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.

The Spread of Jazz

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Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. Armstrong’s wife, pianist Lil Hardin, is at far right, next to Armstrong.

The rise of recording and broadcasting technologies led to the spread of jazz from New Orleans to the urban centers of the North in the 1920s.

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Panel 1 of The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), showing Southern blacks boarding trains for the North.

What’s more, the Great Migration — the movement of millions of African-Americans from the rural South (where 90% of black Americans lived prior to 1915) to the urban centers of the North, which lasted roughly from 1916-1970 — further spread the jazz aesthetic. Chicago became a center of black American life following World War I, and an important ┬álocation for jazz recording.

In November 1925, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five made their first recordings for Okeh Records in Chicago. Armstrong’s ensemble was made up of New Orleans jazz musicians like himself; Armstrong had come to Chicago to play with Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

The 1925 recording session resulted in “My Heart” and “Yes! I’m in the Barrel.” You can hear the transformation of Armstrong’s style as a player from his work with King Oliver’s band, where essentially all the musicians “soloed” their improvised melodic lines at the same time. In the Okeh recordings, Armstrong emerges as a soloist who bases his ornate improvisation figures on the harmonic progression of the music.

332909718-Louis-Armstrong-Potato-Head-Blues-Transcription

Click on the link to view a transcription of Armstrong’s improvised solo on the 1927 recording of “Potato Head Blues.” You can hear his virtuosic improvisational style on the recording, set against the polyphonic sounds of his Hot Seven.