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.
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.
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: