A walk through the history of jazz in Harlem

In the streets of New York’s bustling neighborhood, Harlem still reverberates the history of the community that transformed jazz into a philosophy of life.

On the occasion of the exhibition dedicated to the artistic legacy of the jazz era, the Cooper Hewitt design museum has just organized a walking tour of 15 of Harlem’s most emblematic venues.

John Reddick, architect and historian, was in charge of guiding the attendees through the musical past of a neighborhood to which the figures of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday belong.

The vindication of the cultural identity of the Afro-American community, which settled to the north of the island of Manhattan in 1920, was the motor of the revitalization of Harlem and the origin of its sociocultural explosion.

The racial tensions that the United States experienced shaped the racial identity that has characterized the neighborhood ever since.

62% of the neighbors that now make up the neighborhood are African Americans, according to demographic data from New York City.

Musicians, writers, artists and thinkers contributed during the first decades of the twentieth century to construct a cultural imaginary typical of the black community known as “The Harlem Renaissance.”

Despite suffering today the effects of gentrification, the popular neighborhood retains much of its recent history in its architecture and nightlife.

The murals that decorate the main façade and the inner rooms of the Harlem hospital, at 135th Street, are a token of this.

The collection of paintings, commissioned by the first Administration for Progressive Work (WPA) in the hands of African Americans, portrays the essence of social activity of the time.

At the same height is the Schomburg center. What was the scene of the agitated political and cultural debate of the moment is today an active research center of black culture.

Just a few feet away from the headquarters that the YMCA association maintains open in Harlem. There were well-known writers such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.

The vibrant nightlife of jazz clubs can still be experienced today at venues such as the Alhambra Ballroom or the celebrated Cotton Club, just west of 125th Street.

The stars are no longer the same but the legendary Apollo Theater in the heart of Harlem continues to host countless concerts and performances that are no longer limited to a select white audience.

The impositions of the Dry Law and the desire of African Americans to manage their own leisure spaces made proliferate clandestine premises known as “speakeasies.”

There are still many curious who come to the so-called “jungle alley”, on 133rd Street, to track the footprint of those places.

As the epicenter of black music’s musical activity, Harlem was the preferred territory for record companies to establish themselves.

The residence of Harry Pace, founder of the record label “Black Swan Records” that boasted of being a stamp that only published to genuine artists of color, conserves to this day its original facade in 138th street.

At 129 Boulevard Malcom X is the National Jazz Museum, which since 1995 strives to strengthen the ties between the genre of syncopated rhythms and the general public.

The director of the museum, Ryan Murphy said in a visit organized by Cooper Hewitt that “95% of people feel the desire to justify their ignorance regarding the Jazz.”

“Of course there are many things to learn about jazz, but we also have to enjoy it and that is the goal of our museum: to bring jazz to the people.” Said Ryan Murphy.

The history of Harlem is the story of the birth of jazz. Moving today that was considered “the cultural capital of Black America” ​​means traveling to the roots of an unprecedented musical genre. Ana Hidalgo


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