New York: America's Jazz Capitol
Primarily excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music, with contributions by Loren Schoenberg, Jazz Historian
|Echoes of Harlem
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
For over a century, New York City has been the proving ground for anyone who wants to distinguish themselves in their given field. There are exceptions, to be sure, but taken in its grid-lined totality, "making it" in New York remains an international goal. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the most American art of all, jazz, has found its home among homes there since the late 1920s. The physical layout of New York's famous skyline has been offered as a metaphor for both American culture in general and for jazz specifically by the eminent cultural critic John Kouwenhoven. He saw the functional design of the skyscrapers as visual representations of the same formal principles that underlie the spontaneous creation of a jazz performance. And the overarching freedom and variety of the city's layout could easily incorporate the occasional replications of European forms, and contextualize them in a new fashion.
Nowhere was this architectural gumbo more present than in Harlem, which also became the home for New York's African-American population as jazz matured. The polymath James Weldon Johnson wrote:If you ride northward the length of Manhattan Island, going through Central Park and coming out on Seventh Avenue or Lenox Avenue at One Hundred and Tenth Street, you cannot escape being struck by the sudden change in the character of the people you see. In the middle and lower parts of the city you have, perhaps, noted Negro faces here and there; but when you emerge from the Park, you see them everywhere ... and as you go up either of these two great arteries leading out from the north you see more and more Negroes, walking in the streets, looking from the windows, trading in the shops, eating in the restaurants, going in and coming out of the theaters, until, nearing One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street, ninety per cent of the people you see, including the traffic officers, are Negroes ... You have been having a ... glimpse of Harlem, the Negro Metropolis ... Jazz, as part of the popular music of the day, had a strong presence downtown. Indeed, that's where the heart of the business was theaters, Tin Pan Alley and nightclubs. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Fletcher Henderson (featuring Louis Armstrong), Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington all established themselves playing in and around the environs of George M. Cohan's "Old Broadway." It was a given, however, that the music's true home lie a few miles northward, where there was an equally vibrant musical scene there with its own unique flavor.
By 1920, New York was home to more blacks than any other northern city, including Chicago. Most of them lived uptown, in a particularly beautiful old neighborhood called Harlem.
It was the home of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Writers James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois all lived in Harlem, as did many other artists eagerly examining what it meant to be black and American, part of what would come to be called the Harlem Renaissance. "It is a mecca for the sightseer, the pleasure-seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious, and the talented of the entire Negro world, " wrote the poet James Weldon Johnson "[F]or the lure of it has reached down to every isle of the Carib Sea and penetrated even into Africa."
Jazz musicians were drawn to Harlem, too. There were plenty of theater and nightclub and dance hall jobs and Broadway and the record companies were only a subway ride away. "Harlem, in our minds, " jazz great Duke Ellington remembered, had "the world's most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there."
The musical heroes of Harlem were the masters of a dazzling virtuoso piano style stride. "It was 'orchestral piano, '" one of its stars remembered, "full, round, big, widespread chords...moving against the right hand." Its practitioners called themselves "ticklers, " but the nicknames they awarded one another "The Bear, " "The Beetle, " "The Beast, " "the Brute" were warlike, befitting the perennial piano wars called "cutting contests" they waged among themselves.
Such wars were regularly fought at Harlem rent parties all-night dances, held in crowded apartments, where the cost of admission helped hold off the landlord. As poet Langston Hughes recalled, "The Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any nightclub... the piano would often be augmented by a guitar, or an odd cornet, or somebody with a pair of drums walking in off the street... And the dancing and singing and impromptu entertaining went on until dawn came in at the windows."
Harlem was also known for its booming nightclub scene so well known, in fact, that it began to draw the attention of wealthy whites, eager to experience Harlem's supposedly "primitive" excitement. "Harlem's night life now surpasses that of Broadway itself, " wrote Variety. "From midnight until after dawn it is a seething cauldron of Nubian mirth and hilarity." Nightclub owners made an effort to lure white clientele, and arguably, no club in Harlem was more alluring than the Cotton Club.