There was a time when Harlem was the center of the universe for many African Americans. Thousands of black families found a place to call home in this new suburb of Manhattan, north of Central Park, in the 1920s. Black churches and political organizations sprang up next door to black theaters, dance halls and dives. This “coming together” of poets and musicians, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, gave rise to the Harlem Renaissance, a time when all things seemed possible. All along Harlem’s bustling Lenox Avenue, optimism was in the air, and cash jingled in the pockets of stylish new suits. It was the world of the “New Negro” whose ideas and art are at the heart of the Jazz Age.
To celebrate Black History Month, Riverwalk Jazz captures the high spirit of the Harlem Renaissance with a program combining the music of Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson with the poetry of Langston Hughes, the “Poet Laureate of the Harlem Renaissance.” It is an Encore Presentation featuring theater legend William Warfield and Broadway’s Vernel Bagneris performing Hughes’ poetry; and piano virtuoso Dick Hyman joining The Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
The 1921 hit musical Shuffle Along, brought black rhythms to Broadway, and with its all-black cast and score by Eubie Blake, Shuffle Along was the “wake-up call” that launched The Harlem Renaissance. Other black musicals followed in its wake, but nothing could touch the success of Shuffle Along until a show called Runnin’ Wild, in 1928, with its hit song, “The Charleston,” composed by James P. Johnson and performed here by Vernel Bagneris on vocals with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
A high point of Harlem music was the long tenure of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at the infamous Cotton Club, where mobsters called the shots while white celebrities in diamonds and minks enjoyed the glittering floor shows, starring the greatest black entertainers. In spite of this bizarre scene, Ellington created some of the most enduring jazz songs in history—”Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Mood Indigo” and “Creole Love Call.”
Harlem composers, interested in “elevating” their art, sought to present their music in the concert halls of New York. W.C. Handy and James P. Johnson were among those who succeeded. In 1928 W.C. Handy put on the cultural event of the year, as Carnegie Hall hosted its first evening of black music—a concert of jazz, blues, work songs, and spirituals—with a full choir and orchestra on stage. The highlight of the evening was Yamecraw: A Negro Rhapsody, a “serious” concert piece composed by James P. Johnson. It was given its premier performance that night by Jonson’s protégée—a young Fats Waller on piano. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band presents their dazzling arrangement of Yamecraw with the twin pianos of John Sheridan and Dick Hyman.
Out of Harlem’s rich cultural stew, a remarkable young poet, raised in the midwest, would find his voice. Langston Hughes heard of the success of Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along and knew he had to come to Harlem to find out for himself. He was nineteen years old in 1921 when he published his first poem, A Negro Speaks of Rivers, presented here by William Warfield along with other serious works including, Stars and I, Too, Sing America. Harlem nightlife teased out a playful side to Hughes’ poetry, equal to his serious work. Here, Vernel Bagneris performs Hughes’ Harlem Sweeties, Lenox Avenue Midnight, and The Cat and the Saxophone (2am).
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Cotton Club Ext 1920s. Photo courtesy NFO.net
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2008