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Various Artists: Rhapsodies In Black: Music and Words from the Harlem Renaissance

Ken Burns’ Jazz is now on its way to the television series hall of fame. We critics may have our quibbles about it (especially the Bird-was-a-tragic-junkie-genius segment and the last-40-years-of-jazz-evolution-only-needs 60-minutes final episode), but overall, the deelio was enlightening, entertaining and Afrocentrically on point.

What really got me open were the early episodes (postslavery to postprohibition). Brilliantly paced/edited ciphers of photomontages, talking heads/voices, crucial music bits, Keith David’s wryly dramatic narratives, they played an American dream saga deep as Roots. Jazz music as learning tree/spirit-cosmic transcendence over racism, segregation, poverty, violence, powerlessness; Jazz as metaphor for a people’s resurrection, invention, socio-political elevation/cultural validation. And all of Ken Burns’ Jazz’s roads led to Harlem.

Harlem, N.Y. is, always has been, both Afro-America’s Oz and Mecca. Sugar Hill, Striver’s Row, 125th Street, Daddy Grace, Marcus Garvey, rent parties, nightclubs, Hotel Theresa, Savoy Ballroom. The jazz gods-Eubie Blake, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Mary Lou Williams, Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller-play/change the Big Music there 24-7. Note to Mr. Ken: On street corners, in boho salons, Park Avenue galleries, novels, plays, something even more heady, risky, future-shocking was going down at the same time: the Harlem Renaissance. For nearly two decades (1915-35), Harlem birthed and nurtured not only the Godfathers of black intellectualism and political activism but also (most importantly) the architects of 20th-century black literature. Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown and their peers were the first to write in thoughts and voices that were strictly from/about the Negro experience in America.

Their collective genius move was to reimagine the folk and blues oral traditions; their collective fatal flaw was fronting on jazz (“unruly, base, primitive”) instead of embracing/exalting it.

Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words From the Harlem Renaissance ain’t about sweatin’ the technique or cursin’ the darkness; it’s about reconcilin’ the ism-schism, servin’ up the Big Picture. It’s an audacious gambit: Have poems/excerpts from the masters read by iconoclastic contemporary black artists like Gregory Hines, Chuck D., Eartha Kitt (a steamily erotic reading of Nicolas Guillen’s “Sensemaya: A Chant for Killing a Snake”) then mix-match spin all kindsa time-paralleled blues ‘n’ jazz (bands, orchestras, solo artists) around them. Like the way Mistah Chuck’s Up South Big Poppa braggadocio on Sterling Brown’s “Odyssey of Big Boy” (“An’ all dat Big Boy axes/When the time comes fo’ to go/Lemme be wid John Henry, steel drivin’ man/Lemme be wid Ole Jazzbo/Lemme be wid Ole Jazzbo”) decelerates into a dissipated, drunken, Cab Calloway-led shim-sham-shimmy of “Minnie the Moocher: The Ho De Ho Song.”

Or the way Alfre Woodard’s feverishly obsessive reading of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “I Want to Die While You Love Me” (“Till love has nothing more to ask/And nothing more to give!”), Ethel Waters’ teary-with-no-regrets “Stormy Weather,” Cab’s N’Awwlins-ragging “kiss-off” “Corrine, Corrina,” Sidney Bechet’s skittery-jivey “Sweetie Dear,” LeVar Burton’s blood-stirring reading of W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Damnation of Women” (“…but none have I known…more instinctively pure in body and in soul than the daughters of my black mothers.”), Adelaide Hall’s creamydreamylovestruck “Baby” form a six-movement yin/yang paean to the sistahs (then and now).

Even when a reading sucks (Ice-T’s thuggish “If We Must Die” is really bad), the music rarely leaves you hanging on front street-no mean feat with some 85 tracks spread over four CDs. Add a 100-page booklet peppered with period photos, illustrations, several illuminating essays (Gerald Early, Allen Lowe and Paul Oliver) in the mix for contextualization/validation props, and Rhapsodies in Black rises from neat marketing concept to seminal pop cultural text. And it swings like a mofo.

Originally Published