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Development of Music During The Harlem Renaissance

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The cultural shift that the United States experienced during the Harlem Renaissance affected the lives of everyday citizens. One factor that affected this cultural shift was the new, lively music you could hear coming from the East coast to the West coast. Jazz was the newly popular music genre during the 1920s. The 1920s was nicknamed the Jazz Age as a result of the immense popularity of the genre itself. Jazz was a different kind of music no one had ever heard before, and some people were not ready for it. The Harlem Renaissance completely transformed how people viewed music because of the new types of music, musicians, and the effects of songs themselves.

Today, genres like Rap and Pop take the world’s attention, but back in the 1920s, the attention-grabbing genre was jazz. Jazz was and still is a popular genre of music, but it did not become popular without its difficulties. At the beginning of the 1920s, blues music was just as popular as jazz, but it was quickly overthrown by jazz as the decade progressed. This fun, fast-paced music, was brought about by musicians of color that moved North from the South in search of work. Many traveled North to Chicago and then East to Harlem in Manhattan, New York. The mass migration North and West by people of color, which was called the Great Migration, led to the rich jazz music produced in the 1920s. Brought by people of color from New Orleans, Louisiana to the North, it was different from any other music people have had access to before. There is a lengthy list of different types of jazz. Some examples are Cool Jazz, Contemporary Jazz, Latin Jazz, Smooth Jazz, and more. The entire jazz genre is based on emotions. If there is no emotion in jazz, it is just another song. Jazz must be constantly changing, erratic, dynamic, and active or else it is not interesting enough for people to dance and sing along to. Jazz is a lively, enthusiastic, and controversial genre to say the least. Some people believed that it provoked unnecessary and obnoxious behavior from many young people. One professor from Columbia University said that jazz was “a joyless industrial civilization to arouse its fatigue-poisoned minds and its drudgery-jaded bodies”. The unnamed professor was trying to say that jazz was immoral and useless for society. It seemed immoral to some because the United States was not used to this type of music that caused people to dance and sing along the way they did. For example, the typical dance style that was associated with jazz was swing dancing. Swing dancing is exactly like it sounds; people swinging, flipping, and twirling to the music. It was very different from the slow dance types the American youth experienced before. Harlem was the place to be if you wanted to hear true jazz.

In Harlem, there were countless great Jazz artists to be found. There was one stand-out show in Harlem, Shuffle Along, that caused people to flock to Harlem just to see it. Both people of color and Caucasian people went to enjoy the show performed by a full African American cast. This was an example of one of jazz’s good influences. Another good influence of jazz was that people began having more fun than people were previously exposed to. Jazz was a distraction from the prohibition for some. Prohibition made a lot of people upset and unruly, but jazz was also a distraction for some. Being able to have fun without drinking by just listening to jazz and dancing was a breakthrough for many people who previously could not. On the other hand, jazz was likely performed in all speakeasies, which were illegal places to purchase and consume alcohol, across the city. These speakeasies were located across New York during the prohibition era and were very secretive, underground clubs. This meant that people were illegally consuming alcohol and using jazz music as a form of entertainment. This was not a good look for jazz overall because it was associated with these illegal activities. Another example of a bad influence of jazz, which was only bad for a select few people, was the newly provoked, negative attitudes. These new attitudes were mainly pointed out by the higher class Americans because it did not meet their standards, the standards being, proper and classy were nowhere near met by jazz musicians or listeners.

Jazz musicians in the 1920s were typically seen as lively, loud, and energetic. There were certain famous jazz musicians during this time that many people listened to. Billie Holiday was one of these great musicians. She was born in 1915 and as a child, grew up in Baltimore. When Holiday hit her teenage years, she got interested in jazz and she would even go to clubs. Years later, she was spotted by John Hammond who then gave her first record deal. Some of Holiday’s works were “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, and “Miss Brown to You”. 1936 was when Holiday started getting extremely popular. She started working with Lester Young, which is when she got her nickname, “Lady Day”. Although she died at the age of 44 in 1959, she was one of the first women of color in an all-white orchestra. She even co-wrote a few songs like ‘God Bless the Child,’ ‘Don’t Explain,’ ‘Fine and Mellow,’ and ‘Lady Sings the Blues’.

William Henry Webb, better known as Chick Webb, had a high interest in jazz at a very young age after being diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine. After his health issues were resolved, he got a job as a paperboy so he would have enough money to buy his own drum set. When Webb was eleven, he began playing the drums professionally and six years later he moved to New York. While in New York, he started a band. During the time of the Harlem Renaissance, he was known as one of the best bandleaders of the new style “Swing”. Later on, he would be given the title “King of Swing”.

