2020) 451–479. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-12258]

Abstract: After her performances in Shuffle along (1921) on Broadway and in Dover Street to Dixie (1923) in London, Florence Mills became one of the most famous jazz and vaudeville singers. Known as the “Harlem Jazz Queen”, Mills was revered by Black Americans for her international breakthrough and because she used her commercial success as a platform to speak out against racial inequality. Extensive descriptions of her performance style and voice exist in writing, but there are no recordings of her singing. The sound of Mills’s voice is considered in two compositions written for her: William Grant Still’s Levee land (1925) and Edmund Thornton Jenkins’s Afram (1924). It is shown that Still and Jenkins imagined a much more musically complicated and politically powerful voice than that found in the racialized and gendered stereotypes permeating both her vaudeville and Broadway repertoire and the language of her reception. While scholars have written about how Mills’ outspokenness regarding issues of race and omission of sexually explicit roles made her central to 1920s Black political and artistic life, the sonic properties of her voice positioned her as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Banfield, William C. “Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1935: Artistry, aesthetics, politics, and popular culture”, Ethnomusicologizing: Essays on music in the new paradigms by William C. Banfield (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) 223–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-11893]

Abstract: The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Arts Movement (1920-1935), was a period in U.S. cultural history where preserving the life and culture of community was simultaneously an investment into cultural relevancy at all levels through music, literature, arts, dance, education, and business, and social-cultural engagement. People from New York’s Harlem community–extending across the national, artistic, entrepreneurial, and educational lines–were asking: What do we value now, and why? What and how are the best ways forward to create, project, and live in those values? What are we investing in, and what do we believe in for our future? In addition, for the first time in U.S. history, artists and thinkers worked to address needs, projections, and outcomes. The interests in these questions and arts movement as critical historical cultural markers, the artists and artistry from this period, and with that, the processes that led to the creation of progressive U.S. culture. A secondary theme is the impact those art questions and results have had on commercial political and cultural currency and relevancy on at least two other musical arts periods: the civil rights/social protest/soul period (1960-1975) and hip-hop, X, and millennium generation music (1980-2010s).

Lassiter, Fran L. “From toasts to raps: New approaches for teaching the Harlem Renaissance”, Pedagogy: Critical approaches to teaching literature, language, composition, and culture 15/2 (2015) 374–377. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-85442]

Abstract: Outlines the use of contemporary hip hop lyrics to access the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. A strategy is outlined for tracing the progression and evolution of African American political and social resistance in literature and music, introducing students to forgotten or overlooked texts of the Harlem Renaissance by exploring the connection between sociopolitical protest and artistic expression.

Colbert, Soyica Diggs. “Harlem Renaissance theater and performance”, A companion to the Harlem Renaissance, ed. by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (Malden: Blackwell, 2015) 285–300. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-84653]

Abstract: Explores how theater and performance of the Harlem Renaissance depicts paradoxes at the heart of modern Black cultural production. Theater and performance emerge in response to competing generational, artistic, aesthetic, and market demands and desires. Blackness appears here as a paradoxical category in the themes, characterizations, and formal attributes of the work. Social practices such as lynching and the separation of public space due to Jim Crow defined Blackness as an easily decipherable physical category. At the same time cultural practices including passing, the cakewalk, and signifying demonstrated the slipperiness of Blackness. Harlem Renaissance theater and performance changes the optics of Blackness from a biological category able to be regulated in the social sphere to a contingent category that emerges in distinctive forms of embodiment.

Melba Liston

Price, Emmett G., III. “Melba Liston: Renaissance woman”, Black music research journal 34/1 (2014) 159–168. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-5983]

We might better understand Melba Liston’s (pictured above) achievements, importance, and influence, as well as her artistic and political motivations by viewing her and her work through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance. The movement’s terms and cultural politics provide insight into Liston’s personal experiences and professional realities. Melba Liston is revealed here as a renaissance woman as defined by an expanded reading of the intellectual zeitgeist of the New Negro, gleaning historiographical insight about Liston (and other jazz women) through the experiences of better-, but still under-documented Renaissance women writers.

