thankfully what 'Harlem Renaissance' lacks in documentation, context, and completeness is compensated by some fun-to-watch songs performed in their entirety

James Plath's picture

Call it a case of parallel universes.

In the Twenties, as Americans and other expatriates spontaneously gathered in Paris to form an unprecedented community of artists and intellectuals, their African-American counterparts came together in Harlem. On both sides of the Atlantic, they talked about art, music, literature, and philosophy with the same earnestness as they talked politics and world orders, building an unofficial support network for like-minded individuals of artistic bent. They ate and drank together in hangouts and reveled in intellectual and aesthetic arguments, they read each other's books both before and after publication, they visited each other's studios and exhibitions, and they took in each other's performances. And the name by which each movement has become known pretty much tells the tale of how they differed.

The expatriates—a cynical bunch which included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Juan Gris—became known by a catchphrase tossed their way by the matronly Gertrude Stein: The Lost Generation, a generation jaded because the world's most respected institutions could not prevent a destructive World War. In Harlem, meanwhile, the New Negroes Movement soon became known by a term which better reflected the spirit: the Harlem Renaissance. That movement began around the time that Prohibition was instituted, and all but ended when the Volstead Act was repealed. But during the Roaring Twenties, when a national thirst was quenched by speakeasies, the public's growing fascination with nighttime naughtiness led them to wander into Harlem, where a new music was happening. Jazz. Wild times at the Cotton Club, Apollo Theater, and Savoy Ballroom. Naughty things, like a near-nude Josephine Baker performing near-exotic dances. In literature, African-Americans like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Jean Toomer wrote about the divided experience of black Americans, while in art the Aaron Douglases, Hale Woodruffs, Romare Beardens, and Jacob Lawrences did the same, their works drawing a public more curious about African-influenced art partly because of Picasso's celebrated inclusion of African art in his own Cubist paintings and sculptures. In theater there was Ethel Waters and Paul Robeson, in opera there was Marion Anderson, in blues Bessie Smith, and bandstands full of musicians who brought jazz to the forefront of national culture.

The title of this dvd implies a thorough and scholarly overview, but "Harlem Renaissance: The Music & Rhythms That Started a Cultural Revolution" doesn't have all that much in the way of voiceover documentary explaining the era and all of the events that came together in order to produce this amazing artistic "happening." There are but two talking heads—African-American historians Michelle Spruill and Christopher Moore—and they all but ignore the writers for whom the term "Harlem Renaissance" was really coined, and don't do anything with the artists or stage talents. This disc is all about jazz performances, and thankfully what "Harlem Renaissance" lacks in documentation, context, and completeness is compensated by some fun-to-watch songs performed in their entirety by the artists who made them famous.

Cab Calloway and his orchestra perform "Minnie the Moocher" and "We the Cats will Hep Ya," Tiny Grimes belts out "Stompin' at the Savoy," Duke Ellington trots out "Cottontail," Fats Waller sings "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "This Joint is Jumpin'," Bill "Bojangles" Robinson performs "Let's Scuffle," Count Basie does "The Count is Jammin'," Sidney Bechet performs "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," Lena Horne sings "Friday Night," Billy Eckstine does "I Love the Rhythm in a Riff," Nat King Cole performs "Frim Fram Sauce," Fletcher Henderson does the "Jumpin' Jive," Louis Jordan and the Nicholas Brothers are "Jumpin' at the Jubilee," and the Mills Brothers do their dress-up version of "Cielito Lindo (Wish Me Luck Amigo)." Spliced into the footage are a few brief interviews with two musicians—including a 1981 conversation with Cab Calloway who talks about how he recruited Count Basie to play piano for his big band—and some black and white footage of Harlem and club exteriors. It would be nice to have had some documentation of where the performance clips were recorded, but none is provided. Much of them look like stage sets on which performers recorded short films for release in the theaters, or from the early days of television (which of course would date the performances past the true era of the Harlem Renaissance). Whatever the case, there's an interesting variety of sets. Henderson performs at what looks like a house party (albeit staged), the Count and the Duke perform with full orchestras on stage, Cole performs in what amounts to an early music video that looks like a television set, and Robinson does his tap dance on a set that looks like a version of "American Bandstand." In fact, one of the best parts for a social historian or the merely curious is the huge amount of audience footage that accompanies the performances and the amount of dancing—both staged and "spontaneous" included. The performances are great to have on a single dvd, and the songs roll past so quickly and non-stop that when it all comes to an end, it's hard to believe 75 minutes passed. But again, a little documentation would have been nice.

Most of the footage is rare, and so the quality isn't as sharp, say, as "The Dick Van Dyke Show" on dvd. There's plenty of graininess, fuzziness, flickering and dirt spots, but again the understanding is that this is some pretty darned old and scarce footage, provided by the Salonga Archives, the National Archives, Reda Productions, RP Video Enterprises, and Fran Healy Productions. The film is in black and white with only brief color segments, 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Overall, the quality isn't bad, considering what producers had to work with.

Though the audio is supposed to be Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, you could swear it's actually Mono. All of the sound comes out of the center speaker, with no discernable (at least to my ears) separation. Okay, but not great sound.

In addition to 24 scene selections (nicely done, with photo and title, broken according to songs, mostly), there are 11 performance extras—full songs that can be played all at once or accessed individually: Fats Waller ("Your Feets Too Big"), Nat King Cole ("I'm a Shy Guy," "Calypso Blues," "That's My Girl"), Count Basie ("Take Me Back, Baby," "The Start of Something Big"), The Mills Brothers ("Caravan"), Tiny Grimes ("Romance Without Finance"), Louis Armstrong "Swinging on Nothin'"), Dizzy Gillespie ("Salt Peanuts"), and Duke Ellington ("Satin Doll").

Bottom Line:
This isn't the definitive story of the Harlem Renaissance by any means, but it's a great introduction to the era and the musical talents that kept America coming back to Harlem for more.


Film Value