Wilton event: Jazz series swings into Harlem

WILTON — From its founding by the Dutch in 1658 to the present day, Harlem has seen its ups and downs, but surely one of its up periods was that known as the Harlem Renaissance, fueled by the Great Migration of African Americans moving to northern states from the South at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the places they came in great numbers was Harlem, which benefited from a rich culture of music, dance, literature, and theater.

Jazz and its contribution to that time period will be the focus of “The Harlem Renaissance: Connections and Creativity,” a presentation by musician and educator Reggie Quinerly on Sunday, March 8, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Wilton Historical Society, 224 Danbury Road. The talk is part of the Scholarly Series “Jazzed Up — The History of Jazz in America, a collaboration between the historical society and Wilton Library. The event is sold out but to sign up for the waiting list visit www.wiltonlibrary.org or call 203-762-6334.

Quinerly said he will be talking primarily on the period of the late teens, “probably 1915 to 1917 and some of the earliest people such as James Reese Europe. This is kind of pre-jazz music influential in raising the level of musicianship and appreciation of music as presented in Harlem.”

Along with Europe, who was a ragtime bandleader, Quinerly will discuss some of the biggest names of the time including Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

From there, he said, he would also include “the importance of dance and how that played a role in the development of that music. I feel like to talk about Harlem, the renaissance and music go into the 30s and the swing era and hot bands associated with Harlem where you have the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom.”

As a musician and composer, Quinerly said, “One of the things I’ve learned is the overall umbrella of arts, they are all very much connected. Because of the way they are taught we just get one perspective. … but all of the arts were very much connected, especially in that time period because music served as the backdrop for the dancers. It was a dance-based art form.

“The other aspect that gets minimized is the social importance of the venues. This is where people went to be seen, where courtship took place. When we focus on music but not on dance or the social aspect, we do a disservice to the entire period,” he said.

Quinerly said he titled his talk “Connections and Creativity” because he wants to look beyond music and dance to how “that related to the poets of the era, the visual artists of the era, the way people viewed themselves. It’s a redefining moment. We have the ability to create and depict the narrative as we see it.”

When asked how the artists of the Harlem Renaissance transformed African American culture Quinerly, who has a master’s in jazz studies from The Juilliard School and is on the faculty of Hunter College, said, “They were able to present the narrative as they saw it, their daily life which was very rich.”

Not only were people coming from the South to take advantage of opportunities after World War I, there were also immigrants from the Caribbean. “People were coming to make themselves over,” he said. With the native New Yorkers, “Harlem becomes the melting pot where all these experiences come together.”

From a musical aspect, he said, artists transformed the music.

“There was a lot of sound exploration going on,” he said. “I’m thinking about bands like Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. They were looking at other influences, borrowing from Latin culture and finding ways to incorporate those sounds in their music. I have to believe they were using some white influences, too, like Dixieland.

“They were taking those and combining them with the things they heard. What you got was an interesting mix. Because of that sound exploration, the whole musical landscape was changed.”

One of the things that made Ellington special was his interest in creating different sounds. His horn players would use different mutes, like plungers, to develop new textures, seeking how to convey an emotion.

“But they also played uptempo for the dancers,” Quinerly said. Of Ellington, he added, “he was probably the most prolific jazz composer the music has ever known.”

To that point, when asked how Ellington’s works like “Symphony in Black” and his opera “Boola” correlate to jazz, Quinerly said it not only speaks to his level of musicianship but it shows how big the jazz label could expand.

“When I hear that word and depending on who you ask, the term is like a box. How big is your box? You could look at it like a box on a table, but a room is a box. This room is inside a larger building, this whole building is a box. This building is in a block that could be another box,” he said.

“You are only bound by your imagination. Ellington, being the visionary he was, didn’t just stick to dance music. He was influenced, he wrote extended works and was doing that pretty early on.”

One of the milestone works of the period, Quinerly thinks, is “Sugar Foot Stomp” by Henderson and Armstrong. It stands out, he said, for its emphasis on the soloist. As jazz evolved from ragtime, much of it was written out. As Henderson expanded his band he and his chief arranger Don Redmond started to outline the instrumentation — the saxophone section, trumpet section, etc.

“When you couple that with Armstrong being one of the most important early soloists, on Sugar Foot Stomp you hear the organization of the arrangement, but there is a point where Armstrong’s soloist voice is given the spotlight,” Quinerly said.

“It’s a combination of those two masters — bringing together an amazing soloist and the arrangement of Henderson and Redmond — and it swings.”

The final seminar in the History of Jazz in America series will be Sunday, April 5, also at the historical society, when Brenda Earle Stokes discusses “Women in Jazz: Past, Present, Future.”