Entertainment, United States

The Jazzy Harlem Renaissance and Poppin’ Music

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet (NPR)

… Ya like jazz? Yes, the famous line in the Bee Movie that has essentially become a meme. But hey, maybe Barry’s asking the right question here. Who likes jazz? Founded by the African American society of the United States of America, Jazz, just like many other arts, literature, and types of music have inspired people for centuries, urging them to fight for a cause, or may be as simple as being aesthetically pleasing. Music can be tracked on a timeline, tracing explosions of new, unique ideas. One such explosion was the Harlem Renaissance, whose aftereffects are still shown in today’s music. The Harlem Renaissance is an example of one such explosion, whose jazz music led to the inspiration of today’s music.

         The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and artistic movement occurring in Harlem, New York, in the 1920’s (Wikipedia, Harlem Renaissance). When African Americans found themselves persecuted by racist, white, former slave owners in the South, over six million migrated to the Urban North which was chock-full of opportunities. This was known as the Great Migration, occurring from 1916 to 1970, and was the kickstart to the Harlem Renaissance. During the first World War, African Americans would immigrate to America for the plentiful jobs in shipbuilding, steel, and automotive industries plus ammunition and meat-packing factories (History, Art & Archives). Roughly 6 million African Americans streamed northward. Harlem, New York, was the largest destination for migrating African Americans, and some historians consider it to be the place of rebirth for African American art, such as music after the massive demographic shift (Great Migration).

Hence, jazz was born, a harmonic music genre characterized by complex styles, an intricate beat, often improvised and coupled with solos. Jazz gave African Americans a way to express themselves in ways they never could before (Music from the Harlem Renaissance). By mixing brass instruments such as trumpets and pianos, the separation between poor and rich African Americans were forgotten as they lost themselves in the music. Instead of being distinguished with their societal rankings, music brought them together, the one thing that let them come together as people who loved music. One of the most famous clubs of the Harlem Renaissance was the Cotton Club in New York on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, and was opened in 1923. The Cotton Club depicted its African American employees as “exotic savages” or plantation residents, imposing its oppressive segregation upon the African American staff. However, it became a legendary nightspot where many African Americans would perform for a white audience. One of its many performers was Duke Ellington, who used the club as a springboard into fame (The Black Past).

Women dancing to jazz music in the 1920’s.(https://www.nyfa.edu/)

Like flowers in a spring field, African American jazz musicians sprouted. Musicians Bessie Smith was the most popular “blues” female singer, and William Henry Webb, aka Chick Webb, was the best bandleader and drummer of the “swing style”. Other influential artists include Fats Waller, whose talent with the piano led the way for modern jazz piano, and Willie “the Lion” Smith, who mastered the jazz piano and often played as a solo artist. These talented musicians were finally able to show their artistic ability, which has previously been suppressed by slavery and racism. Duke Ellington was also one of the major figures in the history of jazz music. He’d perform in Broadway nightclubs with a sextet as his fame grew with each recording and new piece. He reached his highest point of fame in the 1940s, his penchant for musical drama elevating him to new heights.

Michael Jackson spinning in the “Smooth Criminal” video.

“Billy Jean” will “Rock with You” because she’s a “P. Y. T (Pretty Young Thing) who “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” since she’s a “Smooth Criminal” and it’s in her “Human Nature”; but you don’t want to “Beat It’ because you “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” since it’s such a “Thriller” and an “Off the Wall” experience (Wikipedia). Although Michael Jackson came after the Harlem Renaissance, his music inspired other musicians such as Bruno Mars, to create their own art for the ear. This is similar to how jazz music spread around the world, igniting joy and sadness, sparking creativity and hope in the minds of aspiring African American artists and musicians. But Michael Jackson, being a popular African American celebrity, was able to rise to fame because the Harlem Renaissance cleared the way for black artists. A popular 1920’s jazz musician, Louis Armstrong, greatly helped in the flourishment of African American  music. Louis Armstrong lived from 1901 to 1971, retiring in 1960. One of his last songs, which remains well known in today’s time, was “What a Wonderful World”. Just as Louis Armstrong was the founder of 1920’s jazz, Michael Jackson would forever be remembered as the great King of Pop.

More on Michael, he used trumpets, a common instrument in jazz music, in some of his earlier songs such as “Off the Wall” and “Rock with You” as sharp bursts, and especially as a background instrument in “You Rock My World”. Also some parts of Michael Jackson’s dance style were partially influenced by jazz. Examples include his famous toe stand which is seen in “Billie Jean”, the leg kick in “Thriller”, and his spin which is shown in many music videos such as “Smooth Criminal”. The spin, while performed by the woman in a couple’s dance, is still a part of jazz and relates to many dances including Michael Jackson’s dancing. In addition to the king of pop, Lady Gaga has said, “Amy [Winehouse] changed pop music forever, I remember knowing there was hope, and feeling not alone because of her. She lived jazz, she lived the blues,” Lady Gaga said, a testament to how jazz, even if it was a specific artist, may have influenced her in her lifetime (Goodreads). Other jazz influences on Lady Gaga’s music include her use of the piano, an important jazz instrument, in cases like her halftime show.

In conclusion, music has come a long way in history. Jazz was one of the main aspects to shape America during the Harlem Renaissance. Thousands of citizens within the city would flock night after night to listen to the same performers and artists. The Harlem Renaissance brought attention to works by musicians that might have never been discovered had this renaissance not been born, and it also allowed for African Americans to express themselves as freely as white Americans. In addition, it created a new, rebellious voice in which people could do whatever they wanted to in their music. It undoubtedly changed African American culture forever, and the rest of America could not avoid this new rise. The Harlem Renaissance had shaped America immensely, and had changed the society and culture of America forever. It helped redefine how Americans viewed African American culture, and ultimately integrated black and white cultures together.

Bee Movie

And now that just jumps back to the question of whether you like jazz. Even if you didn’t, there are still so many other wonderful genres out there, and many artists in today’s age have taken inspiration from the old-timers. Search up your favorite artist, trace back into their influences, and there could be some fabulous songs that you can discover through these influences that has manifested in that artist. Why not give it a try?

Article by Karly Talbot and Tifany Wong

Sources Cited

“Harlem Renaissance.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Oct. 2017,


“Music from the Harlem Renaissance.” An Archive for Virtual Harlem,


“Michael Jackson Singles Discography.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Oct. 2017,


Winter, Elizabeth. Cotton Club of Harlem (1923- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and

Reclaimed, www.blackpast.org/aah/cotton-club-harlem-1923.

“World War I And The Great Migration | US House of Representatives: History, Art &

Archives.” World War I and Great Migration | US House of Representatives: History, Art

& Archives,



History.com Staff. “Great Migration.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010,


“A Quote by Lady Gaga.” Quote by Lady Gaga: “Amy [Winehouse] Changed Pop Music

Forever, I Re…”, www.goodreads.com/quotes/412465-amy-winehouse-changed-pop-music-forever-i-remember-knowing-there.

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