Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays.

Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays. – book reviews

Marshall Bialosky

In the last twenty years there has been a great revival of interest in the Harlem Renaissance, a period usually thought of as having occurred roughly between 1917 and the early 1930s. A spate of books on the era, Broadway productions of Harlem Renaissance materials, and the presence on many American campuses of full-fledged courses on the period are but a few signs of this renewed attention.

Now musicians have stepped forward to claim their share of the pie in Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays, edited by Samuel Floyd, Jr., Director of the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago. Although both Alain Locke and W. E. B. DuBois wrote about African American music, the common wisdom about the Harlem Renaissance is that it was primarily a literary movement whose purpose was “to secure economic, social, and cultural equality with white citizens, and the arts were to be used as a means of achieving that goal” (p. 2). Black Music illustrates that the other arts, including music, participated in their own way in this renaissance even if they were not “officially” an interest of the group of leaders usually given credit for the movement. This book attempts to widen the years of the Harlem Renaissance, suggesting that it may have been under way as early as the 1890s. It also points out that all the action in the movement did not take place in Harlem, but that other parts of the United States and Europe were involved, although the creative artists discussed here may not have thought of themselves as part of a larger movement.

Floyd has assembled many of the stars of African American academia as authors of the various essays, although white writers with an expertise in black music are present as well. in the opening essay Floyd justifies the importance of music to the Harlem Renaissance by asserting that music had a much longer history among African Americans than did literary achievement. He describes in great detail the work of popular black composers and performers whose worth was questioned by the original leaders of the movement, many of whom were waiting for some musical messiah to lift the spirituals and other black musical material to a “higher,” possibly symphonic level. Discussing jazzmen, pianists, and musical shows, Floyd demonstrates the enormous energy in African American popular culture of the period. He then turns his attention to black classical composers, showing the widespread activities of such figures as Harry T. Burleigh, Clarence Cameron White, Robert Nathaniel Dett, Harry Lawrence Freeman, Florence Price, William Levi Dawson, and William Grant Still. Floyd also includes an impressive list of white composers influenced by African American musical ideas, and theorizes that the influence of the Harlem Renaissance and even “pre-Renaissance” musical activity offered all composers an opportunity to break with the prevailing Euramerican tradition, with its heavy dependence on Germanic models. Floyd does not fail to notice that even here the element of exploitation is present. How is it that Paul Whiteman, not Fletcher Henderson, was the “King of Jazz,” Benny Goodman the “King of Swing,” and Gershwin the “first jazz composer,” while Ellington’s serious efforts went largely unnoticed by the classical world?

Floyd attributes the decline of the Harlem phenomenon to a combination of the 1929 Wall Street crash, the coming of prohibition, the 1935 Harlem riot, and the growing importance of talking pictures, lessening the need for pit musicians.

Paul Burgett’s essay on the writings of Alain Locke delineates Locke’s division of black music into three categories, strikingly similar to those Bartok suggested for Eastern European peasant music. The categories are folk music, coming from untrained, natural musicians; music composed in imitation of true folk music; and finally a “formal or classical type of music” (p. 30) derived from folk music but incorporating the artistic talents and inclinations of a given composer. Passing reference is made to a fourth type of music which buries all racial reference and is universal in nature.

Burgett contradicts Locke’s view that parts of Dvorak’s New World Symphony have a direct connection with African American or American Indian ideas, stating that they are, in his view, as Slavonic as anything Dvorak ever wrote. While Locke appears to be fully aware of the value of the great figures of early jazz – Henderson, Waller, and Armstrong, among many others – his heart is with those seeking to “raise” black musical material to an “elevated” symphonic level. This was easy to call for, but very hard to execute without a long tradition behind it. It took the white musical world well over a century and a half after the American Revolution to use its folk music in a convincing, organic, symphonic way, so to expect the same from black composers so shortly after their own liberation was probably naive and far too optimistic. Yet, in the end, Burgett has great sympathy for Locke’s point of view and asks his readers to consider the political aspects of Locke’s musical views and the aura of the time in which he wrote (1936), in order to gain a full perspective on this inspiring yet tragic figure born many decades before his time.

Rawn Spearman, a well-known singer and academic, contributes an essay on “Vocal Concert Music in the Harlem Renaissance” that illustrates the disagreement about how the “black |essence'” was to be expressed. He makes a distinction rather similar to the famous distinction H. Wiley Hitchcock made between the “cultivated” and the “vernacular” styles in American music. Spearman sees intellectuals like Locke and DuBois favoring the former, while Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and others leaned toward “exploring and articulating art forms from their African heritage” (p. 43).

