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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March 11, 2015: Jazzy Connections: Whites and the Harlem Renaissance

[Inspired by the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death—on which more in Thursday’s post—this week I’ll be AmericanStudying some figures and issues related to the very American musical genre of jazz. Please share your own responses and thoughts for a swinging crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On white America’s troubling and exploitative yet potentially productive obsession with black culture.
The trope of African American cultural trends entering the American mainstream through white imitations is a very familiar one: from the high five to graffiti to rap music, and right up through twerking and numerous other 2014 trends, the pattern is as clear as it is consistent. Yet I don’t know that the pattern was ever more central to American culture and society than in the 1920s heyday of the Jazz Age, a period overtly named (by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, natch) for an African American cultural genre. Obviously New York City only comprises one part of America, and Harlem only one neighborhood within that city—yet as the endurance of Fitzgerald’s name for the era suggests, the entire period came to be and often still is associated with precisely that city and community; and more exactly, I would argue, with the large crowds of (mostly) white Americans who descended on Harlem to enjoy its jazz clubs and scene.
No single figure better encapsulates that trend than Carl Van Vechten, who rose to fame as a patron and photographer of the Harlem Renaissance, and no single work does so more clearly than his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). As that excellent linked New Yorker article indicates, Van Vechten knew full well that his title would be a controversial one, and went ahead with it anyway—partly, it seems, because of his belief that he had “succeeded in getting into most of the important sets” of Harlem African Americans (as he wrote in a 1925 letter to his friend Gertrude Stein about the novel-in-progress), and thus that he had a pass to use such a word; and partly, I would argue, because he knew that the title would draw more attention to the novel, and thus help it make a significant splash (which it certainly did). Which is to say, even though Van Vechten undoubtedly and genuinely supported the Harlem Renaissance and the broader Harlem community, it seems clear to me that he likewise exploited the place and its art and identity to advance his own career and success.
Yet at the same time, it’s difficult to argue that the Harlem Renaissance, and specifically the period’s jazz artists and performers, did not benefit significantly from the interest both illustrated and generated by folks like Van Vechten. In order for musicians and artists to survive and succeed, after all, they need enough support (of all kinds), as well as the kinds of publicity and attention that can increase audience awareness and support. I don’t know that Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, and their many 1920s peers could have gained enough support from within the Harlem or African American communities alone to achieve the broad and deep levels of success, prominence, and influence that they did—and I do know that American music, culture, and identity would be significantly impoverished if it did not include those artists and many others. That effect doesn’t in any way mean we can’t still analyze and, if appropriate, critique the attitudes and actions of Van Vechten or any of those Jazz Age white audiences; but as we do so, it seems to me that we must also thank them for doing their part to help bring these jazz artists, and their community and period, into our collective consciousness and national story so fully.
Next jazzy connection tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Jazzy connections you’d share?

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