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Famous Musicians of the Highly Influential Harlem Renaissance

Famous Musicians of the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance music was an inherent expression of the joyous revolt from customs and confinement that was experienced by the African-Americans during the 1920s. This piece is a nostalgic look at the music from the Harlem era...
Loveleena Rajeev
Last Updated: Mar 19, 2018
The African-Americans gained new-found freedom through the renaissance and expressed it through the form of music and jazz. The musicians and singers formed The Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom, which didn't just attract the black crowd, but also the white people as much, making African-American music a rage in the 1920s.
Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington (29th April, 1899 - 24th May, 1974)
Ellington was an African-American music composer, pianist, band leader, and the 20th century's best-known artist. He brought many great artists together and formed one of the most well-known orchestral units in the history of jazz musicians. He recorded for many famous American record companies and acted in several films as well.
Ellington earned 13 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000 for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Best Jazz Performance By A Big Band, etc. He was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame awards for several performances, including Mood Indigo (1931), It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing - 1932), Cocktails for Two (1934), amongst many others. Among the many honors he received for promoting music, a new coin featuring him was launched by the United States Mint on 24th Feb, 2009. Ellington led his band and toured America constantly, until his death in 1974.
Lil Hardin Armstrong (3rd February, 1898 - 27th August, 1971)
Hardin was a jazz pianist, composer, singer, and even led a band for a while. She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in a deeply religious family that did not approve of popular music and the blues. She was only allowed to learn and practice Christian hymns, spirituals, and classics on the piano at home. However, she nursed a deep desire for music that was different from what she was learning.
She started working in different musical orchestras as a pianist, like the Dreamland, which belonged to Mae Brady, a violinist. In her career, she performed in many concerts, solo, as well as in collaboration with many other fellow artists. Some of her works include Struttin' With Some Barbecue, Don't Jive Me, Knee Drops, Just For a Thrill, etc. She died while performing a live televised memorial concert for Louis Armstrong (her former husband), on 27th August, 1971.
William 'Count' Basie (21st August, 1904 - 26th April, 1984)
Basie was born in New Jersey, and was an accomplished award-winning jazz pianist and composer, among many other things. He formed the popular band Count Basie Orchestra, and was considered as one of the most important jazz band leaders of his time. He is attributed with bringing many artists into the limelight, like the tenor saxophonists, Lester Young and Herschel Evans and trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry 'Sweets' Edison.
He acted in movies such as Sugar Chile Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet (1950), Cinderfella (1960) and Blazing Saddles (1974). He won nine Grammy awards for the Best Jazz Performance by a Group (1958), Best Jazz Performance By A Soloist - Instrumental (1976), and four Grammy Hall of Fame Awards. Among the many honors bestowed on Basie, the most recent include his induction into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (2007), and a Count Basie 32-cent postage stamp issued by the U.S. Post Office in September 1996. Basie died of pancreatic cancer on 26th April, 1984, and is recognized as a legend of his time.
James Price Johnson (1st February, 1894 - 17th November, 1955)
James Johnson, also known as Jimmy, was born in New Jersey, and was an African-American pianist and composer. As a young boy, he studied classical music and ragtime. Johnson was a composer at par, and is attributed for the creation of a keyboard-bending genre known as stride piano. The craze generated by his original dance tune called the Charleston has never been matched till date. He could not only combine ragtime and jazz piano styles, but also transcend between them with effortless ease. Besides Charleston, his other famous dance number or theme tunes were If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight), You've Got to Be Modernistic, Baby Don't Cry, Keep off the Grass, Old Fashioned Love, A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid, Carolina Shout and Snowy Morning Blues.
He created music for symphonic pieces, light opera, waltzes and ballet. He created the background scores for memorable movies like the Casablanca (1942), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Alex & Emma (2003) and Perfect Stranger (2007). The U.S. Post Office honored Johnson by issuing a James P. Johnson 32-cent commemorative postage stamp on 16th September, 1995. Amongst many other recognitions and honors that he received, the most recent was his induction into the 'ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame' in 2007. He died in Jamaica, New York State, on 17th November, 1955.
"Harlem was not so much a place as a state of mind, the cultural metaphor for black America itself" ~ Rhapsodies in Black, Henry Louis Gates Jr., 1997.
The Harlem Renaissance cultural movement started between 1920 and 1930, and was spearheaded from the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, hence the name. It was also known by various other names like the New Negro movement and the New Negro Renaissance. It marked the beginning of African-American literature along with its music, theater, art and politics.
One of the many effects of the 1930s Great Depression was the regression of the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement. However, in a short period of ten years, it left behind a legacy that still influences some of the greatest music, even today.