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

Many artists moved to Harlem, where they were free to cultivate the inner life.

Fire!!, the short-lived Harlem Renaissance literary journal

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.

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:

After his death, John’s widow Alice Coltrane — a remarkable jazz pianist in her own right — became a religious leader in her own right. A convert to mystical Hinduism, Alice founded the Vedanta Center in Southern California. Her music became mystical as well. Listen to her 1970 piece “Something About John Coltrane,” a tribute to her late husband. Do you think it has something of the mesmeric quality of the music of Black Christianity, in which Alice was raised?

Freedom Now?

sit in

The “Greensboro Four” sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, 1960. Read about the protests here.

Max_Roach-We_Insist!_Max_Roach's_Freedom_Now_Suite_(album_cover)

The cover of drummer Max Roach’s 1961 album We Insist! was an explicit reference to the Greensboro protests. We Insist! drew analogies between social and political freedom, and the aesthetic freedom of Roach’s music.

The Max Roach Quintet performing “Driva Man,” one of the numbers on We Insist!, about the abuses of slavery. Note Abbey Lincoln’s Afrocentric dress and natural hair style, signs of resistance in the early 1960s. She starts out by quoting Cole Porter’s song “Love for Sale,” from the 1930 Broadway show “The New Yorkers.”

“All Africa.”

“Freedom Now.”

Just two years earlier, in 1958, Roach had played on tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’s album Freedom Suite. The music on Freedom Suite does not explicitly reflect the struggle for civil rights; its “freedom” is total liberation from musical conventions of harmony, melody, and time. Nevertheless, as Rollins noted in the liner notes for the album:

America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp’s 1965 album Fire Music included numbers that linked jazz overtly to political consciousness, such as the spoken-word-plus-free-jazz tribute to Malcom X, “Malcom, Malcom, semper [i.e. always] Malcolm.”

John Coltrane, who rarely commented on the current political scene, wrote his great song “Alabama” in the fall of 1963, after the murder of four Black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Some black radicals, however, completely rejected the idea that music could be revolutionary. In his poem “Hipping the Hip,” Ramón Durem wrote:

Blues — is a tear
bop — a fear
Of reality.
There’s no place to hide
in a horn

Durem also makes a musical reference to the Mau Mau uprising — the armed revolt in the 1950s that drove the British out of Kenya and led to that nation’s independence, suggesting that Kenyan tribal music is more revolutionary than jazz:

Mau Mau only got a five-tone scale
but when it comes to Freedom, Jim —
they wail!

dig?

Some of the Mau Mau songs Durem refers to, sung at a monument for Kenyan rebel leader Dedan Kimathi:

Other scholars of jazz history deny any link between free jazz and civil rights. As Mark Gridley contends:

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s did not originate free jazz, but it may seem that way to a few observers because some free jazz did appeal to some musicians who were motivated in part by the civil rights movement. These musicians also adopted approaches and sound qualities associated with some free jazz. Consequently a few styles within free jazz were perceived by some journalists (LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky, for instance) and some musicians (Archie Shepp, for instance) as sounding sufficiently angry to provide a new mode of expressing anger over social injustice. So even though civil unrest did not spawn free jazz, these individuals apparently felt that some of the music provided a good soundtrack for it.

It may be helpful also to keep in mind that some avant-garde musicians, including Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp, were not only outspoken and active in the civil rights movement but also were angry by their temperaments. Their remarks and their sounds appealed to angry journalists LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Frank Kofsky who adopted the musicians’ stance for their own political causes. At the same time, however, we need to remain aware that Mingus and Shepp were not necessarily improvising free of preset chord changes or meter in their protest pieces. Despite following spontaneously shifting tone centers during improvisations in one performance, his 1960 recording of “What Love,” which is not a protest piece, the music of Mingus in general cannot be accurately categorized with free jazz, though often it is accurately classified with avant-garde jazz of the era [emphasis in original.]

What do you think?

More free jazz pioneers.

The great pianist Cecil Taylor.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders.

Birmingham Sunday

bombingham

On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the KKK bombed of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four young girls on their way to Bible study were killed.

The (white) folksinger Richard Fariña wrote a song to commemorate the tragedy, “Birmingham Sunday”:

The tune of Fariña’s song is taken from the Scottish folksong “I Loved A Lass.”

Fariña attended Cornell University, and wrote a comic novel about his time there called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, whose title he took from a song by Furry Lewis:

(Incidentally, Furry Lewis’s song, “Turn Your Money Green,” was covered by other white folksingers.)

Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday” was made famous by his sister-in-law, Joan Baez:

Rhiannon Giddens covered it on her album Freedom Highway:

Giddens’s arrangement of the song begins with a quotation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major:

Why do you think Giddens references Mozart in her version of “Birmingham Sunday”?

Why do you think that, until Giddens, only white artists recorded the song?

Two months after the bombing, John Coltrane recorded his response to it, “Alabama.”

Nina Simone’s response to the bombing and other Southern atrocities:

Poet Dudley Randall wrote “Ballad of Birmingham” about the bombing. His poem mirrors the form of British folk ballads: a dialogue between two characters, in this case, the mother and child, followed by a narrative of the ironic events befalling the unsuspecting protagonists (the irony, in this case, because the mother believes her daughter will be safe in church).

Ballad of Birmingham

(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead

And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”

Listen to Dudley Randall read the poem, at 7:05:

http://www.loc.gov/item/91740723

We tend to think of the Civil Rights Movement taking place in the form of marches and protests, and being litigated in the courts. When we think of the segregation that the Movement worked to dismantle, however, we need to remember that it existed in all public and private spaces that Black people lived, worked, studied, and worshipped in.