The Jazz Age Essay

This progressive spirit was embodied in the title of a 1930 piano opus by Johnson: “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.” The white baby grand piano at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem belonged to Ellington, who used that very instrument as he wrote many of the 1920s compositions that launched his career.He attained the kind of popularity that transcended racial barriers, establishing once and for all that an African American composer and musician could be acknowledged as a peer of not only his contemporaries such as George Gershwin, but also of the nineteenth-century European masters to whom our contemporary orchestras still pay homage.The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, an exhibition examining transatlantic influences in the creation of a broad spectrum of design, reflecting evolving American tastes, from skyscraper furniture to textiles, fashion, jewelry, and accessories, is now open through August 20, 2017.

The piano roll brought songs emerging from Harlem—such as Johnson’s pièce de résistance “Caroline Shout”—to Ellington and the rest of the country and codified Johnson’s solo jazz piano style, known as Harlem Stride.

Big bands were filling dance halls with Lindy Hoppers, and jazz reached around the world, initially embraced by the youth and the creative classes, who in many cases were also engaging in the worlds of art and design.

Ellington was broadcasting live from the Cotton Club, social mores were being broken left and right, and women were exploring a new social independence with their right to vote, even as the world struggled to deal with the crippling effects of the Great Depression.

Fashion also underwent a similar infusion of modernity, with the introduction of highly stylized forms of dress; as one elder Harlemite shared with us, “you didn’t go out unless you were dressed to impress.” It is easy to glamorize this rich period of cultural expression, but it is important to also understand that even in Harlem, segregation and racism were still very much a part of everyday life for African Americans.

Though uptown nightlife revolved around nightclubs and speakeasies, most of these establishments were segregated (including the iconic Cotton Club), with only a few integrated venues available, such as the Savoy Ballroom and Smalls Paradise.

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