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Renaissance


This week saxophonist Diego Rivera will be bringing his all star band to the Dirty Dog.

We are in for a treat.

Diego is one of many great jazz musician that take the legacy of their music seriously and they are passing it on to our young people. I caught up with Diego on Saturday at Michigan State’s Detroit Center on Woodward. He was taking part in MSU’s educational concert “Jazz and the Harlem Renaissance”. Earlier in the week Rodney Whitaker took this great program into six Detroit schools. They delivered a message that all things are possible, and then proved it with their playing. The music and the kids are in good hands.

MY INTRODUCTION TO THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

I was painting in my studio at the Scarab Club which is located just behind the Detroit Institute of Arts. The door was open to allow a breeze to come through. I heard a soft knock on the door and looked to see 5 black youth filling the doorway. All were in their teens and dressed like it. I seldom  had visitors and these were very unexpected guests. I admit that I was taken aback but offered a hesitant “come on in”. This was one of the smarter things that I have done. I learned a lot from these young men. One of the things I learned was the importance of the arts in all our lives, particularly at an early age. The five young writers were waiting to read their work at a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance across the street at The Wright Museum. We talked. They asked me directly why I painted. I didn’t have a quick answer. I then asked them why they wrote and to a man they had the same reason. They wrote every day so that they had something in their lives where they had control. What they wrote was theirs. They owned the stuff in their notebooks, good or bad. Unlike a lot in their lives everything in their writing was possible. They also could be the sole judge of their own work. Meeting these artists was a great and enriching experience for me. My first brief reaction had been  to stereotype these young people and their dress. I ended up with a deep admiration for their determination, their curiosity, and their skills. This was exactly the purpose and effect the Harlem Renaissance had on the world.

HARLEM RENAISSANCE

 Growing out of “The New Negro Movement”, the Harlem Renaissance began about 1918 and lasted until about 1935.  It created a lasting shift in the landscape of the arts in America. The caliber of the black Harlem writers, painters, and musicians allowed them to create works from their own experiences and these works shattered misplaced perceptions.. These artists were significant contributors to the American culture. The dignity of black life depicted in the writing, art and music pushed against long held  stereotypical views. America and the entire world took note. All America caught jazz fever from the jazz coming out of Harlem with its syncopation and improvised solos. Jazz was at the very heart of the renaissance and gained in stature with the likes of Duke Ellington going mainstream.

Harlem brought notice to great works that might otherwise have been lost or never produced. The results were phenomenal. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance undoubtedly transformed African American culture. But the impact on all American culture was equally strong. White America could not look away, George Gershwin certainly didn’t.

DETROIT RENAISSANCE

 The Harlem artist Aaron Douglas summed up the challenge like this:


“…Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era…let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic.”

This sure sounds like a good formula for the creative souls in Detroit right now.

Alvin Wattles, the musical director of the Michigan State University new play about the Harlem Renaissance,  Garden of Joy,  said:  “The people of Harlem knew the only way they were going to survive was by banding together, by recognizing common goals and working together to achieve them, and that’s certainly a good message for Detroit right now.”



For the thinkers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, the way to achieve this revaluation was through incorporating themes of their identity and history into their works. Detroit can learn and do the same. Meanwhile, come out to the Dirty Dog and witness Diego’s passion for the music. We are in good hands.

John Osler

Here are some photos of some heros.

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