Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

Black and Tan Fantasy: Duke Ellington and the Harlem Renaissance

16 Jul 2020

Black and Tan Fantasy: Duke Ellington and the Harlem Renaissance


Black and Tan Fantasy: Duke Ellington and the Harlem Renaissance


My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people. The music of my race is something more than the “American idiom.” It is the result of our transplantation to American soil and was our reaction, in plantation days, to the life we lived. What we could not say openly we expressed in music…there is no necessity to apologize for attributing aims other than…for showing how the characteristic, melancholic music of my race has been forged from the very white heat of our sorrows and from our groping after something tangible in the primitiveness of our lives in the early days of our American occupation.

                                                                               – Duke Ellington


Harlem of the 1920s was fraught with complex contradictions, not the least of which was the dichotomous nature of the daily lived experiences of its residents. In his painting entitled, Harlem Street Scene (see the figure below), artist Jacob Lawrence depicts the diurnal, bustling character of any given neighborhood street corner. The work is balanced with the secular and the profane: two houses of worship are placed on the peripheries—one a store front church and the other a more established chapel—while the central focus lies on the quotidian activities of the city’s locals. In the bottom left corner, children can be seen playing while a couple saunters towards them from one direction and a street vendor peddling fruits and vegetables approaches from another. A white police officer manages the traffic, while across the street, a woman walks her dog, men congregate on the sidewalk for a game of checkers, and a homeless man slouches against the neighborhood bar and grill. On the rooftop, a quartet of men shoot craps while laundry catches the crisp breeze. Along the sidewalk below, men are hoisting an upright piano that will likely serve as the centerpiece for prospective rent parties. Harlem Street Scene is unquestionably Jacobs’s use of memory, space, and place and his attempt to rejuvenate, through his art, the vitality of Harlem prior to the Great Depression.


“Harlem Street Scene” from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. Casein tempera on hardboard. 1941.

While the musicians who performed in the Harlem night clubs such as Connie’s Inn, the Cotton Club, and Small’s Paradise would have likely partaken in the sundry happenings as encapsulated by Lawrence, their evenings were spent in a discrete Harlem—one in which affluent, white carousers would intrepidly leave the safe environs of lower or midtown Manhattan in search of the “primordial cure for the ills of a civilized and increasingly mechanized society.” One such enticement was the urbane bandleader and composer, Duke Ellington.

Ellington, who would ultimately possess the sine qua non for entry into the pantheon of American artistic expression, was born on April 29, 1899 at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place), N.W., in Washington D.C.  Raised in a tight-knit, middle-class family by his parents James and Daisy, Ellington was taught that “proper speech and good manners were [his] first obligations.” In his formative years, he learned that sartorial details were essential and, as a consequence, earned the noble moniker, “The Duke,” from his childhood friend, Edward McEntree. As an African American in a segregated city, he understood the importance of appearances; the way in which he carried himself was his method for transcending the ruthless realities of social inequity. It was with an intrinsic sense of pride and dignity that Ellington lived his life; these attributes would be the foundation upon which he would express, through music, the feelings of his race.

In the next installment, we will cover Ellington’s early years, including his fascination with ragtime!

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