Article, Photos and Audio by Shemuel Bacchus and Brenika Banks
Turn on the radio and pop songs, hip hop and rock music are the top genres played on repeat these days. One thing you rarely hear anymore is the blues.
But those numbers belie the influence of the blues not only on a range of modern music genres but on African-American life, mainstream American culture, and on Harlem itself.
As New York celebrates the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance, it also celebrates Harlem’s roots in jazz and the blues, according to Mo Beasley, a Harlem-based poet and educator.
“If there were no music in Harlem, there would be no black folks in Harlem,” Beasley said.
The sound of the blues emerged, slow and sad with strong rhythms, in the southern United States among African American musicians at the turn of the 20th century. An entire genre of music was born out of African American work songs, field hollers, as well as chants and shouts. Jazz’s origins can be found in the African American communities of New Orleans, where it grew out of blues and ragtime. Some of the greatest blues musicians included such icons as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Jerry Roll Morton.
The reach of blues and jazz extended far beyond music. Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, was famously influenced by jazz and blues, and pioneered such art forms as jazz poetry.
Harlem would not have the cultural status that it does today if not for the jazz-driven, stylish nightclub life that emerged within the soulful upper Manhattan neighborhood in the 1920s. Venues like the Cotton Club featured jazz and blues artists like Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and, of course, Armstrong.
The jazz scene in Harlem faded in the 1930s with the onset of the Great Depression. But the nightclub scene has seen a revival in recent years with the reopening of clubs like Minton’s Playhouse and Showman’s Jazz Club.
With the centennial of the Harlem renaissance, local residents also are reflecting on the legacy of the blues and jazz.
In October, a panel held at The Community Church of New York and moderated by Beasley explored the history and influence of the blues. To open the event, “The Redemptive Power of the Blues: 400 Years of Resistance and Healing,” Beasley performed one of his poems, “If the Blues Knew What We Know Now,” which can be heard below.
Another panelist, Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, the playwright and constitutional law professor, spoke about the importance of both jazz and blues as expressions of the unique experience of black Americans, living in a country that once only saw them as property. Browne-Marshall described blues in its infant stages as, “them that got and them that don’t.”
For the past two summers, Beasley also has taught a literature class in Harlem and heard the sentiments of many students who say they are using music as a way to fight gentrification in their neighborhood. He thinks that white families who lived in Harlem a century ago may have felt a similar way.
“It was wonderful to listen to high school students talk about their identity, feeling like it’s being squeezed because of all these new people coming in and being very disrespectful of what was before,” says Beasley. “So, their music becomes a way of pushing back.”
Apache Brown Band, a modern-day blues band, performed in October last year at the “Full Participation is a Human Right” conference and arts festival at the Community Church of New York; the event was aimed at shedding light on how punishment and race intersect in the United States. Lead singer Apache Brown discussed how jazz’s origins were about feel and focused on improvisation. He identified Muddy Waters, George “Buddy” Guy and BB King as the band’s most influential blues artists.
“I have friends who play jazz, who are really technical, versus us who play,” said Brown. “We’re more about feel.”
The popularity of jazz and the blues has ebbed and flowed over the hundred years since they made their way to Harlem and other northern cities. With each generation, new music genres emerge that owe their origins to the blues and jazz. While they have become the foundations of America’s musical heritage, the genres remain a key creative outlet for African Americans.
Speaking at Minton’s Playhouse, JC Hopkins, a Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter and bandleader, said he believes we are seeing a re-emergence of jazz music.
“I feel like there’s a lot of musicians coming out of music school — young musicians of color are re-embracing jazz,” he said.
The story continues in a podcast by Brenika Banks: