Stream Online the Complete “Lost” John Coltrane Album, Both Directions at Once

Expectations ran high when it was announced last month that a lost (!) John Coltrane album, Both Directions at Once, had been discovered by the family of his ex-wife Naima, and would finally be released for fans to hear. Would it prove worthy of Sonny Rollin’s comparison to “finding a new room in the Great Pyramid”? Such discoveries can lead to dead ends and disappointments as often as to revelations. In this case, the album yields neither, which is not to say it isn’t, as Chris Morris writes at Variety, “a godsend.”

The album lives up to its title, chosen by Coltrane’s son Ravi, as a transitional document, stunning, but not particularly surprising. Hear all 7 cuts on the single-disc version of the release on this page, with typically excellent playing by Coltrane’s classic quartet (bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyner) and an early take on “one of the warhorses of the Coltrane catalog”—“Impressions”—including three additional takes on the Deluxe Version, which you can stream on Spotify here or purchase here. (Tyner sits out the take on the single disc version, turning it into a “hard-edged, percolating showcase for Coltrane in trio format.”)




Several critics have suggested that this “lost album” isn’t a proper album at all, but rather, as Ravi Coltrane put it, “a kicking-the-tires kind of session,” and perhaps that’s so. Nonetheless, it works as “a portrait of an artist and a band on the brink of a historic explosion,” Morris writes.

"The bracing, probing, self-questioning and keenly played music on this collection is the missing link between the provisional work heard on 1962’s ‘Coltrane’ and the quartet’s epochal studio albums – ‘Crescent,’ the devout ‘A Love Supreme’ and (with additional personnel) the free jazz magnum opus ‘Ascension.’”

Others echo this assessment. Drowned in Sound’s Joe Goggins calls Both Directions at Once “hard evidence that he was still looking for new sounds within old structures,” and The New Yorker’s Richard Brody describes the session as “something of a stocktaking” that balances the experiments of the band’s live sets with the reigned-in discipline of its early 60s studio work. Brody also laments that “little on the album matches the music that Coltrane was making at the time in concert.” Winston Cook-Wilson at Spin describes the music as “sometimes at war with itself…. The contrasts of their catalogue are pushed against each other, sometimes within the same song.”

All of this internal tension makes for an exciting listen, especially in its two new originals, known only as “Untitled Original 11383” and “Untitled Original 11386,” and the 11-minute “Slow Blues,” which Morris aptly describes as “a geared-down, encyclopedic workout on blues changes” that builds, after its tempo doubles, to a “full-cry conclusion.”

In all, the new lost album shows Coltrane just about to break new ground, but not quite yet, which perhaps makes it a newly essential document for the Coltrane completist. For most lovers of the great innovator, it’s just a damn fine "new" Coltrane record, both daring and accessible at once.

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

Stream a 144-Hour Discography of Classic Jazz Recordings from Blue Note Records: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman & More

There have been many influential jazz record labels throughout the previous century and into the current one, but there is no more recognizable label than Blue Note Records. Blue Note is “unquestionably the most iconic jazz label there has ever been,” claims the site Udiscover Music in a post on the “50 Greatest” Blue Note albums. Indeed, “it may well be the most iconic record label of all time… a brand recognized the world over for the ‘finest in jazz.’”

Outside of the label identities in certain subcultures like punk and electronic music, no other name so instantly conjures up a fully-formed, distinctive look and sound. It is the monochrome look of dapper, too-cool musical giants in tailored suits and skinny ties, and the sound, primarily, of the Hard Bop era—of Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, and, of course, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, artists who totally enlarged the boundaries of jazz. (See the trailer above for the Sophie Huber documentary Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes.)

By design, Blue Note’s unforgettable 50s and 60s album covers—most created by artist Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff—suggest brimfuls of possibility. “Right from the beginning,” says producer and writer Michael Cuscuna in the video above, “they really took their covers seriously.”




But this would have meant little if they hadn’t taken the music just as seriously as the stylish artwork that adorns it. Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis, the label first served as a home for more traditional big band and swing, but in the late forties, Blue Note seemed to realize better than any other commercial entity that the future of jazz had arrived, thanks in part to saxophonist and talent scout Ike Quebec.

“Not really in the pantheon of Blue Note players of the 1960s,” writes Burning Ambulance (he died in early ’63), Quebec is still central to the label’s success. As an A&R man, he signed Monk and Bud Powell, and “it’s been said that he did a lot of uncredited arranging on other musicians’ sessions, too.” His later recordings fit right in with his more famous peers (check out his “Blue and Sentimental”). Quebec’s own work doesn’t come up in many Blue Note retrospectives, including the Spotify discography above, and that’s too bad. But it’s hard to complain when you’ve got so many incredible, iconic Blue Note recordings in one place.