Another popular musician, Louis Armstrong, was one of the most famous jazz musicians during the Harlem Renaissance. Born in 1901, he grew up in New Orleans in a poor family. Armstrong decided to play in bands at funerals and parades to make extra money to help his family. In 1922, Louis was asked to move to Chicago to play the second cornet in a creole jazz band. Two years later, Armstrong moved to New York City and played his music with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Louis Armstrong then became even more popular when he got the chance to make his first Broadway appearance. Along the way, he would continue to help grow the love for jazz in New York. Armstrong regularly performed at the cotton club where we met his wife, a Cotton Club dancer. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Armstrong took his time and did movie films and international tours. Armstrong made a household name for himself and people referred to him as the most appreciated jazz artist during the Harlem Renaissance. He would end up dying of a heart attack on July 6, 1971, at 70 years old.

One last musician, Edward Kennedy Ellington, was born in a musical family in which both of his parents played the piano. People described his appearance as “duked up” which would give him the nickname ‘Duke’. At six years of age, Duke would get music lessons from local bar performers. Ellington would then start his first band in 1917 called “Duke’s Serenaders.” This band would go on to play in dance halls all around the Washington area. Ellington and the band became so popular that he decided to move it to New York and then eventually renamed it “The Washingtonians”. When Ellington got to New York, jazz had already become the dominant music style. Ellington would then go on to compose the “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”, “Mood Indigo”, “Rockin in Rhythm”, “Black, Brown and Beige”, “Solitude”, “The Mooche”, and “Take the A-Train”. By the end of his career in 1974, Ellington had become one of the greatest composers during the Harlem Renaissance period.

Music was an important aspect of the change in American culture in the United States. Music had always been a way to identify and understand a culture, and Jazz was no different. Jazz was more of a freestyle type of music that you could see in the way people dressed. The Jazz age changed everything from clothing to how people acted, viewed people of color, and saw the world. Some people’s views did not change, but that was only a minor setback in the grand scheme of things. Jazz was a more free and improvised style of music than the kind that came before it. It was designed for the listener to dance until their heart was content. This required a more free and loose style of clothing, not the bulky, heavy clothes of the earlier century. This style of clothing did not just come out of nowhere however, it developed in stages with the Jazz Age. The first noticeable change started in 1921 with the drop waist dress and pearl necklaces. Then it changed again in 1925 to something similar to shifts. These were undergarments from centuries beforehand. Women that dressed in this way were called Flappers. Flappers were the new inspiration for women’s clothing in the 1920s. When Jazz grew in popularity, the clothes became more revealing and free so that they could dance easier. The clothing of the 1920s was something that had never been seen or thought of before. While the men’s clothing had not changed drastically, women’s clothing transformed into something that was relatively new. They were more revealing than the previous clothes worn. Instead of being covered from top to bottom, their legs and arms would be exposed. While this may not seem like much to present civilization, in the 1920s, this was unheard of. Another effect of Jazz was on how Caucasian citizens viewed people of color. The Jazz age is an example of one of the few times in history where the majority of the culture adopted the minority’s culture. Jazz was primarily an African American style of music that was played in New Orleans and then spread to other parts of the United States after many people of color migrated North and South. People of color, though, still did not get the respect they deserved. As Jazz grew in popularity, white artists tried to convince listeners and their supporters that Jazz did not originate from African Americans, but from the Original Dixieland Band.

As Jazz grew so did the opposition to people of color. During the 1920s, hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan rose in power. Though the KKK went primarily after the African American population, they also had hatred toward Jewish people, Catholics, and recent immigrants. Throughout this decade, the number of members grew exponentially to over 4 million. One last effect was that of which jazz had on the future or our present. While Jazz may not be as popular as it once was, we still see many aspects of it in genres like folk, rap, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll today. These types of music are heard everywhere, from concerts to the radios in our cars. Songs now bring out the inner and outer emotions of their listeners, while other styles of music allow you to throw your arms in the air and dance to the beat. These traits are all shared with Jazz which started this trend. This shows how much impact it had on music today. If musicians did not stem from the roots of their traditional music, the music today would be totally different. It would most likely be slower and not as upbeat as some music is today. This shows that today’s music in America was fully transformed by jazz.

Music was the driving force of the Harlem Renaissance. It was the foundation of the culture. Jazz was the genre of the decade because of the exciting improvisations and beats. It was also a way for people to let go of their pasts. Artists like Billie Holiday, Chick Webb, and Louis Armstrong mastered this music and gained their fame from it after some of them came from nothing. They were able to influence the younger generation and the entire music industry from something as simple as their clothes to their views on race, as well as future music. Jazz was arguably the most important factor that influenced the Harlem Renaissance and the world would not be the same today without it.

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Development Of Music During The Harlem Renaissance. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from
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