Harlem Renaissance Artists, Writers, and Musicians
Frameworks for America's Past
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Duke Ellington -
America's jazz band master

   Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born in 1899 in Washington, D.C.  The nickname "Duke" came from his childhood friends who were impressed with his classy good manners and sharp dressing style.

   Ellington began taking piano lessons when he was seven.  He played varsity sports in school, but by age 17 he knew his future was on the keyboards.

   The Duke moved to New York City in the 1920s.  The jazz music scene there was sophisticated - this was the time of the Harlem Renaissance.  Ellington listened, wrote music, and practiced.  Soon he was performing and recording with his own band.  He didn't stop for the next fifty years. 
This photo shows Ellington in 1943.

   In his lifetime Ellington composed more than 1,000 works, many of which are considered American standards.

Listen to Duke Ellington

   Click here to listen to "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"  Duke Ellington is at the piano in this performance from 1943.  The music was written by Ellington in the early 1930s.

   Click here to for a short YouTube video about the life of Duke Ellington.

The photo shows  Duke Ellington at the piano in New York City in 1943. 
He was enormously popular with both black and white audiences.

Louis Armstrong -
a voice for jazz

    Louis Armstrong was born to a very poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1901.  He was living in an orphanage at one point, and it was there that a volunteer taught him music and the self-discipline to succeed. 

   Armstrong began singing and performing in New Orleans as part of the orphanage band.  It was the city were jazz was born, and young Louis could hear it played in bars and clubs.  In the 1920s he moved to Chicago, which was fast becoming the center of the jazz music world. 

   The trumpet was Armstrong's jazz instrument, but he was just as famous for his gravely voice and singing style.

   By the time he died in 1971, his travels and performances had made him famous world-wide.

 Jazz composer and performer Louis Armstrong with his trumpet in 1953.
He was given the affectionate nickname "Satchmo."


Listen to Louis Armstrong

   Click here for a short YouTube video about the life of Louis Armstrong.

   Click here to listen to a clip from "When The Saints Go Marching In."  This was an old church song that Armstrong re-worked into a famous jazz-inspired version.

   Click here to listen to "What A Wonderful World." Louis Armstrong's famous singing voice is featured in this shadow-puppet show that salutes the great musician's heart and soul.

Looking deeper: The origin of "Jazz" music

   The word "jazz" or "jass" was a slang term used in the early 1900s to describe a baseball player or any person with lots of pep, energy, and enthusiasm.  Both spellings were common when it first started being used to describe the energetic, upbeat, fast-paced style of music that was appearing in those years. 

   Black musicians in New Orleans, Louisiana, created the new style.  It put a big emphasis on the creative energy of the individual performers.  Jazz musicians did not simply play the notes exactly as written on the sheet music.  They let the music flow through them, mixed their own feelings into it, and let it all out through their instruments.  People loved it, because they could feel the music and the performer's energy flowing through themselves as well.

   Jazz spread quickly into the broader American music culture, attracting white musicians and audiences.  The first jazz records appeared on store shelves in 1917, performed by a group called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  You can listen to them by clicking here to watch a short video.

Bessie Smith -
"Empress of the Blues"

   Bessie Smith was one of the best-selling recording artists of the 1920s.  She helped spread a style of music called "the blues" that originally developed in African American communities in the South. 

   Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894.  She lost both parents before she was nine.  Little Bessie and a brother began singing on the streets to earn money.  By the mid-1920s she was living in Philadelphia and earning a small fortune from record sales and concerts.

   Blues music has an easily recognized sound, but is not easy to define.  The lyrics are often are about sad or tragic events in life.

   Smith died in a car accident in 1937.  Thousands of people in Philadelphia lined up at her funeral to say good-bye to the Empress of the Blues.

Listen to Bessie Smith

   Click here to see a short video about Bessie Smith on YouTube.

   Click here to listen to one of Bessie Smith's favorite songs "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out."  This is a more recent performance (1980s) by another famous blues singer who knew Bessie Smith well in the 1920s.


Jacob Lawrence -
artist of the Great Migration

   Jacob Lawrence was born in New Jersey in 1917.  His family moved to the Harlem area of New York City when he was a young teenager. 

   Lawrence learned about painting from artists who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, but he developed his own creative style.  

   The artist was only 23 when he completed a series of 60 paintings that tell the story of the Great Migration in images and words.  Each painting in the series has a caption describing what it shows.

   The photo on the left shows Lawrence visiting a museum to see one of his paintings on display in 1945.  He served in the Coast Guard during World War II, and was still in uniform.

   Lawrence later became a professor of art in Seattle, Washington.

Click these links to see and learn more:

Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series  (a YouTube video for a recent
exhibit of his paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City)


Interactive site for Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series  (Explore
the paintings by moving the cursor over the paintings to see the captions. 
Also, click on the tabs and explore what is there about the
Great Migration and Lawrence himself.)

Langston Hughes -
poet of the black experience

   Langston Hughes was one of the most interesting and most complex figures of the Harlem Renaissance.  Born in 1902, he became a famous poet, a newspaper columnist, the founder of a theater group, a world traveler, a short story writer, and more.

   Hughes is best known today for his poetry that sought to raise the pride of black people in their own lives and achievements.  His interest was in the full sweep of the black experience in America.  He wanted to show the struggles of the black working class, but also reveal their inner strength and love of life.

   Hughes made a point of encouraging other black writers.  One of those he helped later said of Hughes:  "Langston set a tone, a standard of brotherhood and friendship and cooperation, for all of us to follow."

Click these links to learn more about Langston Hughes:

Langston Hughes mini-bio  (a short video about his life and work)

America's Story web pages about Langston Hughes, from the Library of Congress

All photographs courtesy the Library of Congress. 
The Bessie Smith portrait is from the Library
of Congress - Carl Van Vechten photograph collection.
The Louis Armstrong drawing is from the Dover Pictorial Archive.
Some images have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2017 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.