Intersectionality: Gay Harlem

A playlist of some of the “songs of gay Harlem” mentioned by Steven Blier.

“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 might have been 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. Note that she is gotten up 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 Hall Johnson arranged, 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.

  • What historical, social, and cultural factors led to the Harlem Renaissance?
  • Describe the music of the Harlem Renaissance. What did it sound like? Did it draw strictly from African-American musical traditions, or from diverse traditions? Give an example to back up your answer.
  • Why do you think Harlem provided a refuge for gay African-Americans?

A Love Supreme

Coltrane’s bare-bones score for his masterpiece, the four-movement suite A Love Supreme, which was recorded in one session in December, 1964:

Coltrane has noted in the manuscript that the piece should be played “in all keys together.” As his biographer Lewis Porter says, at the end of the first movement (titled “Acknowledgment”):

Coltrane’s more or less finished his improvisation, and he just starts playing the “Love Supreme” motif, but he changes the key another time, another time, another time. This is something very unusual. It’s not the way he usually improvises. It’s not really improvised. It’s something that he’s doing. And if you actually follow it through, he ends up playing this little “Love Supreme” theme in all 12 possible keys . . . To me, he’s giving you a message here. First of all, he’s introduced the idea. He’s experimented with it. He’s improvised with it with great intensity. Now he’s saying it’s everywhere. It’s in all 12 keys. Anywhere you look, you’re going to find this “Love Supreme.”

Porter suggests here that Coltrane wasn’t truly improvising, but composing.

Is A Love Supreme a jazz example of word-painting, a compositional technique dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque eras?

An example of word-painting from the English Renaissance: Thomas Weelkes’s madrigal “As Vesta Was From Latmos Hill Descending.” Note the way the vocal line travels downward on the word “descending,” for instance, and upward on the word “ascending.”

The fourth movement, entitled “Psalm,” is Coltrane’s note-for-word musical translation of his poem “A Love Supreme,” which was included in the liner notes of the LP. Coltrane described it as a “musical recitation of prayer by horn.”

A Love Supreme
I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord.
It all has to do with it.
Thank You God.
Peace. There is none other.
God is. It is so beautiful.
Thank You God.
God is all.
Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses.
In you all things are possible.
Thank you God.
We know. God made us so.
Keep your eye on God.
God is. He always was. He always will be.
No matter what… it is God.
He is gracious and merciful.
It is most important that I know Thee.
Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts,
fears and emotions–time–all related…
all made from one… all made in one.
Blessed be His name.
Thought waves–heat waves–all vibrations–
all paths lead to God. Thank you God.
His way… it is so lovely… it is gracious.
It is merciful–Thank you God.
One thought can produce millions of vibrations
and they all go back to God… everything does.
Thank you God.
Have no fear… believe… Thank you God.
The universe has many wonders. God is all.
His way… it is so wonderful.
Thoughts–deeds–vibrations,
all go back to God and He cleanses all.
He is gracious and merciful… Thank you God.
Glory to God… God is so alive.
God is.
God loves.
May I be acceptable in Thy sight.
We are all one in His grace.
The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement
of Thee, O Lord.
Thank you God.
God will wash away all our tears…
He always has…
He always will.
Seek him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday.
Let us sing all songs to God.
To whom all praise is due… praise God.
No road is an easy one, but they all
go back to God.
With all we share God.
It is all with God.
It is all with Thee.
Obey the Lord.
Blessed is He.
We are all from one thing… the will of God…
Thank you God.
I have seen God–I have seen ungodly–
none can be greater–none can compare to God.
Thank you God.
He will remake us… He always has and He
always will.
It’s true–blessed be His name–Thank you God.
God breathes through us so completely…
so gently we hardly feel it… yet,
it is our everything.
Thank you God.
ELATION–ELEGANCE–EXALTATION–
All from God.
Thank you God. Amen.

In fact, as you can see in this video, which shows the handwritten poem, in “Psalm,” Coltrane plays each syllable as a note, making it a kind of recitative in the form of a prayer.

With A Love Supreme,

Coltrane was reaching a much broader audience than people realized. Coltrane, far and above other jazz artists perhaps with the exception of Miles, was alone in the way that he reached listeners beyond the normally accepted jazz audience or jazz cognoscenti. He was reaching also a very young audience — black and white. The way that he spoke to [listeners across race and class] in a way parallels the way white suburban youth were embracing Public Enemy a couple of decades later. Not just because of the music, and not just because of its soul, but because of the inherent sort of danger in it. Even though Coltrane and his many defenders talk about how his music was not angry, the perception of anger or the perception of frustration that black America had with its situation was something that definitely appealed to white listeners, especially white youthful listeners. . . .As such, Coltrane’s music was a bridge not only between musical styles but also across the racial divide.

Listen to the entire album here.

And watch a documentary about Coltrane’s obsessions and the obsessions of his fans here:

And read some of the comments on Youtube:

“This album got me sober, thank you Coltrane.”

“This album helped me survive a Dark Night of the Soul.”

“This reaches something that is beyond our existence.”

As critic Martin Gayford put it,

A Love Supreme marks the point at which jazz – for good or ill – ceased for a while to be hip and cool, becoming instead mystical and messianic.

In fact, there’s an entire religion based around the album, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, which hosts a monthly meditation on A Love Supreme.

As jazz writer Nat Hentoff put it:

Listening to Coltrane work through his own challenge may well stimulate self-confrontation in the rest of us. Each listener, of course, will himself be challenged in a different way. 

Listen to audio of one of Coltrane’s last interviews, in which he talks about hearing Malcolm X speak, about his thoughts on the connections between jazz and the civil rights struggle, and about how music is a sacred expression of the human experience: