Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

The Charleston and Its Role in Defining the Jazz Age

6 Jul 2020

The Charleston and Its Role in Defining the Jazz Age


The Charleston and Its Role in Defining the Jazz Age

It is apparent that “Charleston,” and its accompanying dance, not only played instrumental roles in the racial uplift of pre-WWII Harlem but, by transcending its initial racial implications, had an acute impact during and after the second decade of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, the rebellious nature of “Charleston,” which echoed the recalcitrant ethos of the younger generation, was deemed impertinent by older Americans as it crushed waning Victorian-era principles. It symbolized the energy and spirit of a new America—one in which women had the right to vote, had the freedom to express themselves with a dramatically less conservative sartorial sensibility (hence the advent of the flapper, see The Flapper, Volume I, No. 5. October 1922. in Figure below) and found an advocate for female contraception in Margaret Sanger. Moreover, the general populace defied the United States government and its ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which proscribed the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol by fostering secretive clubs, known as speakeasies, where liquor could be consumed, and jazz reigned supreme.

Fig. The Flapper, Volume I, No. 5. October 1922.


To underscore the essence of the flapper, writer Dorothy Parker penned a sardonic poem in 1922:

The Flapper

The Playful flapper here we see,
The fairest of the fair.
She’s not what Grandma used to be, —
You might say, au contraire.
Her girlish ways may make a stir,
Her manners cause a scene,
But there is no more harm in her
Than in a submarine.

She nightly knocks for many a goal
The usual dancing men.
Her speed is great, but her control
Is something else again.
All spotlights focus on her pranks.
All tongues her prowess herald.
For which she well may render thanks
To God and Scott Fitzgerald.

Her golden rule is plain enough –
Just get them young and treat them

The capacity of “Charleston” to fuel social change was not relegated to the United States—an incandescent, global phenomenon was ablaze that would serve as a beacon for humanity. According to the British periodical, Dancing Times, the magazine “helped to bring the Charleston to Britain. In July 1925, ‘The Sitter Out’ [article] reported on the dance that was “captivating New York.” The article’s source came directly from New York City, where British exhibition dancers Annette Mills and Robert Sielle had learned the routine. Furthermore, “This was a dance where toes turned in, knees knocked, legs kicked high and arms went into big scarecrow poses. It’s an extravagant, thrill-seeking dance. [This] hedonism was in part a reaction against so much loss and grief.”

English novelist, Barbara Cartland, substantiated the solemnity of the song and dance when recalling how the anguish of losing her father in WWI was assuaged. She ruminated, “I couldn’t bear being involved in the tears and unhappiness that had affected my childhood following the death of my father…I just wanted to dance.” As in the “Jungles Casino,” Johnson’s “Charleston” provided a balm for those in grave distress. When the inimitable Josephine Baker visited Berlin in 1925, she attested to the potency of this music on the European landscape, “The city had a jewel-like sparkle…the vast cafés reminded me of ocean liners powered by the rhythms of their orchestras. There was music everywhere.” The denizens of the multiplicity of European cities, like their American counterparts, were enticed by the “sin in syncopation,” flocked to participate in the youthful intemperance, and be embraced by its compassion. Assuredly, Europe had welcomed the embers of modernism and James P. was witness to this when he brought his show, Runnin’ Wild, to London, England in May of 1928.

Prior to his European sojourn, Johnson attempted to replicate the success of Runnin’ Wild. He, along with his protégé Fats Waller, sat down to compose the score for the musical, Keep Shufflin’, with the assistance of lyricists Henry Creamer and Andy Razaf and a book by Lyles and Miller. The show, while running for a hundred and four performances between February and May of 1928, yielded no musical numbers that realized any critical or popular acclaim. As Walter Winchell, the drama critic for the New York Graphic, reasonably assessed, “its score—a large one, containing about twenty-two numbers—provides but three tuneful melodies, none of which, however, are of the contagious order.” Johnson’s final Broadway attempt of the 1920s came with his 1929 show, Messin’ Around. It was an abysmal failure and only ran for thirty-three performances.

Irrespective of James P.’s inability to sustain the triumph of Runnin’ Wild, he continued to be a formidable contributor to the musical terrain of Harlem in the 1920s. Between 1927—1930, Johnson participated in sixty recording sessions. He continued to cut piano rolls of his original compositions, record piano solos, lead orchestras, and accompany vocalists. Noteworthy documents of his prodigious output include the landmark recording of “Backwater Blues” with the Bessie Smith on vocals from February 17, 1927 and a QRS piano roll duet with Fats Waller, QRS 3818, of Johnson’s classic composition, “If I Could Be with You (One  Hour Tonight)” in the following month. On November 18, 1929, he would lead his own orchestra, which included the jazz pioneer Joe “King” Oliver on trumpet, for two seminal sides for the Victor label—“You Don’t Understand” and “You’ve Got to be Modernistic.” The latter tune, one of Johnson’s most principal and prescient, would be a clarion call for all jazz musicians who followed in his wake. If the song titles are abutted, James P., in one of his final sessions of the “Roaring Twenties,” is proclaiming to all who would listen, “You don’t understand. You’ve got to be modernistic!”

James P. Johnson, if not for his humility and reticence, would be metonymic of the 1920s, for the wealth of his influence was not contained within the richness of Harlem, but was disseminated throughout an international community. His music transcended racial strictures, yet was the paradigm of the African American spirit. Through the development of the exultant piano style of Harlem stride, he upraised a displaced people and bestowed upon them the gifts of optimism and resilience. His compositions, like “Charleston,” emboldened a war-weary global community and ignited the fervor of a neoteric generation. And, perhaps, put more simply, he reminded the world to dance.








Leave a Reply