Evidence of Marcus Garvey's Support for Jazz and Blues

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Evidence of Marcus Garvey's Support for Jazz and Blues

In articles published in Afro-Americans in New York Life and History historian John Runcie has evaluated the position of the Garvey movement toward the popular culture of the 1920s "Jazz Age" through questions and issues dear to the hearts of Euro-centric middle class intellectuals, while ignoring evidence from other areas.(2)

For example, Runcie explores the question of the Garveyite approach to music by focusing upon the subjective comments of musical taste and preference made by Marcus Garvey and his top lieutenants while he skims over the public service Garvey provided to his working class followers in the form of jazz and blues at his local Liberty Halls. Runcie shows that while striking an "intellectual" posture, Garvey and his top aids shared with intellectuals of that "Harlem Renaissance" period negative stance toward the "jazz boom." Runcie explores the viewpoint of historian Leroy Ostransky, who described the "20s as a time when classical music, any "serious" music, was worthy of praise; while jazz "was not generally considered by leaders of the Harlem Renaissance as worthy of inclusion in their list of serious achievements."(3)

There was, however, a great deal of playing to the ministerial lobby that ranted against "that devil music" jazz and blues. If one looks beyond the "official" pronouncements of black public figures and evaluates the black position from the point of view of the best read black theatre and music critics, such as James A. Jackson of Billboard and Romeo L. Dougherty of Garvey's Negro World and the Amsterdam News, then one finds the questions being asked are much more concrete than whether it is proper to like blues. These spokespeople of the day to day black music world raised questions of who runs the dance halls, and how can black people secure artistic control of their own artistic productions. Joining them in these kinds of questions were heady musicians, such as "the father of the blues" W.C. Handy, who in newspaper articles and his Autobiog raphy was an able intellectual champion of his favorite music.(4)

John Runcie accepts the standard definitions of "Harlem Renaissance" intellectual discourse, and this leads him to overlook his own good evidence for approaching the thinkers in the Garvey movement in a different light. As Runcie showed in his article "Marcus Garvey and the Harlem Renaissance," Garvey and most of his top lieutenants were of a distinctly lower educational bracket than the typical black intellectual of the "Harlem Renaissance." Compared with the typical academician of the "Renaissance," there was clearly a greater social closeness between Garvey and his top aids and the black working-class.(5) These differences should have been sufficient for an able historian like John Runcie to steer him from trying to evaluate the Garveyite stance on the jazz boom in terms of the crusty black intellectual establishment of that time. In addition, it was unfair to mix the two because the Garveyites were consciously committed to finding a separate black nationalist approach to culture. From Garvey's African plumed hat to his African Legions and the punch bowl filled with "African Punch," the Garveyites tried to stand apart from white culture. Of course, in those days they were not sure just what was the "African" way. Amy Jacques Garvey recollected that their "African Punch" consisted of "a little of whatever was around."(6)

None-the-less, the Garveyites tried to rise above their Westernized indoctrination. Granted, the music at official meetings of the Universal Negro Improvement Association was military marches, serious hymns about liberation and much European symphonic music. But when it came time to party it was a different story. As Runcie points out in passing, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in New York had a band playing virtually every single night from 1920 into 1923. And while by 1930 the New York Liberty Hall offerings had been reduced to the regular "Saturday Night Dance," we must assume that the bands playing all those years were not playing the waltz - especially at many UNIA affairs with rilles like "Ethiopian Barn Dance" for which the music was advertised to be "American and West Indian Blues. …