This Black History Month, many have decided to recognize the impact that African-Americans have had on our society- different inventions, scientific contributions, and literature, to name a few.
But aside from these, there is one thing that the black community created that cannot be replicated by anyone else: Jazz Music. Jazz came about during the Harlem Renaissance, where it was given a home to develop and grow alongside the musicians who created it. Jazz, and Harlem itself, defines what it means to be American, because among one collective identity, the music and the city both allowed for individual artistic pursuits.
Harlem comes from a journey of ideals. The foundations of jazz and Harlem are rooted in African culture, but those foundations made an extraordinary journey to America, from the slave trade, to emapncipation, and into black communities that still exist today. A poem by Walter Dean Myers paints Harlem as a “journey on the A-train that started on the banks of the Niger, and has not ended in Harlem.” Around the 1920’s, many black Americans began moving North in search of better careers and a fresh start. They were drawn to an area in upper Manhattan that was already home to black people, but was in close proximity to the rest of New York City, allowing for ample work and recreational opportunities.
At the time it was rife, Harlem was a new city bustling with ancient ideas. For one of the first times in American history, black Americans had a place to settle among people with similar backgrounds. Historically, African American culture has been systematically oppressed through means ranging from anti-voting laws to hairstyle regulation in the workforce. Harlem allowed a rebirth of black culture. Here, race was redefined as not something to be bound by, but to be embraced, and black people had more liberty to pursue their own dreams. For a lot of people, this meant pursuing jazz music, whether it was for a career or out of sheer enjoyment. Harlem gave a chance for black people to play music by black people, for black people. This helped to do away with much of the racism present in the music industry at the time- in other cities, it was near impossible for a black musician to land a spot in a band, but in Harlem, it happened all the time.
Additionally, jazz represented the freedom of expression so often repressed in the African American community. Bands would perform songs as a collective, but within those tunes, musicians could showcase their individual talents through improvisation.
Now, Harlem is hardly home to what it once was. Many people were forced out during the Great Depression, and most never moved back. The area still exists today, but it is a much wealthier neighborhood than it used to be, meaning that it is not an ideal place for young dreamers to move to to follow their passions.
Regardless, the Harlem Renaissance shaped what jazz is today, and remains a key part of African-American identity for some. It’s prosperity has come and gone, but the imprint of its contributions to American culture remains.