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The Harlem Renaissance and American Music

By Published: March 3, 2013
Though Ellington presented African-Americans as culturally distinct, he sought to draw this identity into unity with American culture. The final movement is accompanied by the text "We're black, brown and beige but we're red, white and blue!" (ibid.:132). In the midst of World War II Ellington aimed not only for the social advancement of African- Americans, but for the unity of the United States as a whole.

That Black, Brown, and Beige was performed in Carnegie Hall is also significant. First, it elevated black music to the premier American concert hall; and second, it broke social barriers by bringing a significantly large black audience into a white venue.

George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess as it Reflects the Harlem Renaissance

George Gershwin began formally studying piano in 1912, focusing on works by classical composers such as Liszt, Chopin, and Debussy, but by the age of fifteen Gershwin worked as a song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley. Living in New York, Gershwin was in prime location to take notice of the happenings of the Harlem Renaissance. His compositions show significant influence from African-American musical styles. Gershwin's use of the blues scale and jazz syncopation is heard in several of his songs and larger compositions, particularly in 1924's Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin demonstrated that jazz, a black music, was worthy of elevation to symphonic arrangements and performance on the concert stage. As a result Gershwin is credited as the first to bring jazz into the concert hall.

Porgy and Bess, a collaboration between Gershwin and writer DuBose Heyward, was conceived as a folk opera based on the lives of African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. The libretto is based on a work of Heyward's entitled Porgy. Porgy was intended to be a "Negro novel" that would "leave an authentic record [of black life in] the period that produced it" (Crawford 1972:18). In 1926, one year after its publication, Gerswhin contacted Heyward with the idea for Porgy and Bess. Though he was already using aspects of black music such as syncopation and blue notes, Gershwin decided to visit Heyward in Charleston, South Carolina to "hear some spirituals and perhaps go to a colored café or two," in order to experience the local culture and music firsthand (ibid.:20).

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess does not represent black characters in the context of the "New Negro." In fact, it seems to adhere to the existing stereotypes that the artists of the Harlem Renaissance sought to discredit. Gershwin and Heyward's approach to the topic of the African-American experience differs from those of William Grant Still and Duke Ellington. Still and Ellington both created a cultural history of African-Americans culminating in the establishment of black communities in urban centers. Porgy and Bess was an attempt to create a representation of rural black life, contrary to Harlem Renaissance ideals of the sophisticated, city-dwelling "New Negro." As a result, Gershwin was accused of creating "fakelore," or pseudo-folklore, denigrating the black community through the portrayal of their culture as quaint and primeval.

Musically, Porgy and Bess tells a different story of black culture. Gershwin continued to incorporate the blues scale, syncopated rhythm, and call-and- response technique into the score. More importantly though, Gershwin made use of the practice of "signifying" African-American music, showing a degree of perception and understanding of black music and culture not expressed in the libretto.

Signifying is the practice of quoting ideas from another song or musical form of black origin (i.e., gospel, spirituals, blues). Signifying is seen in jazz, the blues, spirituals, and ragtime; it is important because it connects all of these forms through their African- American origin. "Summertime," which occurs throughout Porgy and Bess, features excellent examples of signifying. The spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" is actually the basis for "Summertime." Gershwin used the intervallic structure and the rhythm (in augmentation) from the spiritual to create a new piece of music that maintains an identity as a product of black culture, linking black culture and history to contemporary America (Floyd 1993).

Towards a New Perception of American Identities


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