Harlem Rent Parties

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Harlem Rent Parties

February 20, 2018- Today's Harlem Topic: Harlem Rent Parties
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House Rent Parties originated in Harlem during the 1920s and played a major role in the development of stride style piano.
A rent party was exactly what it sounds like, a social occasion where tenants hired musicians and charged a door admission to pay their rent.
In his 1938 narrative, “Harlem Rent Parties” Frank Byrd wrote: “Like the Charleston and Black Bottom, it became an overnight rage. Here at last, was a partial solution to the problem of excessive rents and dreadfully subnormal incomes."
There was a lot of competition to get people to come to your party.  There might be as many as 10 or 12 happening in the same block on a given Saturday night.
The people throwing the party had to advertise by printing business card size invitations with catchy slogans.  A party given by “Rose” on 133rd St. apartment 5 said “you can wake up the devil, raise all the hell, no one will be there to go home and tell.”

The cover charge was usually a quarter plus and extra 10 cents for food and another 10 cents if you wanted a cup for drinks.
One of the draws of the rent parties was the unlimited supply of illegal prohibition era alcohol.  Bars were set up in the kitchen or hallway and often the bathtub was filled with grain alcohol, known as bathtub gin.

Langston Hughes attended many rent parties during the era and said they were places “where awful bootleg whiskey and good fried fish or steaming chitterling were sold at very low prices.” You didn’t drink at these parties for the taste.”

It was important to have live music but there wasn’t room for a lot of musicians — that would mean less room for paying customers.
Fortunately, a new style of piano playing was developing in New York that made it possible to have one instrument play for the whole party:
It became known as Harlem Stride, and it exploded at house rent parties in the 1920’s.

Harlem stride is a solo piano style that uses percussive, left hand figures, to create a complex, swinging four beat pulse by striding up and down the keyboard alternating low bass notes with mid-range chords while the right hand plays melodies and melodic embellishments

The list of artists who took part in these parties includes Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Luckey Roberts and the man considered the father of stride style piano, James P. Johnson.
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