In the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was buzzing with the roaring sounds of jazz, the chatter of new ideas, and new rhythms of poetry. The Upper Manhattan neighborhood was the birthplace and namesake of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, literature, theater, politics, and scholarship that continued to inspire artists well into the twentieth century. The most prominent artists of the Harlem Renaissance were writers Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes, musicians Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Armstrong, and visual artists, Aaron Douglas and James Van Der Zee. Other cultural figures, such as celebrated jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, made their debut against the vibrant background of Harlem. To celebrate the centenary of the movement’s beginnings, here are 10 historical sites commemorating the enduring cultural legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.
1. The Apollo Theater
Located on 125th Street, this historic Harlem theater played host to the birth of jazz music in the 1920s and 1930s. Ted Fox, author of the book “Showtime at the Apollo,” claims that “the Apollo probably exerted a greater influence upon popular culture than any other entertainment venue in the world. For blacks, it was the most important cultural institution – not just the greatest black theater, but a special place to come of age emotionally, professionally, socially, and politically.” Originally Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theatre, in 1934 it introduced regular Amateur Night shows hosted by Ralph Cooper along with old-time vaudeville acts and grew to national prominence by featuring celebrations of Black culture.
Billed as a “place where stars are born and legends are made,” the Apollo became famous for launching the careers of prominent Black performers, such as Billie Holiday, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and even Michael Jackson. Other celebrated artists and groups such as Duke Ellington, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Mariah Carey have also graced the Apollo’s stage. Ella Fitzgerald made her debut at one of the earliest Amateur Nights in 1934 at the age of just 17, singing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection” in a performance that would win her the first prize of $25.00. Jimi Hendrix also won first prize in the Apollo’s amateur musician contest in 1964.