Created by Junior Bonner, the Blue Notes Records Discography playlist is not “complete” in that it contains every album the label ever released—an impossible expectation, surely, especially since Blue Note is still going strong. But, with a run time of 144 hours, it more than sufficiently covers the roster of the label’s greatest players, including several many of us probably haven’t heard before in much depth. Hardcore audiophile record collectors should visit LondonJazzCollector and Jazzdisco.org to get the full Blue Note catalog of every Blue Note artist and release. But lovers of jazz who don’t mind digital streaming instead of precious vinyl and shellac will be thrilled with this impressive anthology.

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

Marjorie Eliot Has Held Free Jazz Concerts in Her Harlem Apartment Every Sunday for the Past 25 Years

I spent a good part of a decade-long sojourn through New York City in Harlem—at the neighborhood’s threshold at the top of Central Park, just a short walk from its historic main attractions: jazz haunts, famed restaurants, theaters, architectural splendor and wide, vibrant avenues. After a while, I thought I knew Harlem well enough. Then I moved to Sugar Hill, at the very edge of the island, across the water from Yankee Stadium. Usually overlooked, leafy street after street of stately brownstones and pre-World War I apartment buildings, sometimes worse for wear but always regal. A few avenue blocks from my building: St. Nick’s Pub, which I became convinced, for good reason, was the city’s true remaining heart of jazz.

Shuttered, to the neighborhood’s dismay, in 2012, the humble bar—where, on any given night, Afro-jazz, hard bop, free jazz, and classic swing ensembles of the very finest musicians performed from dusk till dawn, passing the hat to an always appreciative crowd—was, as a New York Times obituary for the deceased nightspot wrote, “simply magical… one of the few remaining jazz clubs in Harlem.”  But then, I didn’t visit Marjorie Eliot’s apartment. I remember seeing her play at St. Nick’s a time or two, but never made it over to 555 Edgecombe Avenue, Apartment 3-F. This was to my great loss.

It’s not too late. Since 1994, Ms. Eliot, a jazz pianist, has carried on a grand tradition of Harlem's from its golden ages, with weekly house concerts in her parlor, “Harlem’s secret jazz queen of Sugar Hill,” writes Angelika Pokovba, “single-handedly upholding the musical legacy of a neighborhood that nurtured legends like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.”




Except she isn’t single-handed, as you can see in the videos here, but always joined by a talented crew of players whom she handpicks and pays out of pocket. The hat is passed, but no one’s obligated to pay, there are no tickets, door charges, or drink minimums; all you’ve got to do is show up at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon.

Marjorie greets each guest at the door. A full house is a crowd of up to 50 people. The atmosphere is reserved and family friendly, a far cry from the riotous rent parties of legend. But this is the place to be, say both the regulars and the musicians, like saxophonist Cedric Show Croon, who told NPR, “When you play here you have to be honest. You can only play in an honest way, you know.” You can get a small taste of the intimacy here, but to truly experience Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s—as a Harlem culture guide notes—you’ve got to travel uptown yourself.

“Rain or shine, with no vacations,” the free concerts have gone on for 25 years now, beginning, as you’ll see in the video above, with a tragedy, the death of Eliot’s son Philip in 1992. The following year, on the anniversary of his death, she arranged an outdoor concert on the lawn of Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. Then, the next year, the memorial moved to her apartment and became a weekly gig that carried her through more terrible loss—the death of another son and the disappearance of a third.

Eliot refused to give up on the music that kept her going, creating community in an easygoing, open-hearted way. “This idea of sharing and celebrating the music came real early,” she told NPR. “So I don’t do anything different now than when Aunt Margaret is coming over and come show what you did in your lessons.” As you’ll see in the videos here—and experience in full, no doubt, if you can make the trip: Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s is anything but an ordinary Sunday afternoon with Aunt Margaret.

Via Messy Nessy

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

David Sedaris Creates a List of His 10 Favorite Jazz Tracks: Stream Them Online

Image by WBUR, via Wikimedia Commons

You can't read far into David Sedaris' writing without encountering his father Lou, a curmudgeonly, decades-and-decades-retired IBM engineer with a stiffly practical mind and a harsh word for everybody — especially his misfit son, dedicating his life as he has to the quasi-occupation of writing while living in far-flung places like Paris and rural England. Even now, solidly into his nineties, Sedaris père keeps on providing the sixtysomething Sedaris fils with material, all of it — once polished up just right — a source of laughter for the latter's many readers and listeners. But Lou has also given David something else: a passion for jazz.

