Discover Langston Hughes’ Rent Party Ads & The Harlem Renaissance Tradition of Playing Gigs to Keep Roofs Over Heads

Both communities of color and communities of artists have had to take care of each other in the U.S., creating systems of support where the dominant culture fosters neglect and deprivation. In the early twentieth century, at the nexus of these two often overlapping communities, we meet Langston Hughes and the artists, poets, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes’ brilliantly compressed 1951 poem “Harlem” speaks of the simmering frustration among a weary people. But while its startling final line hints grimly at social unrest, it also looks back to the explosion of creativity in the storied New York City neighborhood during the Great Depression.

Hughes had grown reflective in the 50s, returning to the origins of jazz and blues and the history of Harlem in Montage of a Dream Deferred. The strained hopes and hardships he had eloquently documented in the 20s and 30s remained largely the same post-World War II, and one of the key features of Depression-era Harlem had returned; Rent parties, the wild shindigs held in private apartments to help their residents avoid eviction, were back in fashion, Hughes wrote in the Chicago Defender in 1957.




“Maybe it is inflation today and the high cost of living that is causing the return of the pay-at-the-door and buy-your-own-refreshments parties,” he said. He also noted that the new parties weren’t as much fun.

But how could they be? Depression-era rent parties were legendary. They “impacted the growth of Swing and Blues dancing,” writes dance teacher Jered Morin, “like few other periods.” As Hughes commented, “the Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any night club, in small apartments where God-knows-who lived.” Famous artists met and rubbed elbows, musicians formed impromptu jams and invented new styles, working class people who couldn’t afford a night out got to put on their best clothes and cut loose to the latest music. Hughes was fascinated, and as a writer, he was also quite taken by the quirky cards used to advertise the parties. “When I first came to Harlem,” he said, “as a poet I was intrigued by the little rhymes at the top of most House Rent Party cards, so I saved them. Now I have quite a collection.”

The cards you see here come from Hughes’ personal collection, held with his papers at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Many of these date from the 40s and 50s, but they all draw their inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance period, when the phenomenon of jazz-infused rent parties exploded.  “Sandra L. West points out that black tenants in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s faced discriminatory rental rates,” notes Rebecca Onion at Slate. “That, along with the generally lower salaries for black workers, created a situation in which many people were short of rent money. These parties were originally meant to bridge that gap.” A 1938 Federal Writers Project account put it plainly: Harlem “was a typical slum and tenement area little different from many others in New York except for the fact that in Harlem rents were higher; always have been, in fact, since the great war-time migratory influx of colored labor.”

Tenants took it in stride, drawing on two longstanding community traditions to make ends meet: the church fundraiser and the Saturday night fish fry. But rent parties could be raucous affairs. Guests typically paid a few cents to enter, and extra for food cooked by the host. Apartments filled far beyond capacity, and alcohol—illegal from 1919 to 1933—flowed freely. Gambling and prostitution frequently made an appearance.  And the competition could be fierce. The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance writes that in their heyday, “as many as twelve parties in a single block and five in an apartment building, simultaneously, were not uncommon.” Rent parties "essentially amounted to a kind of grassroots social welfare," though the atmosphere could be "far more sordid than the average neighborhood block party." Many upright citizens who disapproved of jazz, gambling, and booze turned up their noses and tried to ignore the parties.

In order to entice party-goers and distinguish themselves, writes Onion, “the cards name the kind of musical entertainment attendees could expect using lyrics from popular songs or made-up rhyming verse as slogans.” They also “used euphemisms to name the parties’ purpose,” calling them “Social Whist Party” or “Social Party,” while also slyly hinting at rowdier entertainments. The new rent parties may not have lived up to Hughes’ memories of jazz-age shindigs, perhaps because, in some cases, live musicians had been replaced by record players. But the new cards, he wrote “are just as amusing as the old ones.”

via Slate

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Sound of Avant Garde Jazz: Stream 35 Hours of Experimental Jazz by Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane & More

Jazz has become institutionalized, for both good and ill. On the upside, it has found a permanent home in prestigious performing arts centers like Jazz at Lincoln Center, where its memory will be preserved for generations. High priests like Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and Herbie Hancock pass on the traditions to young jazz acolytes at universities. The American art form has achieved the level of respectability that some of its most innovative practitioners, such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, had always sought, the recognition of the high art world.

