The Happy Heaven of Harlem

The Migration Series, Panel 1 (Jacob Lawrence, 1941):
“During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans”
“Why Stay in Dixie?” Political cartoon by Black artist Romare Bearden
in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, June 20, 1936

The Harlem Renaissance was the artistic flowering of the Great Migration. As Duke Ellington wrote in “Drop Me Off in Harlem”:

I don’t want your Dixie,
You can keep your Dixie,
There’s no one down in Dixie

Who can take me ‘way from my hot Harlem.
Harlem has those Southern skies,
They’re in my baby’s smile,

I idolize my baby’s eyes
And classy uptown style.

Here are some of the songs that Steven Blier, in the article “Harlem, Billy Strayhorn . . . and me,” identifies as anthems of Harlem’s legendary tolerance for LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people.

“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”

“Lush Life,” perhaps Billy Strayhorn’s most famous song, with its clever and beautiful lyrics that are so expressive of what the Harlem nightclub scene was like; here it is inimitably performed by Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet.

“Lotus Blossom,” performed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show (in other words, a meta-narrative, or a work of art that is self-consciously about art itself). Note that she is costumed in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”

Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not, apparently, “the kind of love that satisfies.”

“Dinah,” which Blier calls “a love song to a woman”:

“Witness,” one of the many spirituals arranged by gay Harlem composer Hall Johnson, sung by Marti Newland:

Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”

The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:

“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger:

“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.

Swinging at the Savoy

Big band jazz was also known as swing. Swing dance developed in the segregated dance halls and ballrooms of New York City, such as the famous Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue and 140th Street. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who you see in the film below, were the professional dance team at the Savoy. Note that the dancers are dressed in the uniforms of black workers of the 1930s: the men are cooks, maintenance workers, delivery men, while the women are dressed as domestic servants.

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in a short film with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra:

The Savoy Ballroom was a popular, self-referential theme in several songs of the era:

More about the Savoy:

Mood Indigo

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In addition to blues tonality, improvisation, virtuosity, freedom in melodic phrasing, propulsive rhythm, and harmonic complexity, one of the defining characteristic of jazz is the way the standard jazz ensembles — the particular mix of instruments — sound together. This sound is called¬†timbre. The distinctive timbre of early jazz comes from the use of brass instruments like the trumpet, cornet, and trombone. The rhythm was laid down either by an upright bass or by a tuba. The Dixieland ensembles also included clarinet, drums, piano, and banjo or mandolin.

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In the 1920s and 1930s, musically-literate jazz musicians began to put bands together and write out arrangements for them — a separate piece of sheet music, or “part,” for every instrumental section. ¬†These arrangements were made to mimic the sound of Dixieland improvisation, but were in fact written out. Jelly Roll Morton was a pioneer in notated jazz; in his 1926 “Dead Man’s Blues,” he sought to imitate the sound of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral.

In this way, composers and bandleaders like Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington created the “big band” sound. Ellington, a classically-trained pianist and composer, was especially interested in the different timbres/sounds he could get from various instrumental sections. In 1927, he and his band were hired as house band at the Cotton Club — a segregated speakeasy run by the Mafia, which barred Black patrons, but which was nevertheless the most prestigious venue for Black musicians.

Ellington’s piece “Mood Indigo” — which he claimed to have written in 15 minutes while waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner — features Ellington on piano, followed by a muted trumpet-trombone-saxophone trio and then a clarinet solo, all of which lend different sounds to the piece. Ellington flips the standard practice of instrumental arranging by having the trombone — an instrument with a very low timbre — play high in its register, and the clarinet, an instrument that can play soaring high notes, play in the lowest part of its register.

Notice also that, while the orchestra is playing written-out parts, the clarinetist (Barney Bigard) takes a semi-improvised solo against the muted but lush and complex sonic background. This would become a hallmark of the big band sound.

What do you think the overall atmosphere of the piece is? What did Ellington mean by “Mood Indigo,” and how does he use instruments to convey that?

Lyricist Irving Mills later added lyrics, and the song became a jazz standard.

Bass player Charles Mingus’s arrangement. How is it different from Ellington’s?

Ella Fitzgerald sings it as a contemplative ballad:

Nina Simone plays and sings it as a gospel-inspired up-tempo: