#37 – The Harlem Renaissance (Part 1)

Every year my family has a tradition of taking us to the ballet. We’ve been doing it for about 5 years now and it’s great. Let’s face it, the scores to the Nutcraker or Swan Lake are classics in their own right, and for good reason. When you’ve got a group of incredibly talented dancers putting their all into turning the music into something more tangible, it’s difficult not to get swept up in the emotion of it all.

This year we didn’t spend Christmas in London, which meant going to the Royal Ballet was impossible. Instead we booked tickets to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at the New York City Centre. I can honestly say I didn’t have a clue what to expect. My experience of the ballet is generally an older audience of well-off white people. Imagine my surprise when we turned up at the theatre on Christmas Eve to see that we were some of the few white people there. We filed in and took our seats (so close to the front we were practically underneath the stage) and were introduced to the first act, which was a brief history of the Harlem Renaissance. The music blew me out of the water and the dancing was superb. The whole story was narrated by one of the dancers and, being the history buff that I am, I took it all in. A combination of the music and the story piqued my interest, so here you go; a brief history of the Harlem Renaissance, as told by a 22 year old white guy from London…

At the start of the 1920’s there was a massive black migration in the USA. They moved north to the industrialised cities, where there were jobs and the attitude towards black people was considerably less negative than in the old south. In New York these immigrants moved into the suburb of Harlem, which was fast becoming a predominantly black area; the three square miles of Harlem was home to over 175,000 African Americans. This population wanted news that was relevant to them and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was the man who brought it to them. He founded ‘The Crisis’, as well as later helping to found the NAACP. Along with other magazines, this provided a platform for local writers to showcase their work, which led to a literary boom.

As well as writing and poetry, music came to the foreground. Clubs like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre put on shows by local black jazz artists who are considered the forefathers of modern jazz. Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are just some of the artists to have walked the boards there.

Duke Ellington – Harlem Speaks [Buy]

Duke Ellington – Stompin’ At The Savoy [Buy]

Louis Armstrong – Down By The Riverside [Buy]

These artists set the stage for the next 40 years of Jazz music, culminating with some of the great names of the genre, like Charlie Parker, Miles Davies, Oliver Nelson and John Coltrane. It was also one of the prime-movers in establishing Soul music in the way we know it today.

Check back tomorrow to listen to some of the songs that exist due to the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.

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