Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

Welcome to Hearing Harlem!

28 Apr 2020

Welcome to Hearing Harlem!

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The luster of twentieth-century America was seductive. The age of modernity was ushered in by the automobile, motion picture, radio, and transatlantic flight. The mores of the Victorian era were crushed by a Prohibition-induced defiance. The 19th amendment to the Constitution of the United States bestowed a new freedom upon the women of the country; all things seemed possible. And jazz, with its complex contradictions and tensions, was an aural manifestation of it all. This was most evident in a northern section of Manhattan, New York–the neighborhood of Harlem.

Hearing Harlem explores how jazz of the period served as a catalyst for the African American community, bolstered the morale of the country, and elucidated the need for social equity. This site will offer a vibrant picture of American society at a seminal time as well as put forth an understanding of not only what the music was, but why it was: what it meant to its practitioners and audiences, how those meanings were conveyed, and the profundity of its cultural impact. Moreover, it will be argued that the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke, privileged a music that championed an elitist, Eurocentric aesthetic and one that was not true to the spirit of the African American population.

The crux of the site will focus on three progenitors of jazz: James P. Johnson, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, and Thomas “Fats” Waller, all of whom participated in the celebratory era of the Harlem Renaissance, created vernacular music, largely using the blues and jazz idioms, that elevated not only the black population, but the entirety of the United States–thus challenging the Eurocentric epistemologies of Locke and his contemporaries.

The beginning entries of the site will lay the groundwork upon which the musical exploration will be set.

Once we are on solid ground, we will tackle compositions like:

“East St. Louis Toodle-oo.” November 29, 1926, Duke Ellington And His Kentucky Club Orchestra

 



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