Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Big Apple Bears Fruit: Modern Jazz

            The story of jazz is the story of people and the cities they live in. New Orleans contributed most to the beginnings of jazz in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but which city holds the title of “Most Important Jazz City” by the 1920s is slightly unclear. Certainly, the contest is between Chicago with its South Side clubs and New York with its Harlem and Times Square clubs. Although Chicago did contribute a lot to the development of jazz in the 1920s, New York helped jazz to mature much more than Chicago ever could have. Essentially, both cities were fertile lands for jazz, but New York had a richer musical history, a unique socioeconomic situation for the black population, and the attention of the nation and the world – all extra fertilizers for growing jazz.
            The social landscape of 1920s New York for blacks offered a distinct opportunity: the Harlem Renaissance, a milieu of new black culture, art, literature, and music, but also representative of a divide between the black upper and lower classes living in Harlem, the largest black population in the nation. In Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, he points out that “Jazz was very much a part of this second Harlem – more at home here than in the “other” Harlem of high culture and higher aspirations. True, the Harlem Renaissance created an ideology, a cultural context for jazz. But the Harlem of rent parties and underground economies created music (94, emphasis added). It was this cultural context that New York possessed and Chicago lacked – although Chicago’s South Side had a thriving jazz scene, the eyes of the nation and the world were set on New York. Whether or not the literary elite of Harlem liked it, lower class Harlem, including jazz, was a crucial part of their Renaissance.
            Before Harlem, the largest black community in New York was San Juan Hill, and sure enough, the history of jazz is tied to this location as well. This is also something Chicago lacked: an older foundation of black musicians who created this cultural context in New York early on. As Professor Stewart pointed out in lecture, James P. Johnson and his predecessors had been making music even before New Orleans jazz took hold, developing the famous stride piano style that would be crucial to the growth of jazz when it reached New York (Oct 21). Using the piano, Johnson was able “to bridge [the] gap between highbrow and lowbrow” in black culture, as the piano was both “a calling card of lowbrow nightlife” as well as “a symbol of middle-class prosperity” (Gioia, 95-6). Johnson’s work gave the gift of a new piano style to other New York jazz stars such as Willie “the Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum, and more, making stride piano the true musical landmark of New York jazz.
            With New York being New York, the new jazz styles that grew out of the art being formed in San Juan Hill and Harlem soon became part of the cultural dialogue in the wider urban community. Jazz truly became part of the club scene in Times Square when artists such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson began to perform there. Henderson’s arranger, Don Redman, essentially gave birth to the modern saxophone there (Discussion, Oct 25), and Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra commercialized jazz for a larger white population (Lecture, Oct 21). The list of famous artists and bands goes on.
Chicago may have helped the roots of jazz to spread, but New York is where jazz blossomed into a mature and recognized art form.


  1. I give jazz tours in Harlem and around NYC. Thanks for the cohesive argument in favor of NYC as the place where jazz grew up. The baton passing from the Don Redman and James P. Johnson's era to (fellow San Jaun Hill resident) Thelonious Monk's era further illuminates the thesis.

  2. I agree that the creativity spurred by the Harlem Renaissance further supports the idea that New York City was the most important locale of jazz in the 1920s. But there are so many other factors playing into it too, such as African-Americans becoming real estate owners and creating a self-sustainable community, and the pride and freedom it gave them to pursue musical aspirations. Also one should take note of how the influx of blacks from the southern states as well as the still present European tradition of the Northern states in effect combined in New York to create the truly unique sound of the city.