Reid, Grant Harper. Rhythm for sale (North Charleston: CreateSpace Books, 2013) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-37077]

Abstract: Ventures into the beating heart of the Harlem Renaissance through the life of the author’s grandfather Leonard Harper. Born the son of a poor singer in Birmingham, Alabama, Harper performed on the street for pennies as a child. He became a talented performer, and after his father died, he studied soft-shoe to provide for his family. Young Harper traveled with vaudeville shows until he found his way to New York, where he went solo at 16. By his early 20s, he found himself at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, and he worked with such legends as Duke Ellington, Florence Mills, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong. An account of the era’s racial tensions is provided, with white producers often swindling Harper and his fellow African American theater professionals out of the rights to their works. However, Harper was resourceful enough to successfully stage dozens of shows. His barrier-breaking achievements are chronicled, including his 1929 debut of Hot chocolates, an African American production that received great acclaim on Broadway. Though the book is full of praise for Harper, it also recounts his extramarital affairs and some of the more colorful stories of gangsters and burlesque dancers in the Harlem nightclub scene. Through this biographical profile, a revealing profile is drawn of early 20th century Black American music, dance, culture, and the racial politics surrounding all of it.

Young, Kevin. “It don’t mean a thing: The blues mask of modernism”, The poetics of American song lyrics, ed. by Charlotte Pence (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012) 43–74. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-13801]

Abstract: The rise of modernism coincided with the emergence and reach of the blues. The influence of blues music on modernism is explored here, focusing on the importance, intricacies, and intimacies of the Harlem or “New Negro” Renaissance. It is argued that the achievement of African American writers, sculptors, and artists should be considered one of the high points of modernism. The recent disregard heaped upon the notion of Africa as a popular theme in the Harlem Renaissance is also discussed, along with how this attitude denies the power of place in the Black imagination.

Jones, Meta DuEwa. The muse is music: Jazz poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to spoken word (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-6634]

An interdisciplinary study that traces jazz’s influence on African American poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary spoken word poetry. Examining established poets such as Langston Hughes, Ntozake Shange, and Nathaniel Mackey as well as a generation of up-and-coming contemporary writers and performers, it highlights the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within the jazz tradition and its representation in poetry. The prosodic analysis to emphasize the musicality of African American poetic performance examines the gendered meanings evident in collaborative performances and in the criticism, images, and sounds circulating within jazz cultures. Some of the poets who participated in contemporary venues for Black writing such as the Dark Room Collective and the Cave Canem Foundation, including Harryette Mullen, Elizabeth Alexander, and Carl Phillips are also key in this discussion. The Black Arts Movement, the poetry-jazz fusion of the late 1950s, and slam and spoken word performance milieus such as Def Poetry Jam, exemplify how jazz and hip hop influenced performance artists. The attention to cadence, rhythm, and structure fills a gap in literary scholarship by attending to issues of gender in jazz and poetry. The analysis includes exploring the formal innovation and queer performance of Langston Hughes’s recorded collaboration with jazz musicians, delineating the relationship between punctuation and performance in the post-soul John Coltrane poem, and closely examining jazz improvisation and hip hop stylization. This elaborate articulation of the connections between jazz, poetry and spoken word, and gender offers valuable criticism of specific texts and performances and a convincing argument about the shape of jazz and African American poetic performance in the contemporary era.

Patterson, Jody. “It don’t mean a thing…: Jazz, modernism, and murals in New Deal New York”, Music and modernism, c. 1849-1950, ed. by Charlotte De Mille (Newcastle upon Tyme: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) 229–254. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-2812]

Abstract: Examines the ways in which jazz was taken up by the U.S. painters Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) and Stuart Davis (1892–1964), who both sought to achieve a rapprochement between modernist aesthetics and leftist politics within the context of the New Deal arts projects. Douglas painted a four-panel cycle of murals, collectively entitled Aspects of Negro life (1939), under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP; 1933–34), which were commissioned for the Assembly Hall of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Douglas’s use of abbreviated forms and his repetition of schematized motifs within each composition not only demonstrate his understanding of the lessons of cubist composition but represent a self-conscious effort to engage the compositional strategies of jazz. Davis, one of the political left’s most vociferous and visible artist-activists, connected his paintings to swing, a musical form that was decidedly modern and which attracted a mass audience. Through the unexpected placement of accents on beats where they would not conventionally occur, swing musicians deliberately interrupt the regular flow of rhythm. This approach to abstraction is amply demonstrated in Davis’s 1939 mural for the New York Municipal Broadcasting Company’s Radio Station WNYC and the mural Swing landscape (1938), also executed under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn.

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