Harmony in Harlem: an interaction of jazz and culture


Author/Creator ORCID





Towson Seminar

Citation of Original Publication



[From paper]: Much like the chicken and the egg, jazz and culture share a tricky relationship. Is jazz simply a small part of culture, which is made up of thousands of other customs and institutions? Or does jazz create its own culture? Naturally, the answer is a complicated one. Jazz was born out of culture, namely African American traditions, and was therefore created by civilization. However, jazz also shapes that civilization, as it inspires its listeners and spreads different ideas. Duke Ellington, one of the most influential jazz composers of the 20th century, serves as the perfect example of this give and take between music and society. Ellington’s compositions paint an accurate yet passionate picture of life, specifically life as an African American. From African roots to complex orchestration, Ellington infuses countless elements into his songs, celebrating black culture and in turn, inspiring his listeners. First recorded in 1937, Ellington’s “Harmony in Harlem” provides an inside look into Harlem life. Sandwiched between the end of the Harlem Renaissance and the beginning of the Swing Era, the piece reflects both the larger cultural movement at the time as well as Ellington’s personal ideologies about race and music. In 1967, during the civil rights movement, “Harmony in Harlem” was recorded again. Separated by three decades, one can make clear distinctions between the different recordings due to the shifts in both culture and jazz; however, its message of freedom remains prevalent throughout.