The Jazz Age: Swinging in Harlem
The Jazz Age was described by Langston Hughes as a period of pain and absurdity, but also a time of joy, music, and the fun of life.
The Jazz Age was a significant period in American history. It was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, Swing Bands, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, prohibition, and optimism. The decade of the 1920s saw an influx of African Americans in northern cities during the first wave of the Great Migration. The artistic achievements during the period were immense - literature, poetry, art, scholarly works, and of course, jazz.
It was a period of youthful energy and optimism; a time when jazz emerged as art. A cultural revolution that lasted from the end of the Great War until the beginning of the Great Depression. It was a time when African Americans lived a life of possibility, not just struggle. The era embodied a growing sense of racial pride and a desire for social and political equality. It was a golden age.
During this time period, Harlem was a cultural mecca for African Americans. Women had just received the right to vote, speakeasies were offering women newfound social freedom, decorated soldiers marched in victory parades, immigrants from all across the world were seeking a new life in America, and the New York City skyscrapers were being built. It was a time of renewal and youthful energy.
The NAACP was formed, black businesses were flourishing, and Jazz clubs were on every corner in Harlem - nightclubs like the Savoy Ballroom and Cotton Club were drawing socialites from every corner of New York City uptown to Harlem. There was an explosion of black culture including thinkers like W.E.B. DeBois, poets like Langston Hughes, entertainers like Josephine Baker, pianists like Fats Waller, blues singers like Bessie Smith, and composers like Duke Ellington whose shows at the Cotton Club were broadcast coast to coast bringing jazz to the entire country for the first time. It was a heyday of African American culture and achievement and jazz was the soundtrack.
This was the first time black music and culture attracted attention and appreciation from white audiences, however, black and white musicians did not appear together on stage until Benny Goodman's orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall in 1938. During the Jazz Age, black and white jazz musicians played and practiced together privately in off-hours parties. There was a great deal of dissonance in music and in society during this short-lived period when a generation of optimistic young black Americans, a little over half a century past the civil war, was striving to turn the page, move beyond the past, and express themselves creatively during the period called the Harlem Renaissance.