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The Harlem Renaissance and American Music


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The Harlem Renaissance and the "New Negro"

One of the most significant intellectual and artistic trends of twentieth century American history, the Harlem Renaissance impacted art, literature, and music in a manner that forever altered the American cultural landscape. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement in the 1920s through which African-American writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers sought to embrace black heritage and culture in American life. This shift towards a more politically assertive and self-confident conception of identity and racial pride led to the establishment of the concept of the "New Negro," coined by Alain Locke.

While describing the "New Negro," Locke referred to a renewed intellectual curiosity in the study of black culture and history among the African-American population. This evaluation of identity required an honest representation of the African-American experience. The adoption of serious portrayals of black American life in art, as opposed to the caricatures provided through minstrelsy and vaudeville, was a necessary step in the cultivation of the Harlem Renaissance ideals. To Locke, the black artist's objective was to "repair a damaged group psychology and reshape a warped social perspective" (1968:10). Significantly, these goals were most immediately attainable through the "revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective" (ibid.:15). For the thinkers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, the way to achieve this revaluation was through incorporating themes of black identity and history into their works.

The perception of Africans and African-Americans as essential cultural contributors became significant in the social struggles black Americans faced in the twentieth century. Using the concept of the "New Negro," artists of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond sought to bring black culture from the status of folk art to a position of sophistication and dignity.

William Grant Still, the most prominent African-American art music composer of the time, was greatly influenced by the concept of the "New Negro," a theme frequently evident in his concert works. Duke Ellington, a renowned jazz artist, began to reflect the "New Negro" in his music, particularly in the jazz suite Black, Brown, and Beige . The Harlem Renaissance prompted a renewed interest in black culture that was even reflected in the work of white artists, the most well known example being George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Through applying the concept of the "New Negro," the depiction of African-Americans in American art music shifted from a misrepresentative stereotype to a depiction of people of African descent as significant contributors to the American cultural landscape.

William Grant Still: Tone Poems and Operas

The composer most often associated with the Harlem Renaissance and African-American art music is William Grant Still, a prominent figure musically, socially, and politically. A major factor contributing to the birth of the Harlem Renaissance was the emergence of an educated black middle-class, to which William Grant Still belonged. Still began studying music at Wilberforce University in 1911 with the goal of composing concert music and opera. Still produced several instrumental works, choral works, and operas during his career, often championing black culture and sometimes overtly criticizing American society (such as in the 1940 choral work And They Lynched Him on a Tree).

The values introduced by the Harlem Renaissance are clearly discernible in Still's Afro-American Symphony, composed in 1930, and heavily based on the blues "to prove that the Negro musical idiom is an important part of the world's musical culture" (Murchison 2000:52). Still incorporated the blues scale and blue notes (flat third and flat seventh), call-and-response structure, and descending melodic contours typical of the blues into the art music genre of a symphony, merging black culture and "high art."

Additionally, the Afro-American Symphony is a programmatic work, or tone poem, intended to be an emotional or psychological portrait of the African-American experience. In this representation of black America, Still aimed to express emotional longing, sorrow, and the aspirations of the "Old Negro," themes overcome through hope and prayer in his later tone poems. This series of tone poems presents Still's conception of the history, culture, and psychology of African-Americans; in his representation black Americans rise up from a history of slavery and sorrow to a position of self-empowerment and triumph.

The 1939 opera Troubled Island, a collaborative effort between William Grant Still and the poet Langston Hughes, features an even more attentive representation of black cultural history than Still's tone poems. Hughes' libretto is based on his 1928 play Drums of Haiti. The opera is about the rise and fall of Haiti's first emperor, Jean Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines leads the Haitian revolt against French colonials and installs himself in power, yet as the emperor, he laments his own illiteracy and ignorance when requested to provide a teacher for one of his villages. The opera concludes with Dessalines death at the hands of a revolting population.

Dessalines rise to power represents the elevation of the African-Americans, paralleling the rise from slavery depicted in Still's tone poems. The themes of sorrow and ignorance are again presented to contrast with the concept of the educated and hopeful "New Negro." Troubled Island challenges the viewer to contemplate the importance of history, education, and the cultural contributions of black America to American culture in general.