"My father loves jazz and has an extensive collection of records and reel-to-reel tapes he used to enjoy after returning home from work," writes Sedaris in one essay. "He might have entered the house in a foul mood, but once he had his Dexter Gordon and a vodka martini, the stress melted away and everything was 'Beautiful, baby, just beautiful.'" He then goes on to tell the story of how his father once attempted to train young David and his sisters into a Brubeck-style family jazz combo — a hopeless dream from the start, but one that has since entertained his fans around the world. (Not that Sedaris hasn't provided some of that entertainment by performing commercial jingles in the voice of Billie Holiday.)

Appearing on a guest DJ segment on Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, Sedaris told of how his father introduced him to jazz: "I remember seeing the movie Lady Sings the Blues, right, and thinking Diana Ross did such a good job. And my Dad saying, 'Oh boy, you've got a lot to learn,' and then him playing Billie Holiday 78s for me... and then him taking it back even further and sitting me down to listen to Mabel Mercer. He really did give me quite an education and it's the music that's stuck with me." As for the first jazz album he ever heard, he names in a recent JazzTimes interview Charles Mingus' The Clown, the one "with a close-up of a clown’s face on the cover" that still, in his estimation, "looks so modern and it sounds so modern."

When Sedaris' official Facebook page posted ten of his favorite songs, he came up with an all-jazz list including the work of Nina Simone, Antonio Carlos Jobim, John Coltrane, and other luminaries of the tradition. (He did not, of course, neglect Billie Holiday.) A fan turned it into a Spotify playlist, which you'll find embedded below (and if you don't have Spotify's free software, you can download it here):

"I used to work in complete silence," Sedaris tells JazzTimes, but "about three or four years ago I started listening to music [while I work], but not music with lyrics in it." Much of the jazz he loves fits that description, and he's also, in combination with the variety of music-streaming services available now, discovered new jazz artists while writing. Having put drinking and smoking completely behind him — and having written about both of those experiences — Sedaris retains jazz as one of the substances that keeps him going. It certainly seems to have worked for the man who brought the music into his life, whom Sedaris has imagined may yet outlive us all: "If anything happens to me," he says, "the one thing my father wants is my iPod."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Josephine Baker Went From Homeless Street Performer to International Superstar, French Resistance Fighter & Civil Rights Hero

There has maybe never been a better time to critically examine the granting of special privileges to people for their talent, personality, or wealth. Yet, for all the harm wrought by fame, there have always been celebrities who use the power for good. The twentieth century is full of such figures, men and women of conscience like Muhamad Ali, Nina Simone, and Paul Robeson—extraordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. Yet no celebrity activist, past or present, has lived a life as extraordinary as Josephine Baker’s.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 to parents who worked as entertainers in St. Louis, Baker’s early years were marked by extreme poverty. “By the time young Freda was a teenager,” writes Joanne Griffith at the BBC, “she was living on the streets and surviving on food scraps from bins.” Like every rags-to-riches story, Baker’s turns on a chance discovery. While performing on the streets at 15, she attracted the attention of a touring St. Louis vaudeville company, and soon found enormous success in New York, in the chorus lines of a string of Broadway hits.




Baker became professionally known, her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker writes in his biography, as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” A great achievement in and of itself, but then she was discovered again at age 19 by a Parisian recruiter who offered her a lucrative spot in a French all-black revue. “Baker headed to France and never looked back,” parlaying her nearly-nude danse sauvage into international fame and fortune. Topless, or nearly so, and wearing a skirt made from fake bananas, Baker used stereotypes to her advantage—by giving audiences what they wanted, she achieved what few other black women of the time ever could: personal autonomy and independent wealth, which she consistently used to aid and empower others.

Throughout the 20s, she remained an archetypal symbol of jazz-age art and entertainment for her Folies Bergère performances (see her dance the Charleston and make comic faces in 1926 in the looped video above). In 1934, Baker made her second film Zouzou (top), and became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. But her sly performance of a very European idea of African-ness did not go over well in the U.S., and the country she had left to escape racial animus bared its teeth in hostile receptions and nasty reviews of her star Broadway performance in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies (a critic at Time referred to her as a “Negro wench”). Baker turned away from America and became a French citizen in 1937.

