The Harlem Renaissance was a time of reinvention and creative joy within the Black community. One of the primary ways this newfound sense of creative freedom was explored was through jazz. Jazz is such a rich genre that sadly isn’t explored much by people my age. There are so many great pieces of work within this genre, especially from this time period (1920 to 1937). Since I hadn’t seen many of my peers dive into it besides my classmates at the Berklee College of Music Critical Listening summer course, I wanted to create a short list of gateway songs from this period of time that I find so interesting and share with other teens. So today, I am going to go over five essential jazz songs from the Harlem Renaissance era, and if you are new to the genre, these are some great places to start.
Billie Holiday – “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”
Billie Holiday got her start performing in local nightclubs in Harlem. Although she had little vocal training, her knowledge of music structure (which she got from her father, Clarence Holiday) and naturally broad voice helped her craft a sound that is still very unique to this day. As she grew along the ranks of beloved singers in Harlem, she would come to meet many important and influential figures. One of these figures was Malcolm Little, known then as Detroit Red and later as Malcolm X. She and Malcolm were familiar with each other through a mutual friend and would build a solid friendship while Malcolm was still in Harlem. However, Billie’s legacy in history is not because of all the important people she’s met, but rather the incredible pieces of music she made while she was alive.
“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” by Billie Holiday (written by Irving Berlin) is a magnificent showcase of what makes Billie stand out during a time of many talented singers, both male, and female. Billie’s vocals are expressive and raw throughout the entirety of the number, as she makes you truly feel what she is saying. Her vocal performance near the end of the song is especially strong, as she gradually builds up from the soft tone she takes at the beginning of the song and strengthens it in a smooth manner that really catches your attention. However, Billie’s vocals do not overshadow the wonderful instrumentation that is provided by her orchestra. The piano, horns, drums, and upright bass groove make your body move almost instinctively, as they all shine through the mixing of the song. Overall, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” by Billie Holiday is an altogether excellent song for first-time jazz listeners.
Duke Ellington – “Take the A Train”
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington grew up in Washington D.C. and moved to Harlem in 1923. Wasting no time, Duke would form his band the following year and get straight to work in the Harlem music scene. Being an exceptionally talented pianist, he and his group, The Washingtonians, were making quite a name for themselves. As he grew in notoriety, he would meet and collaborate with many talented artists. His most notable collaborator is none other than the legendary Ella Fitzgerald. Duke and Ella met in the mid-1930s at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and became life-long friends. In the coming years, they would work with each other and create great pieces of music (one of which will be discussed later on). However, Duke and his band would also compose other beautiful works of art that are noteworthy.
“Take The A Train” by Duke Ellington is a classic jazz standard that has aged wonderfully and is full of soul. The track (albeit having no spoken parts) is able to convey a bright and sunny feeling through its high tempo and upbeat instrumentation. Duke Ellington did a great job at holding the music together through his piano playing, and the rest of the Ellington orchestra held their own, especially the horn players. “Take The A Train” offers a very inspiring listening experience and I would 100% recommend it to any fan of music, either casual or hardcore. Quick fun fact, “Take The A Train” composer and member of the Ellington orchestra Billy Strayhorn, originally got the idea for this song from Duke himself as Duke told him to take the A train to Harlem to get to his house.
Billie Holiday, John Simmons & His Orchestra – “The Blues Are Brewin’”
“The Blues Are Brewin’” is yet another great showcase by Billie Holiday. The smooth nature and vocals by Holiday really make you feel the story being told. The instrumental pattern and progression help push along the story of the song on an equal level to Holiday’s vocals and even carry a personality of their own within the song, especially the horns and piano. “The Blues Are Brewin’” is a very relaxing and chill song that you can either study or slow dance to. It is overall a great musical piece that can be listened to at any time of the day (or any period in your life) and be enjoyed just the same. In closing, “The Blues Are Brewin” by Billie Holiday, John Simmons & His Orchestra is yet another jazz standard from the Harlem Renaissance era that I would recommend to first-time listeners of the jazz genre.
Art Tatum – “Tea For Two”
Hailing from Toledo, Ohio, Arthur Tatum Jr. was an expert pianist, often regarded as a natural prodigy. Growing up, Tatum played both violin and piano but was more skilled at the piano, thus convincing his parents to get him formal training. Tatum would continue to hone his skills through childhood until adulthood. He later moved from his hometown to Harlem in 1932, where he began his professional journey as a pianist. A year after his arrival, Tatum recorded his first track.
“Tea For Two” by Art Tatum is a catchy, excellently played piece. Tatum’s piano playing shines through, as his rhythm is almost infectious. His ability to control the progression of a song is uncanny and adds a sense of personality to the track. Overall, “Tea For Two” by Art Tatum is an excellent intro to his catalog and a great showcase of his talents.
Duke Ellington – “In A Sentimental Mood”
“In A Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington (not to be mistaken for the joint track of the same name by Ellington and iconic jazz saxophonist John Coltrane) is a song that demonstrates many feelings and emotions. From beginning to end, Duke and his orchestra, solely through instrumentation, craft a piece that is at times melancholy, yet gleeful. As with much of Duke’s discography, this track is smooth as butter and vividly paints a feeling of sentimentality, living up to its name. “In A Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington is a track that you need to hear at least once in your lifetime and a track that I would recommend to anyone new to jazz.
There are many great jazz musicians and singers who came out of this era, and many great songs were created. There are far too many artists and songs that could be discussed; this would probably be a fourteen-page article if I were to do so. These songs deserve to live on across generations and it is my pleasure to potentially help them make a course for the future. Thank you for reading this article, hope you enjoyed it and get to check out these dope songs.