William Grant Still's music exemplifies the incorporation of Harlem Renaissance ideals into art music through expressing African-American heritage in his music. In addition to championing black culture as a composer, Still broke several racial barriers in the American music scene. His Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony composed by an African-American and performed by a major orchestra, and he was the first black American to conduct a white radio orchestra (Deep River Hour, 1932), conduct a major orchestra (the Los Angeles PO in 1936), or receive a series of commissions from major American orchestras.

Duke Ellington: Beyond the "Jungle Sound"

Duke Ellington provides an interesting contrast to his contemporary, William Grant Still. While both are among the most prominent composers of the Harlem Renaissance, they came from strikingly different backgrounds. Ellington was never formally trained in music; he began studying piano at age seven, taught himself harmony at the piano, and learned orchestration through experimentation with his band. Ellington is best known as a big band leader and arranger, as a songwriter, and as the voice of "jungle music." In the 1920s and early 1930s Ellington's band was the house band for Harlem's Cotton Club. Far from sophistication, the Cotton Club gigs often featured jungle decor and elaborate costumes to accompany the "jungle sound," intended to imply the "exotic" music of Africa.

Despite Ellington's early involvement with the Cotton Club he eventually embraced the beliefs of Alain Locke and sought to present black music as high art, most notably achieved when his suite Black, Brown, and Beige debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. In 1930, Ellington expressed the desire to compose a work that would serve as a musical history of the black experience; beginning in Africa, progressing through Southern slavery, and finally to Harlem (Tucker 2002: 69). This framework eventually became Black, Brown, and Beige, though it was not composed for over a decade after its conception. However, during this period Ellington did compose several pieces dealing with African-American themes including Symphony in Black in 1934, Jump for Joy in 1941, and the unfinished opera Boola.

Black, Brown, and Beige was Ellington's conception of a "tone-parallel," illustrating the history of black Americans. The composition is accompanied by poetry penned by Ellington, depicting the scenes that the music is meant to evoke. The overall work is divided into three sections, which are further divided into songs. The first section, Black, first depicts blacks in Africa and proceeds to give a narrative of life as a Southern slave. Black consists of "Work Song," "Come Sunday," and "Light;" these songs and poems represent the ideas of the sorrow of slavery, the redemption of faith, and the hope for a better future. Brown depicts the triumph of blacks over the oppression of slavery in the song "Emancipation Proclamation." The work ends with Beige, which celebrates Harlem and depicts African-Americans as a community characterized by pride and knowledge.

Composed with the goal of racial advancement, Black, Brown, and Beige expresses racial pride and history, the celebration of African-American identity, and the social progress of black Americans in the twentieth century. The structure of the work emphasized the continuity of black history from slavery to the present. Brown deals with the sacrifices made by black soldiers in the Revolutionary War and connects it to the black soldiers participating in the Second World War; clearly marking African-Americans as loyal and dedicated American citizens. Ellington aimed to correct "the common misconception of the Negro which has left a confused impression of his true character and abilities," through his portrayal of modern black America (DeVeaux 1993:129

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

The incorporation of influences from the Harlem Renaissance into American music created a new perception both of what is black and what is American. The emphasis on black history and contributions to American society demonstrated the importance of black culture to the overall American identity. William Grant Still's works received performances in the United States and in Europe as American, not African-American music. Duke Ellington's patriotic representation of African-Americans reinforced American nationalism in the midst of World War II, while simultaneously addressing the race issues in the United States. George Gershwin's consideration of Porgy and Bess as an American, not a black, opera also reflects the idea of African-Americans as an unquestionable component of American society. Through the application of themes advocating the idea of the "New Negro" and the Harlem Renaissance Ellington, Gershwin, and Still synthesized black culture into a defining component of American culture.


DeVeaux, Scott. 1993. "Black, Brown and Beige and the Critics." Black Music Research Journal 13(2): 125-146.

Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. 1993. "Troping the Blues: From Spirituals to the Concert Hall." Black Music Research Journal 13(1): 31-51.

Locke, Alain. 1968. "The New Negro," in The New Negro: An Interpretation. Edited by Alain Locke. New York: Arno Press.

Murchison, Gayle. 2000. "'Dean of Afro-American Composers' or 'Harlem Renaissance Man': The New Negro and the Musical Poetics of William Grant Still," in William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Edited by Catherine Parsons Smith. Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press.

Tucker, Mark. 2002. "The Genesis of 'Black, Brown, and Beige.'" Black Music Research Journal 22: 131-150.

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