Harlem’s Home Town Tunes

Matthew Oscarson

What time to be alive. When you think of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1900s to 1930s, the image that comes to mind is a resurgence in African American culture, art, music, and literature. These realms have influenced the history of the neighborhood, the city of New York, and the United States. The transformations that occurred for thirty years radically altered notions of race, art, and culture across the country. I delve into this fascinating era to discuss the extraordinary impact of jazz, its influential musicians, and the songs that helped the people of Harlem cope with everyday life. However, that story leads us to Harlem’s vibrant nightlife. Where did Black people listen to music? How they partied, danced, and sang? What was the meaning of spending the nights away in the city?

The “renaissance” that characterized New York City’s Harlem made it the “black cultural mecca” for many artists. In the early twentieth century, thousands of black migrants from the U.S. South and the Caribbean arrived at this location. Many creative minds came together in one place, all from different countries, speaking multiple languages and influenced by various musical traditions. Harlem was a giant melting pot, an auspicious site for cultural cross-fertilization.

Creativity At Its Finest

There is a rich history behind the development of jazz music. There is also life behind the experience of listening to it. As Claude McKay says, “loud music is life.” [1] Jazz originated in New Orleans in the 1890s, but it had made its way to Harlem’s vibrant nightlife by the 1920s. Great jazz musicians loved playing at Harlem’s nightclubs. For example, the famous Louis Armstrong brought the popular style of jazz up north. Louis Armstrong excelled in his craft, becoming known as “the world’s greatest trumpet player.” Louis Armstrong was known for much more than his musical talents. He was able to play in front of huge crowds, bringing together white and black audiences to watch him perform. Another influential musician during the Harlem Renaissance was Duke Ellington. He was able to gain a mass following from a mainly African American audience. Ellington was one of the most famous musicians to play in New York City, performing regularly at the famous Cotton Club. When comparing the two gifted musicians, you could say their styles of music are different. Louis Armstrong was known for his funky style of trumpet playing and Duke Ellington was known for his listening rather than dance style of playing.

Armstrong, Louis & Duke Ellington    8x10.jpg

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington gathered together spreading the great music of jazz

More Than a Song

The Harlem Renaissance was a period where Black art, literature, history, and music flourished. The meanings behind some of jazz lyrics helped propelled the popularity of the musical genre. Songs were not just words with music behind them. Audiences, in particular Black listeners, read in between the lines of songs palatable to white audiences. and actually understood the true meaning each musician was trying to get behind. For example, take the song “Take A Train” [2] by Duke Ellington. As the title suggests, the song speaks about the great migration to the city when the art and intellectual movement were booming. The song also refers to popular neighborhoods in Harlem. However, not everyone fell in love with jazz music. The popular musical genre was associated with the lower classes, people of color, and irresponsible bohemians. The elites saw it as a corrupting genre linked to sex and drug use. Regardless of the negative perception of jazz by moralists and many whites, the music brought a lot of joy, happiness, and fun times to Harlem. Black audiences were not only trampled on by discrimination. Through jazz many celebrated their resilience and enjoyed the success of Black musicians. 

the Cotton Club

A photo of the infamous Cotton Club

Transitional Period

In “Provintializing Harlem,” Lara Putnam provides three models for rethinking the impact of the neighborhood. Harlem was a metropolis in transition, a magnet for receiving transatlantic currents, and a site of racial internationalism. As she writes, “The communities’ migrants created at all these sites were connected to transatlantic intellectual and political currents not only by the travels of individuals but also by internationally circulating mass media” [3]. Harlem as a point of convergence and diffusion explains why jazz music reached Harlem and why it spread worldwide afterward. In addition, the international mass media helped spread the popularity of jazz music. Musicians were advertising their shows, playing their songs on the radio, and promoting who they were and what style of music they played in the press.

Putnam defines Harlem expansively as the “Capital of Black America” to include black Caribbean migrants.[4] The African Americans and Caribbean people found themselves living there to start new lives. Jazz music’s main audience was African Americans, but many black Caribbeans performed it and influenced it.

Jazz originated in New Orleans before making its transition up to the northern states. Comparing the movement and spread of jazz music to those who migrated from the Caribbean to Harlem would be very interesting when discussing how thing change after arriving at a new location. This change could be how a unique style in playing an instrument emerges after a Caribbean immigrant begins to play in a musical group. Jazz allowed migrants to come together. It allowed those who may have been struggling to feel a sense of relief or to develop new cultural roots with the city. Ultimately, jazz opened a space for people to have fun, meet new others, listen to music, and have the opportunity to be a part of something important. Jazz was not just about partying. It gave the multicultural people of Harlem a sense of pride in who they were and what they did. Harlem was the place where jazz thrived.

The movement of jazz north to Harlem is very similar to that of black Caribbeans migrating to the United States. Caribbeans brought their vibrant cultural and musical practices, shaping in more ways that can be discussed here the Harlem Renaissance. Lara Putnam invites us to consider a “new vantage point from which to view the transnational black world of which renaissance era Harlem was part.” The new lives that so many migrant people were beginning go hand in hand with the new style of music that developed. Jazz was global, and it expanded much further than the streets of Harlem.

Photo Citations

“Cotton Club.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed May 12, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cotton-Club.

“Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington by William ‘Popsie’ Randolph.” Accessed May 12, 2021. https://www.mrmusichead.com/shop-louis-armstrong/duke-louis-by-william-popsie-randolph-sysem-3s82j-kkfdx.

[1] McKay, “The Loud Music of Life” 307.

[2] Duke Ellington, “Take A Train”

[3] Lara Putnam, “Provincializing Harlem: the “Negro Metropolic” as Northern Frontier of a Connected Caribbean” 470.

[4] Lara Putnam, “Provincializing Harlem: the “Negro Metropolic” as Northern Frontier of a Connected Caribbean” 480.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *