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

Langston Hughes, the most famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, reading his poem “I, Too”:

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.

The music of the Harlem Renaissance drew from the commercialized blues of performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Josie Miles; from ragtime, jazz, and the Black musical-theatrical tradition — music like that for the first full-length Broadway musical by a Black composer (and with an all-Black cast) was In Dahomey, by Will Marion Cook, Antonin Dvorak’s former student at the National Conservatory.

Another hugely successful Black musical was the 1921 Shuffle Along, composed by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show was revived on Broadway in 2016.

The show’s composers, Sissle and Blake, singing together (minstrel songs!)

The muse of the Harlem Renaissance, 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.”

Another famous Harlem Renaissance singer and actress, Florence Mills:

Paul Robeson in a film clip from Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones, the role that launched his international stage career.

The Renaissance also included concert music by composers like Nora Holt, the music critic of the Black newspaper the Amsterdam News.

As Steven Blier notes in his article “Harlem, Billy Strayhorn . . . and me,” Harlem was also legendary for its tolerance of LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people. Blier suggests that the following songs are signifying — i.e., that they contain coded messages of LGBTQ+ acceptance.

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

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

Rhiannon Giddens explains how Ethel Waters changed the lyrics.

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, with lyrics by Fats Waller. As Anthony Tommasini notes:

The song ended up best known as a jazz instrumental, but the seldom-heard lyrics hinted at the people you’d encounter in Harlem: “Oh, they’ve got women just like men, ’cause they act-a just like brothers.” The theme of gender fluidity was made even more explicit in a playful verse that Grainger sang on a 1924 recording he made with Waller:

In Harlem’s Araby
You can’t tell “B” from “G.”
There’s nothing in the Orient
Like Harlem’s Araby.

“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 was the first integrated ballroom.

The great singer Ella Fitzgerald, who got her start with Chick Webb’s swing orchestra at the Savoy, sings “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (a song with a meta-narrative!).

Duke Ellington and his orchestra at the Cotton Club, with Florence Hill and Bessie Dudley in the floor show.

The Cotton Club, on the other hand, was segregated; no Black patrons were allowed entry. Its decor featured motifs of the Old South (hence its name, “Cotton Club” — a self-conscious reference to white supremacy). Nevertheless, performing at the prestigious club was a much-coveted accolade for musicians like Ellington.

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: