Not since historian David Levering Lewis's Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader
has there been anything remotely as expansive as Rhapsodies in Black
. This four-CD set comes with an elaborately designed 100-page booklet, with the CDs tucked into graphically cool sleeves that bring the Harlem Renaissance's visual advances to life. What comes to life in the recordings are the era's poetic, literary, and musical traditions. The renaissance, of course, wasn't contained in Harlem, with smaller African American arts and culture movements throughout the U.S., but Harlem was, to use the title of Alain Locke's 1925 collection, the "Mecca of the New Negro."
Rhapsodies reaches back to 1918 for Wilbur C. Sweatman's Original Jazz Band and their recording of "Indianola," and it gathers in poems and excerpts from stories and essays, read by such luminaries as Quincy Jones, Public Enemy's Chuck D, Branford Marsalis, and Angela Bassett. Musically, the collection focuses in some depth on early jazz and the first iteration of "urban blues." Bessie Smith's 1925 "St. Louis Blues," Duke Ellington's 1929 "Cotton Club Stomp" and 1926 "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," Fats Waller's 1929 "Harlem Fuss" and "Smashing Thirds," Cab Calloway's 1931 "Minnie the Moocher," and Louis Armstrong's 1929 performance of Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" all stand out indelibly.
Along with the famous tunes are lots of underappreciated gems. Guitarist Lonnie Johnson's 1927 "Woke Up with Blues in My Fingers" is an awesome solo guitar showing. Also tremendous are early looks at future jazz giants Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, the former on Don Redman's "Wherever There's a Will, Baby" (from a 1929 McKinney's Cotton Pickers session) and the pair together on the Chocolate Dandies' 1930 "Dee Blues." The political core of the movement is alive here, too, with Claude McKay's "America" read by playwright August Wilson. Georgia Douglas Johnson's "I Want You to Die While You Love Me" and Helene Johnson's "Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem" (read by Bassett and Alfre Woodard, respectively) capture the poetic spirit from a woman's perspective, and Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" are read by Veronica Chambers and Debbie Allen. --Andrew Bartlett