The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Revival – what does it mean to me?  I would probably have to begin with my mother’s dear friend from Tarrytown, New York.  Although she lived two doors from us in Queens, she began her childhood in this sleepy Westchester County town.  As a young woman, she moved herself off to Harlem, I guess to assimilate with all the happenings.  Her family like many black families during the time, migrated to the north, leaving the roots of their slave parents in the south, which is how that whole renaissance era came about.  Did you know that?  I am reminded of names such as Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Marcus Garvey, and Langston Hughes.  Places such as the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, and the Savoy Ballroom come to mind.  Going a step further, I think of Moms Mabley, and Pigmeat Markham who entertained thousands of people with their comedy acts.  Lastly, Thelonious Monk, Marian Anderson, Count Basie and Fats Waller come to my remembrance as musicians, and especially Waller with his “Ain’t Misbehavin” tune.

Our neighbor, who became like a big sister to my mother would come, sit and visit for hours, recalling her evenings at the Savoy.  She and my mother talked of a refinement – one that the African-American could have never known while still shackled in the south.  Dressed in her finest regalia of the time, she’d stand on line with the others waiting to Lindy Hop across the Savoy dance floor to tunes like “Stompin’ at the Savoy” or numbers sang by Ella Fitzgerald.  My mother would then, chime in with her stories of catching Moms Mabley or Pigmeat Markham on stage doing their latest stand-up routine, and how they’d laugh and laugh for days.  Or the moving performances of the 1959 film version of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” – how it had been worth every penny, and every minute of time they spent on line, which by the way, she described as being wrapped around the corner.  This opera about African-American life sparked George Gershwin’s interest because of Harlem’s revival, and in case you didn’t know, the 1935 on stage performance consisted of an all black production.

These were defining times for the African-American people, and although Harlem had been developed exclusively as white suburbia in the 19th century – showcasing stately homes and grand avenues – the whites eventually moved farther north.  The first Great Migration (1910 – 1930) brought hundreds of thousands to the area from the south.  It did appear the children of slaves had much to offer, and carried a host of abilities in their hearts: music, poetry, short stories and novels.  Then, lo and behold – all of this talent became known to French-speaking black writers living in Paris.  All because of the “rebirth,” if you will.

I could not offer this article without including literature, and the African-American authors who contributed to the era.  A monthly journal belonging to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and another of the National Urban League employed Renaissance writers, who offered poetry and short stories.  These periodicals promoted their literature through articles, reviews and literary prizes.  During this period, and since mainstream publishing houses were run and owned by whites, a major accomplishment of the revival involved opening these doors, even through  controversy.  Therefore, those of us following behind owe much to the earlier writers like Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston.  Now, I’d like to mention three names that are not African-American, and were not a part of that renewal.  But, every time I hear these specific songs, it always takes me right to New York, and Harlem, because you can hear the definite influence of the Renaissance in the rhythm – they are:

Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd – Desafinado – 1962

Antonio Carlos Jobim – Wave – 1967

Gato Barbieri – Last Tango in Paris – 1972


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