American racism had no effect on Baker’s status as an international superstar—for a time perhaps the most famous woman of her age and “one of the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe.” She inspired modern artists like Picasso, Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, and Alexander Calder (who sculpted her in wire). When the war broke out, she hastened to work for the Red Cross, entertaining troops in Africa and the Middle East and touring Europe and South America. During this time, she also worked as a spy for the French Resistance, transmitting messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

Her massive celebrity turned out to be the perfect cover, and she often “relayed information,” the Spy Museum writes, “that she gleaned from conversations she overheard between German officers attending her performances.” She became a lieutenant in the Free French Air Force and for her efforts was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance by Charles De Gaulle and lauded by George S. Patton. Nonetheless, many in her home country continued to treat her with contempt. When she returned to the U.S. in 1951, she entertained huge crowds, and dealt with segregation “head –on,” writes Griffith, refusing “to perform in venues that would not allow a racially mixed audience, even in the deeply divided South." She became the first person to desegregate the Vegas casinos.

But she was also “refused admission to a number of hotels and restaurants.” In 1951, when employees at New York’s Stork Club refused to serve her, she charged the owner with discrimination. The Stork club incident won her the lifelong admiration and friendship of Grace Kelly, but the government decided to revoke her right to perform in the U.S., and she ended up on an FBI watch list as a suspected communist—a pejorative label applied, as you can see from this declassified 1960 FBI report, with extreme prejudice and the presumption that fighting racism was by default “un-American.” Baker returned to Europe, where she remained a superstar (see her perform a medley above in 1955).

She also began to assemble her infamous “Rainbow Tribe,” twelve children adopted from all over the world and raised in a 15th-century chateau in the South of France, an experiment to prove that racial harmony was possible. She charged tourists money to watch the children sing and play, a “little-known chapter in Baker’s life” that is also “an uncomfortable one,” Rebecca Onion notes at Slate. Her estate functioned as a “theme park,” writes scholar Matthew Pratt Guterl, a “Disneyland-in-the-Dordogne, with its castle in the center, its massive swimming pool built in the shape of a “J” for its owner, its bathrooms decorated like an Arpège perfume bottle, its hotels, its performances, and its pageantry.” These trappings, along with a menagerie of exotic pets, make us think of modern celebrity pageantry.

But for all its strange excesses, Guturl maintains, her “idiosyncratic project was in lockstep with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement." She wouldn’t return to the States until 1963, with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and when she did, it was as a guest of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the organizers of the March on Washington, where, in her Free French Air Force uniform, she became the only woman to address the crowd. The visual recounting of that moment above comes from a new 600-page graphic biography that follows Baker's “trajectory from child servant in St. Louis,” PRI writes, “to her days as a vaudeville performer, a major star in France, and later, a member of the French Resistance and an American civil rights activist.”

In her speech, she directly confronted the government who had turned her into an enemy:

They thought they could smear me, and the best way to do that was to call me a communist.  And you know, too, what that meant.  Those were dreaded words in those days, and I want to tell you also that I was hounded by the government agencies in America, and there was never one ounce of proof that I was a communist.  But they were mad.  They were mad because I told the truth.  And the truth was that all I wanted was a cup of coffee.  But I wanted that cup of coffee where I wanted to drink it, and I had the money to pay for it, so why shouldn’t I have it where I wanted it?

Baker made no apologies for her wealth and fame, but she also took every opportunity, even if misguided at times, to use her social and financial capital to better the lives of others. Her plain-speaking demands opened doors not only for performers, but for ordinary people who could look to her as an example of courage and grace under pressure into the 1970s. She continued to perform until her death in 1975. Just below, you can see rehearsal footage and interviews from her final performance, a sold-out retrospective.

The opening night audience included Sophia Lauren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days after the show closed, Baker was found dead in her bed at age 68, surrounded by rave reviews of her performance. Her own assessment of her five-decade career was distinctly modest. Earlier that year, Baker told Ebony magazine, “I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed.” We might not agree with her critical self-evaluation, but her life bears out the strength and authenticity of her convictions.

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

Calm Down & Study with Relaxing Piano, Jazz & Harp Covers of Music from Hayao Miyazaki Films

Calling all pediatric dentists!

Cat Trumpet, aka musician and anime lover Curtis Bonnett, may have inadvertently hit on a genius solution for keeping young patients calm in the chair: relaxing piano covers of familiar tunes from Studio Ghibli’s animated features.

The results fall somewhere between pianist George Winston’s early 80s seasonal solos and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack for the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Let us remember that most of these tunes were fairly easy on the ears to begin with. Composer Joe Hisaishi, who has collaborated with director Hayao Miyazaki on every Studio Ghibli movie save Castle of Cagliostro, isn't exactly a punk rocker.