On the other hand, we too easily forget how dangerous jazz used to be—how thoroughly cutting edge and disturbing to middlebrow sensibilities. But of course, jazz has passed through many cultural cycles, with each generation of artists shocking its elders by pushing against musical decorum. Late 40s and 50s bebop gave us the lean, mean combo as a challenge to the big band swing era, and produced superstar improvisers who veered thrillingly off script in every performance. But this incarnation of jazz, too, threatened to become staid as the sixties neared.




And so a handful of artists created, to take the title of Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album, “the shape of jazz to come,” free jazz, which represented, writes Chris Kelsey, “a final break with the music’s roots as a popular art form, casting it in an alternative role as an experimental art music.” The sixties saw profound innovation in jazz, as artists like Coleman, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, and others expanded its possibilities. But to read this music as solely experimenting “along the lines of the European ‘classical’ avant-garde” is to ignore the deep cultural wellspring from which it came.

As Amiri Baraka wrote in the liner notes for a 1965 compilation, The New Wave in Jazz, avant-garde jazz was a “touch stone of the new world,” a form that transcended the conditions of slavery, miseducation, and social control; it was the “music of contemporary black culture.”

The people who make this music are intellectuals or mystics or both. The black rhythm energy blues feeling (sensibility) is projected into the area of reflection, intentionally. As Expression…where each term is (equally) co-respondent.

     Projection over sustained periods (more time given, and time proposes a history for expression, hence it becomes reflective projection.

     Arbitrariness of Form (variety in nature)

     Intention of performance as a Learning experience

These were the distinctive “new world” qualities of experimental jazz. Its hip signifiers, Baraka wrote, mark it as “an invention of Black Lives"; it is not music to lull and soothe but to instruct, with force, if necessary. “Getting hit in the head with a stick,” he writes with a wink, “can do you as much good as meditating.” It might be hard for us to hear, now that the music has been so thoroughly enshrined in academic departments and conservatories, but avant-garde jazz once had the power to thoroughly shock and surprise, as the statement of a culture both in dialogue with and revolt against oppressive traditional forms.

In the playlist above, The Sound of Avant-Garde Jazz, you recover a sense of the music’s edginess with recordings from some of its most experimental gurus, including Coleman, Sun Ra, McCoy Tyner, Yusef Lateef, Alice Coltrane, and many, many more. The playlist spans the last 60 years or so, featuring later white adopters like Pat Metheny, John Zorn, and Bill Frisell, and including rocking electric jazz from diverse, eclectic bands like Tony Williams’ Lifetime, whose “Proto-Cosmos,” at the top, epitomizes the expansive range of 70s fusion. The overall experience of this comprehensive playlist may not only shake up your preconceptions of jazz, but may, as Baraka writes, change your preconditioned sense of “the normal feeling of adventure.”

The playlist offers up 350 tracks, and runs 35 hours. If you need Spotify's free software, download it here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Cab Calloway Stars in “Minnie the Moocher,” a Trippy Betty Boop Cartoon That’s Ranked as the 20th Greatest Cartoon of All Time (1932)

The cast of Dave Fleischer’s 1932 cartoon, Minnie the Moocher, above, are a far cry from the candy-colored ponies and simpering dragons populating today’s cartoon universe.

There’s not much of a narrative, and the closest thing to a moral is an unspoken “don’t be cokey.”

Who cares?

