Music And Poetry Of The Harlem Renaissance This Week On Riverwalk Jazz

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This week Riverwalk Jazz captures the high spirit of the Harlem Renaissance with a program combining the music of Duke Ellington,Eubie Blake, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson with the poetry of Langston Hughes, the “Poet Laureate of the Harlem Renaissance." The show features theater legend William Warfield and Broadway's Vernel Bagneris performing Hughes' poetry; and piano virtuoso Dick Hyman joining The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.

There was a time when Harlem was the center of the universe for many African Americans. In the 1920s thousands of black families found a place to call home in this new suburb of Manhattan north of Central Park. Black churches and political organizations sprang up next door to black theaters, dance halls and dives. This coming together of poets and musicians, intellectuals and entrepreneurs gave rise to the Harlem Renaissance, a time when all things seemed possible. All along Harlem’s bustling Lenox Avenue, optimism was in the air, and cash jingled in the pockets of stylish new suits. It was the world of the “New Negro” whose ideas and art are at the heart of the Jazz Age.

The 1921 hit musical Shuffle Along brought black rhythms to Broadway, and with its all-black cast and score by Eubie Blake, it was the “wake-up call” that launched The Harlem Renaissance. Other black musicals followed in its wake, but nothing could touch the success of Shuffle Along until a show called Runnin’ Wild in 1928, with its hit song “The Charleston" composed by James P. Johnson and sung this week by Vernel Bagneris.

A high point of Harlem music was the long tenure of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at the Cotton Club, where mobsters called the shots while white celebrities in diamonds and minks enjoyed the glittering floor shows, starring the greatest black entertainers. In spite of this bizarre scene, Ellington created some of the most enduring jazz tunes in history—"Black and Tan Fantasy," “Mood Indigo" and “Creole Love Call."

Harlem composers, interested in “elevating" their art, sought to present their music in the concert halls of New York. W.C. Handy and James P. Johnson were among those who succeeded. In 1928 Handy put on the cultural event of the year as Carnegie Hall hosted its first evening of black music—a concert of jazz, blues, work songs and spirituals—with a full choir and orchestra on stage. The highlight of the evening was Yamecraw: A Negro Rhapsody, a serious concert piece composed by James P. Johnson. It was given its premier performance that night by Johnson's protégée—a young Fats Waller on piano. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band presents their dazzling arrangement of Yamecraw with the twin pianos of John Sheridan and Dick Hyman.

Out of Harlem's rich cultural stew, a remarkable young poet, raised in the Midwest, would find his voice. Langston Hughes heard of the success of Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along and knew he had to come to Harlem to find out for himself. He was nineteen years old in 1921 when he published his first poem, “A Negro Speaks of Rivers," presented this week by William Warfield, as well as other serious works such as “Stars" and “I, Too, Sing America." Harlem nightlife teased out a playful side to Hughes' poetry, equal to his serious work. This week, Vernel Bagneris reads Hughes' “Harlem Sweeties," “Lenox Avenue Midnight," and “The Cat and the Saxophone (2am)."

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