Night Lights Classic Jazz

Portraits Of Harlem

The capital of African-American culture in the United States for decades, Harlem has inspired all sorts of musical tributes.

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  • Harlem

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    Photo: bobster1985

    A parade in Harlem in 1924, seen at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue.

  • Ellington Uptown

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    Photo: Book cover

    John Howland, author of ELLINGTON UPTOWN: DUKE ELLINGTON, JAMES P. JOHNSON AND THE BIRTH OF CONCERT JAZZ, describes how Ellington and Johnson structured their compositions to reflect a Harlem odyssey.

  • Harlem Hot Jazz

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    Photo: Hugh Bell

    A jazz ensemble in Harlem, the 1930s.

  • Robert Thompson and Benjamin Davis surrounded by pickets as they leave the Federal Courthouse in New York City, 1949

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    Photo: Library of Congress

    Benjamin J. "Ben" Davis, an African-American communist, was elected to the city council of New York City, representing Harlem, in 1943. He faced increasing opposition from outside Harlem after the end of World War II, and in 1951, he was convicted of violating the Smith Act, and sentenced to five years in prison.

  • Billie Holiday, early 1950s

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    Photo: Ralph F. Seghers

    Ray Bauduc on drums, Billie Holiday singing, Claude Hopkins on piano, and Walter Page on double-bass. The original caption of this photo: "Real Blues in Harlem, Lady Day"

  • Strike

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    Photo: New York Times

    A rent strike in Harlem, New York City, September 1919.

  • Edgewater Ferry, 125 St. Manhattan

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    Photo: Columbia University

    An aerial photograph of New York taken in 1926.

For decades, Harlem was the capital of African-American culture in the United States. Many early songs about Harlem were sensationalist and full of stereotypes. Reefer madness, dangerous men, and even more dangerous women populated the tunes performed by artists both black and white. Their version of Harlem was charged with an air of the exotic.

The neighborhood was seen as a place of ongoing jubilation, even as the Great Depression ravaged its African-American population. It inspired all sorts of musical tributes, from hipster-jive swing songs to extended concert works by James P. Johnson, Benny Carter and Duke Ellington.

A New Black Repertoire

Stride pianist James P. Johnson was one of the great jazz musicians to come out of early 20th century Harlem scene. Johnson was a mentor to the young Fats Waller, and the composer of numerous scores for hit musical shows like Runnin’ Wild, which featured his song “The Charleston.” From the late 1920s, though, Johnson was primarily interested in writing longer pieces that would fulfill composer Will Mario Cook‘s vision for a new black concert repertoire built from the music of Jazz Age Harlem. One significant extended work, “Harlem Symphony,” was an attempt to paint a musical portrait of Harlem.

Duke Ellington’s A Tone Parallel to Harlem, or The Harlem Suite” is considered to be one of his most successful extended compositions. Artists like Ellington and James P. Johnson appropriated the stereotyped images that were rampant in Harlem entertainment and songs about Harlem, and turned them into something new.

In Portraits of Harlem, I talk with jazz scholar John Howland, author of the recent book Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz. Howland discusses the ways in which Ellington and Johnson sought to portray Harlem through long-form musical compositions. The show features many of those tributes, including

  • Rare broadcast excerpts of Johnson’s Harlem Symphony
  • The complete 1963 recording of Ellington’s A Tone Parallel to Harlem with the Paris Symphony Orchestra
  • The “Sunday Morning” movement of Carter’s Harlem Renaissance suite
  • Cab Calloway‘s insinuating “The Man From Harlem”
  • Trumpeter Roy Eldridge‘s elegaic “I Remember Harlem”

Outtakes From The Interview

For More About Harlem:

James P. Johnson archival audio recordings generously provided by the James P. Johnson Foundation of Riverside, CA, and Barry Glover.

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Music Heard On This Episode

Drop Me Off in Harlem
Louis Armstrong/Duke Ellington — The Great Summit: the Complete Sessions (Blue Note, 2000)
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Drop Me Off in Harlem
Louis Armstrong/Duke Ellington — The Great Summit: the Complete Sessions (Blue Note, 2000)
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Holiday in Harlem
Ella Fitzgerald/Chick Webb — Queen of the Savoy (Fantastic Voyage, 2009)
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The Man From Harlem
Cab Calloway — The Early Years: 1930-34 (JSP, 2001)
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Subway Journey (excerpt)
James P. Johnson

Notes: From a 1939 broadcast of Johnson's "Harlem Symphony." Archival audio recordings provided by the James P. Johnson Foundation and Barry Glover.

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April in Harlem (excerpt)
James P. Johnson

Notes: From a 1939 broadcast of Johnson's "Harlem Symphony." Archival audio recordings provided by the James P. Johnson Foundation and Barry Glover.

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The Nightclub (excerpt)
James P. Johnson

Notes: From a 1939 broadcast of Johnson's "Harlem Symphony." Archival audio recordings provided by the James P. Johnson Foundation and Barry Glover.

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Baptist Mission (excerpt)
James P. Johnson

Notes: From a 1945 broadcast of Johnson's "Harlem Symphony." Archival audio recordings provided by the James P. Johnson Foundation and Barry Glover.

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Harlem Nocturne
Johnny Otis — Complete Savoy Recordings (Savoy, 1999)
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I Remember Harlem
Roy Eldridge — Little Jazz: Best of the Verve Years (Polygram, 1994)
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Sugar Hill Slow Drag
Benny Carter — Harlem Renaissance (Music Masters, 1992)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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Harlem
Duke Ellington — The Symphonic Ellington (Collectables, 2005)
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Blues City (excerpt)
Clifford Thornton — Gardens of Harlem
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Sunday Morning
Benny Carter — Harlem Renaissance (Music Masters, 1992)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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