The lyrics to bandleader Cab Calloway’s crossover hit were ample excuse to send a rebellious Betty Boop and her anthropomorphized pal, Bimbo, on a trippy jaunt through the underworld.




While there's no evidence of Betty or Bimbo hitting the pipe, one wonders what the animators were smoking to come up with such an imaginative palette of ghouls.

The ghosts are prisoners sporting chain gang stripes.

A witch with an outsized head prefigures Miyazaki's commanding old ladies.

A blank-socketed mama cat, leached dry by her equally eyeless kittens, conjures the sort of nightmare vision that appealed to Hieronymus Bosch.

The most benign presence is a phantasmagoric walrus, modeled on a rotoscoped Calloway. The Hi De Ho Man cut a far svelter presence in the flesh, as evidenced by the live action sequence that introduces the cartoon.

Betty’s home sweet home offers nearly as weird a landscape as the one she and Bimbo flee at film’s end.

Its many inorganic inhabitants would have felt right at home in PeeWee’s Playhouse, as would a self-sacrificing flowering plant, who succumbs to a sample of the hasenpfeffer Betty’s immigrant mother unsuccessfully urges on her. As for Betty's father, Fleischer struck a blow for teenagers everywhere by having his head morph into a gramophone on which a broken record (or rather, cylinder) plays.

Minnie the Moocher was voted the 20th greatest cartoon of all time, in a 1994 survey of 1,ooo animation professionals. We hope you enjoy it now, as the animators did then, and audiences did way back in 1932.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll be appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Aging Louis Armstrong Sings “What a Wonderful World” in 1967, During the Vietnam War & The Civil Rights Struggle

It's not uncommon to have a knee jerk response to Bob Thiele and George David Weiss’ now-ubiquitous “What a Wonderful World.”

The quality of your reaction is likely determined by your worldview.

A misty-eyed bride-to-be browsing tunes for her upcoming reception’s father-daughter dance will not be coming at things from the same angle as the directors of Bowling for Columbine, Good Morning, Vietnam, and---unexpectedly---Madagascar.

The first version, sung by an aging Louis Armstrong, remains definitive, though it was dismissed at first by record execs, who hoped for another rollicking chart topper along in the “Hello, Dolly!” model.




As Jack Doyle notes on the Pop History Dig, Armstrong dug the song, and performed it often, hoping to strike a chord of hope and optimism during a period of great civil unrest:

Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love.  That’s the secret…

The song's white authors shared his view, and hoped his crossover appeal would promote feelings of racial harmony on all sides of the record-buying public. It was a hit in the UK, but a slow starter in the US, not really catching on until its appearance on Good Morning, Vietnam's soundtrack (1987).

Half a century after its release, "What a Wonderful World” has entered the pantheon, as anyone with a television and ears can attest.

Its simple lyrics involving roses, rainbows, and babies have resulted in a number of hideously syrupy covers. With so many choices, it’s almost impossible to pick a least-favorite. Their gooeyness does a disservice to the power of the original.

What’s so poignant about the performance, above, are the moments where the darkness cuts through the treacle, ever so briefly. Check out Armstrong’s expressions at :25, :50, and 1:49, and interpret it how you will.

It’s worth noting that the nightly news was monopolized by reports of the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights at home. Armstrong's health was in decline. The realities of his own New Orleans childhood were far more complex than the crayon-bright vision painted by the lyrics.

A montage of bombings and peaceful demonstrators being stomped underfoot would’ve seemed premature at such an early stage in the song’s history, so Armstrong smiled through, as he laid the groundwork for later performers’ layered interpretations. Some of the ones we find most compelling are below:

Nick Cave & the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan unhappiness has them reeling off their stools, even as they shake hands to comic effect.

Ministry’s sinister take opens with a lovely lonely piano that, like the listener’s eardrums, gets plowed under by a massive attack of industrial noise.