Many listeners report that the playlist helps them stay focused while studying or doing homework. Others succumb to the emotional riptides of childhood nostalgia.

Tender prenatal and newborn ears might prefer Cat Trumpet’s even gentler harp covers of seven Ghibli tunes, above.

Meawhile, the Japan-based Cafe Music BGM Station provides hours of jazzy, bossa-nova inflected Studio Ghibli covers to hospitals, hair salons, boutiques, and cafes. You can listen to three-and-a-half-hours worth, above. This, too, gets high marks as a homework helper.

 

Cat Trumpet’s Relaxing Piano Studio Ghibli Complete Collection

00:00:03 Spirited Away - Inochi no Namae

00:04:14 Howl's Moving Castle - Merry Go Round of Life

00:07:16 Kiki's Delivery Service - Town With An Ocean View

00:09:31 The Secret World of Arrietty - Arrietty's Song

00:13:29 Laputa Castle In The Sky - Carrying You

00:17:05 Porco Rosso - Theme

00:19:55 Whisper of the Heart - Song of the Baron

00:22:33 Porco Rosso - Marco & Gina's Theme

00:26:19 Only Yesterday - Main Theme

00:29:07 From Up On Poppy Hill - Reminiscence

00:34:12 Spirited Away - Shiroi Ryuu

00:37:06 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind - Tori no Hito

00:41:14 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind -  Kaze no Densetsu

00:43:25 My Neighbor Totoro - Kaze no Toori Michi

00:47:48 Castle of Cagliostro - Fire Treasure

00:51:38 Princess Mononoke - Tabidachi nishi e

00:53:07 Tales From Earthsea - Teru's Theme

00:58:17 My Neighbor Totoro - Tonari no Totoro

01:02:35 Whisper of the Heart - Theme

01:06:03 Ponyo - Rondo of the Sunflower House

01:10:34 Howl's Moving Castle - The Promise of the World

 

Cat Trumpet’s Relaxing Harp Studio Ghibli Collection Playlist

00:03 Spirited Away - Inochi no Namae

04:01 Spirited Away - Waltz of Chihiro

06:43 Howls Moving Castle - Merry Go Round of Life

09:45 Howl's Moving Castle - The Promise of the World

13:15 Laputa Castle In The Sky - Main Theme

16:55 Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea - Main Theme

20:15 Tonari no Totoro - Kaze no Toori Michi

 

Cafe Music BGM’s Relaxing Jazz & Bossa Nova Studio Ghibli Cover Playlist (song titles in Japanese)

0:00 海の見える街  〜魔女の宅急便/Kiki's Delivery Service

4:10 もののけ姫  〜もののけ姫/Princess Mononoke

7:28 君をのせて 〜天空の城ラピュタ/Laputa, the Castle of the Sky

11:09 風の通り道 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

16:26 ひこうき雲 〜風立ちぬ/THE WIND RISES〜

19:48 空とぶ宅急便 〜魔女の宅急便/Kiki's Delivery Service

25:05 人生のメリーゴーランド

〜ハウルの動く城/Howl's Moving Castle

28:07 いつも何度でも 〜千と千尋の神隠し/Spirited Away

32:08 となりのトトロ 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

36:40 さんぽ 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

38:40 崖の上のポニョ 〜崖の上のポニョ/Ponyo

42:08 ねこバス 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

46:06 旅路 〜風立ちぬ/THE WIND RISES

49:16 アシタカとサン 〜もののけ姫/Princess Mononoke

53:38 おかあさん 〜となりのトトロ/My Neibour Totoro

58:19 旅立ち 〜魔女の宅急便/Kiki's Delivery Service

1:02:25 風の谷のナウシカ 〜風の谷のナウシカ/Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

1:06:59 やさしさに包まれたなら 〜魔女の宅急便/Kiki's Delivery Service

 

Tune in to Cat Trumpet’s Spotify channel for his relaxing takes on Disney and anime, as well as Studio Ghibli. They are available for purchase on iTunes and Google Play, or enjoy some free downloads by patronizing his Patreon. He takes requests, too.

Tune in to Cafe Music’s BGM Spotify channel for Studio Ghibli jazz, in addition to some relaxing Hawaiian guitar jazz and a selection of nature-based mellow tunes. They are available for purchase on iTunes.

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

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

Related Content:

Langston Hughes Presents the History of Jazz in an Illustrated Children’s Book (1955)

Langston Hughes Creates a List of His 100 Favorite Jazz Recordings: Hear 80+ of Them in a Big Playlist

Watch Langston Hughes Read Poetry from His First Collection, The Weary Blues (1958)

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

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