Written by Mason Vander Lugt, Syracuse University catalog librarian and proprietor of  the historical music blog Dinosaur Discs.

Admitting that the craze for the “Harlem Shake” will probably have died down by the time this makes it to print press you, I felt obliged to give a little background info on the burrough that has become so popular in recent weeks.

Harlem was established as a Dutch outpost more than a hundred years before the revolutionary war, and stayed pretty white until the turn of the 20th century. Around 1905, black real estate entrepreneurs like Philip Payton Jr. began buying newly-devalued properties and renting apartments to blacks. Some tried to thwart this trend by evicting black residents, but Harlem’s increasing reputation as a middle and upper-class black neighborhood, in conjunction with a broader trend of blacks moving into northern urban centers to find opportunity outside of the racist south, eventually afforded it a critical mass that allowed for the formation of the nation’s first center for black culture. By 1915 there were 50,000 blacks from all social classes living in Harlem. A renaissance was afoot.

Though the poets and writers, such as W.E.B. duBois, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, may be better remembered today, the renaissanciers also embraced the new national craze for jazz music. The “Great War” was over, and people were eager to return to life-as-usual, maybe even have some fun. Dance halls such as the Cotton Club, the Savoy, the Roseland Ballroom, and the Apollo Theatre gained such a reputation for an evening out, that white audiences began to travel from Manhattan to join in. Though prohibition was still going strong in the early 20s, many clubs skirted this by hosting ‘private parties’ for fictitious organizations, and charging a club “enrollment fee” at the door.

Show Music

Black musical theatre had come a long way since the 1890s, when blacks were still primarily used to fill the bumbling ‘coon’ role of the minstrel show. Composers Will Marion Cook, Bob Cole, and the Johnson brothers, and performers Bert Williams (and his collaborator George Walker) and Sissieretta Jones defined an era when black artistic ambitions and accomplishments would show without a doubt that these stereotypes were as wrong as they were hurtful.

Cook’s dramatic 1898 opening of “Clorindy: Origin of the Cakewalk” seemed to be a declaration of his intent to redefine musical theater. Ragtime composer Scott Joplin completed an ambitious all-black opera called Treemonisha in 1910. It never took off in his lifetime, but has been put on several time since it’s 1972 debut by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Morehouse College.

This period may be best remembered in Sissle and Blake’s 1921 “Shuffle Along”. The first production of “Shuffle Along” ran 504 shows, simultaneously jump-starting the careers of one of America’s most beloved songwriting teams and influential vocalists Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall and Paul Robeson.


Stride Piano

The traditional New Orleans brass jazz band was seen as outdated, and pianos found new prominence as a symbol of wealth and pride. The new stride style of James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Thomas “Fats” Waller would be the main attraction at all-night “rent parties” where guests would contribute a small fee (toward the host’s rent payment) in exchange for a night of dancing and socializing.

The stride style developed out of ragtime as a result of ‘cutting contests’, in which pianists would alternate turns showing off their virtuosity and innovation, challenging the others. Johnson and Smith were considered the greatest competitors on the scene until a young Art Tatum would unexpectedly upstage them in a 1933 show at Morgan’s Bar.

Dance Orchestras

Confusingly, one of the highest markers of success for black musicians in the 20s was acceptance among the mainstream (white) audiences. Two of the most beloved musicians of the jazz age made their marks playing in whites-only clubs.

Fletcher Henderson became a professional musician almost by accident after moving to New York in 1920 to pursue further education in chemistry. He found employment in W.C. Handy and Harry Pace’s Pace-Handy music publishing company. When Pace divested in early 1921 to form the Black Swan record company, Henderson followed him, becoming musical director and accompanist.

In this role, he made connections with the top blues musicians, and developed a reputation as a charming, amicable character. He wasn’t a virtuoso pianist, or an ambitious composer, but people liked working with him, so he was in demand as an accompanist and house musician.

In 1923,  Joe “King” Oliver’s recordings in the hot Chicago style began to sell well in Harlem. Henderson’s band’s regular gig with Club Alabam downtown was stifling the band, and in September 1924 he accepted a job at the prestigious Roseland Ballroom. Henderson’s best cornetist, Joe Smith, left the band to play with the Chocolate Dandies revue, and Henderson offered the position to Oliver’s second cornetist, Louis Armstrong, whom he had heard in New Orleans while touring for Black Swan.

Henderson’s orchestra, featuring Armstrong on cornet, Don Redman and Coleman Hawkins on saxophone, and Buster Bailey on clarinet, opened to little ado across Sam Lanin’s orchestra, with Red Nichols on cornet and Miff Mole on trombone. Within months, they were the hottest performing and recording outfit in the city.

Around this time, a recent transplant from Washington D.C. named Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington began booking shows for his “Washingtonians”. Duke, with his high-born disposition and solid musical training, quickly made friends with important musicians around the city. Ellington’s engagement with the (white) Harlem Cotton Club positioned him in direct competition with Henderson.This was only the beginning of a prolific and illustrious career. Ellington’s legacy as a jazz composer and bandleader is unrivaled.

The artists of the Harlem Renaissance inspired a pride and confidence in black Americans that contributed to the civil rights movement decades later. It’s a story that should never be truncated to the size of a blog post, but I couldn’t resist. If you’re interested, I recommend finding “Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance“, edited by Samuel A. Floyd, jr. or “Jazz: A History of the New York Scene“, by Samuel B. Charters and Leonard Kunstadt.