Joey Ramone had already been diagnosed with the cancer that cut his life short when he recorded his version, that ends on a note of unabashed pop-punk joy.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

John Coltrane Draws a Picture Illustrating the Mathematics of Music

Physicist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander has argued in his many public lectures and his book The Jazz of Physics that Albert Einstein and John Coltrane had quite a lot in common. Alexander in particular draws our attention to the so-called “Coltrane circle,” which resembles what any musician will recognize as the “Circle of Fifths,” but incorporates Coltrane’s own innovations. Coltrane gave the drawing to saxophonist and professor Yusef Lateef in 1967, who included it in his seminal text, Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Where Lateef, as he writes in his autobiography, sees Coltrane's music as a "spiritual journey" that "embraced the concerns of a rich tradition of autophysiopsychic music," Alexander sees “the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s" quantum theory.

Neither description seems out of place. Musician and blogger Roel Hollander notes, “Thelonious Monk once said ‘All musicans are subconsciously mathematicians.’ Musicians like John Coltrane though have been very much aware of the mathematics of music and consciously applied it to his works.”




Coltrane was also very much aware of Einstein’s work and liked to talk about it frequently. Musican David Amram remembers the Giant Steps genius telling him he “was trying to do something like that in music.”

Hollander carefully dissects Coltrane's mathematics in two theory-heavy essays, one generally on Coltrane’s “Music & Geometry” and one specifically on his “Tone Circle.” Coltrane himself had little to say publically about the intensive theoretical work behind his most famous compositions, probably because he’d rather they speak for themselves. He preferred to express himself philosophically and mystically, drawing equally on his fascination with science and with spiritual traditions of all kinds. Coltrane’s poetic way of speaking has left his musical interpreters with a wide variety of ways to look at his Circle, as jazz musician Corey Mwamba discovered when he informally polled several other players on Facebook. Clarinetist Arun Ghosh, for example, saw in Coltrane's "mathematical principles" a "musical system that connected with The Divine." It's a system, he opined, that "feels quite Islamic to me."

James Patterson Teaches You To Writer A Bestseller. Learn More.

Lateef agreed, and there may be few who understood Coltrane’s method better than he did. He studied closely with Coltrane for years, and has been remembered since his death in 2013 as a peer and even a mentor, especially in his ecumenical embrace of theory and music from around the world. Lateef even argued that Coltrane's late-in-life masterpiece A Love Supreme might have been titled "Allah Supreme" were it not for fear of "political backlash." Some may find the claim tendentious, but what we see in the wide range of responses to Coltrane's musical theory, so well encapsulated in the drawing above, is that his recognition, as Lateef writes, of the "structures of music" was as much for him about scientific discovery as it was religious experience. Both for him were intuitive processes that "came into existence," writes Lateef, "in the mind of the musican through abstraction from experience."

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Rufus Harley, the First Jazz Musician to Make the Bagpipes His Main Instrument, Performs on I’ve Got a Secret (1966)

Musician Rufus Harley did the people of Scotland a great favor when he took up the bagpipes. Like the Loch Ness Monster and haggis, outside its country of origin, the national instrument has evolved into a hackneyed punchline.

What better, more unexpected ambassador for its expanded possibilities than a certified American jazz cat?

He certainly stumped the all-white celebrity panel when he appeared on Steve Allen’s popular TV game show, “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1966.




Politician and former Miss America Bess Myerson’s opening question feels a bit impolitic from a 50 year remove:

Is it how well you play it that’s unusual?

“Yes, definitely,” Harley agrees.

Having quickly sussed out that the instrument in question is a woodwind, the panel cycles through a list of candidates - flute?

Oboe?

Clarinet?

No?

A…sweet potato?

Once they start batting around saxophones, Allen issues a brisk corrective:

He wouldn’t be here tonight if he, you know, just played the saxophone and that was his secret because that wouldn’t be too good a secret. 

Point taken.

Something tells me a white guy in a suit and a tie would have elicited less wonder from the panel upon the revelation that the instrument they failed to guess was the bagpipes.