One of the most startling declarations in Spearman’s chapter is the credit he gives to African American music critics, all but unknown even to this day, for “having kept records . . . of the development and careers of black concert artists during and after the Harlem Renaissance” (p. 46). His essay concludes with an account of the career of Roland Hayes and the gradual incorporation of spirituals into concert programming.

Georgia Ryder, former dean of fine arts at Norfolk University in Virginia, contributes an essay that provides a valuable perspective on the work of Nathaniel Dett. Her analysis of two of the composer’s larger works, The Chariot Jubilee and The Ordering of Moses, brings these compositions, both almost unknown to the average American choral musician, to the forefront, demonstrating their importance in the African American movement towards high art. Her conclusion that Dett’s works “captured and still reflect the ambience, the ambivalence, the zeitgeist of that singular period of black history in America” (p. 68) will stimulate, one hopes, performances of these works so that many musicians will have the opportunity to experience them.

Rae Linda Brown, Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine, offers a penetrating insight into the three big works of symphonic music that probably best fulfill Locke’s hope for a high-level transformation of African American music material: William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor, and William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. These works are seldom discussed in music journals – I believe this is the first appearance in print of a musical example from the Price symphony – and they have never been considered together. Brown is good at identifying typical African American elements in the music of each of these composers even when they appear in unconventional configurations. She also makes it clear that this is not the sole source of their musical value, quoting Nathaniel Dett’s statement: “As it is quite possible to describe the traits, habits, and customs of a people without using the vernacular, so it is similarly possible to musically portray racial peculiarities without the use of national tunes or folk-songs” (p. 83). Looking and listening deeper, perhaps, than Alain Locke, she finds “call-and-response organizational procedures, dominance of a percussive approach to music, and off-beat phrasing of melodic accents” (p. 83), all of which may occur without the context of immediately identifiable surface details that would stamp the music at first hearing as African American. Concluding her discussion of these three symphonies, Brown states, “These composers were not really of the Negro Renaissance, but the essence of the New Negro Movement was the background against which Still, Price, and Dawson moved and developed as composers” (p. 85).

In his essay on “Black Musical Theater and the Harlem Renaissance Movement,” John Graziano considers the connection between the two to be “tenuous.” In spite of its lack of approval by the Renaissance elders, Graziano feels African American musical theater had its own merits and made a significant contribution in the second decade of the twentieth century. Through close harmonic and melodic analysis of several songs from black theater, he illustrates that, contrary to the view of some famous experts who disclaim black originality in American popular song, there are many examples of things that cannot be derived from white popular music. Graziano ends with the hope that many of these distinctive songs will be republished and made available to a larger public than their current home in research libraries allows.

Mark Tucker’s essay on the early life of Duke Ellington clarifies the importance of his subject’s Washington, D.C., background. The essay is filled with revealing information about how Ellington’s experiences and musical associates there may have prepared him for his rise to fame in New York in the 1920s and after.

Allan Gordon’s essay, “Interactions between Art and Music during the Harlem Renaissance, parallels, to some extent, Rae Linda Brown’s chapter. He, too, writes of two male artists and one female artist – Henry Tanner, Archibald Motley, and Meta Warrick Fuller – although their places in the black cultural movement were different from the places of the composers that concern Brown. Gordon feels that only Motley answered the challenge which he sees as the task of visual artists working at the time of the Harlem Renaissance – to provide “a new image of urban life, with its corollary of risk, peril, and complexity, that emphasized self-expression, revealed and interpreted the black psyche, challenged white standards of art, and celebrated and validated personal experiences” (p. 141). That this happened only after the “official” end of the literary renaissance shows some of the dangers in forcing interdisciplinary work to fit certain preconceived schemes, but such is the nature of creative reality. Gordon ably traces Motley’s career, noting the influence of jazz and its revolt against custom, authority, and boredom (to use some of Locke’s words) on the expressive aspects of his work.

Jeffrey Green’s chapter, “The Negro Renaissance and England,” gives an international dimension to the collection and introduces the most unusual and unfamiliar facets of the movement, concentrating on English blacks (or those from colonial areas) and the effects in England of some of the most famous African Americans.

The book concludes with a valuable list, assembled by Dominique-Rene de Lerma, of concert music by Harlem Renaissance composers, with relevant details of the music: instrumentation, location of copies, where it can be purchased, etc., all of which will make it easier to gain access to this music and foster its dissemination and performance.

In short, Black Music fills a large gap in the documentation and history of the musical component of the Harlem Ronaissance. Several of the authors indicate that their essays are but modest introductions to subjects that might well lend themselves to more extensive consideration. Yet there is still much valuable information, commentary, and analysis here. As this entire movement, the Harlem Renaissance, is far from common knowledge in the education of most Americans; black or white, the book serves a thoroughly worthwhile and admirable purpose.

COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Illinois Press

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group