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Place, Culture, and Representation

The Art and Politics of the Harlem Renaissance

The Power of Jazz

Learning Targets

  • I can use photographs to identify clues about cultural and political identity.
  • I can identify racial stereotypes in photographs.
  • I can identify cultural themes by listening to a piece of music.


Literature and visual art were not the only art forms that influenced the Harlem Renaissance: music, specifically jazz and blues, was also an important part of African American’s cultural identity. Created from the songs and spirituals of African music, jazz and blues became popular at the beginning of the twentieth century, both in the United States and abroad.

Nightclubs were the typical venues for such musical acts, and no nightclub was as famous as Harlem’s Cotton Club. In 1923, Owney Madden, a white gangster, opened the club. The club was originally only opened to white patrons, but featured many African American musical acts. Eventually, Duke Ellington was able to persuade the club owner to allow African Americans to be admitted. The Cotton Club opened during the years of prohibition, so guests illegally smuggled alcohol inside. The Cotton Club was home to many of the finest musicians of the time, including Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and more.

The blues form, popular in jazz and rock and roll, originated in African American communities, primarily in the Deep South, at the turn of the twentieth century. This genre grew from spirituals, work songs, and chants that slaves sung in the fields to help pass the time and communicate with one another. The term “blues” is thought to have derived from mysticism involving blue indigo, which was used by many West African cultures in death and mourning ceremonies—all the mourners’ garments were dyed blue to indicate suffering. The mystical association with the indigo plant, grown in many southern U.S. slave-holding plantations, combined with the West African slaves who sang of their suffering as they worked on the cotton that the indigo dyed, eventually resulted in these songs being known as “the blues.”

Because the Harlem Renaissance is seen mainly as a literary movement, the music of the time often receives less attention. The reason could be that while spirituals had wide respect as a traditional folk genre, blues and jazz were scorned by African American leaders (as well as much of their upper and middle classes) as representing a stereotyped African American culture. Some even claimed that the tribal roots and supposed “primitivism” in blues and jazz were precisely what attracted wealthy whites to the music. African American leaders such as Du Bois wanted to prove that African Americans could also create music that fit the European mold.

The blues reflected and expressed African American lifestyles—the struggles and fulfillments of living in a country that was both hostile and promising, binding and free. However, the elements that defined the music of African Americans communicated the very stereotypes that Renaissance leaders wanted to avoid.

Begin the Activity

Distribute the images or project them. If available, have students listen to recordings of Bessie Smith’s Downhearted Blues and Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blue. Students should be handed copies of the song lyrics, and number each line for easier reference.

Links to Song Lyrics
Downhearted Blues

(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue

(Also see American Passages: A Literary Survey, Unit 14, “Becoming Visible” video: http://www.learner.org/resources/series164.html)

Questions to Consider

  • How do photographs of the jazz scene (or street photographs) reflect the major themes found in the art and literature?
  • What do the lyrics of the songs say about issues that the musicians were dealing with?
  • What impact did the music of the Harlem Renaissance have on the music of today?
  • How do the photos of the Cotton Club represent the identity of “The New Negro”?
  • How are racial stereotypes or attitudes portrayed in photos from the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom?
  • What is the mood expressed in the portraits of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong?

Extension Activity

Have students compose song lyrics of their own, using the lyrics of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as model texts. Ask students what themes they would include in their lyrics. Invite students to create an artistic element to go along with their lyrics, or to compose music to accompany their lyrics. Consider making this a multidisciplinary project involving the art or music department.

Grade Level

Middle & High School


English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History


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