On the other hand, here is a person of color commanding attention and respect on national television in 1966, two days after the Black Panther Party was officially founded.

Harley had had professional training in the saxophone, oboe, trumpet and flute, but as a bagpiper he was self-taught. As the comments on the video above demonstrate, his unorthodox handling of the instrument continues to confound more traditional pipers. No matter. The sounds he coaxed out of that thing are unlike anything you’re likely to hear on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

At the end of the segment, Harley joined his back up musicians onstage for a live, Latin-inflected cover of "Feeling Good.”

Spotify listeners can enjoy more of Harley’s distinctive piping here.

And just for fun, check out this list of bagpipe terms.There’s more to this instrument than its association with Groundskeeper Willy might suggest.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and theater maker whose latest play, Zamboni Godot, is opening in New York City on March 2. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Respond to the Challenges of Our Time?: Jazz Legends Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter Give 10 Pieces of Advice to Young Artists, and Everyone Else

Some moments in history strike us as dramatic ruptures. Certainties are superseded, thrown into chaos by a seismic event, and we find ourselves adrift and anxious. What are artists to do? Gripped by the same fears as everyone else, the same sense of urgency, writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters, etc. may find themselves unable to “breathe with unconditional breath / the unconditioned air,” as Wendell Berry once described the creative process.

We might remember the radical break with tradition when the shocking carnage of World War I sent poets and painters into frightening places they had previously left unexplored. Virginia Woolf summed up the situation in her essay The Leaning Tower: “suddenly like a chasm in a smooth road, the [Great] war came.” Shattered as they were, her generation overcame their paralysis. Modernists of the early 20th century were able to speak to their broken age in ways that continue to speak to ours.




But we should temper our belief that bad times make good art by noting that the most visionary creative minds are not simply reactive, responding to tragedy like reporters on a crime scene. As Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock--- two of the 20th century’s most consistently innovative musicians---suggest, artists at all times need a set of guiding principles. (See the two play "Memory of Enchantment" above in 2002.) There is always a lot of personal work to do. And in “turbulent and unpredictable times,” the two jazz greats advise, “the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you.”

A platitude, perhaps, but one they illustrated nearly a year ago in an open letter at Nest HQ with some profound, if challenging, prescriptions for our present cultural illnesses. Shorter and Hancock’s counsel is not a reaction to the rupture of the presidential election, but a response to the events that preceded it, “the horror at the Bataclan… the upheaval in Syria and the senseless bloodshed in San Bernardino.” Not passively waiting to find out where the past few years’ violence and unrest would lead, the two have made ethical, philosophical, and spiritual interventions, presenting their philosophy and ethics through jazz, Buddhism, science, art, and literature.

Below, you can read their ten pieces of advice “to the next generation of artists,” or at least excerpts thereof. They begin with a reassuring preface: “As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace…. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.” That said, they also want to assure readers that “these thoughts transcend professional boundaries and apply to all people, regardless of profession.”

First, awaken to your humanity

You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet.

Embrace and conquer the road less traveled

Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers.

Welcome to the Unknown

Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.

Understand the True Nature of Obstacles

We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon.

Don’t Be Afraid to Interact with Those Who Are Different from You

The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common…. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts.

Strive to Create Agenda-Free Dialogue

Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool… we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all.

Be Wary of Ego

Creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.

Work Towards a Business without Borders

The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones.

Appreciate the Generation that Walked Before You

Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom…. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes.

Lastly, We Hope that You Live in a State of Constant Wonder

As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away.

Whether you’re a jazz fan, musician, artist, writer, accountant, cashier, trucker, teacher, or whatever, I can’t think of a wiser set of guidelines with which to confront the suffocating epidemic of cynicism, delusional thinking, rampant bigotry, hatred, and self-absorption of our time. Read Shorter and Hancock’s full open letter at Nest HQ.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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