John Reddick, who conducts walking tours of Harlem with a focus on architecture, music and history, is actively engaged in Harlem’s culture, art and preservation. He’s authored numerous articles and has spoken at the Apollo Theater, The Museum of Modern Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of the City of New York. Reddick recently served as a curator and discussion leader for the Harlem Focus series at the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt Design Center.
Located in the uptown reaches of New York City, the Cooper-Hewitt has opened its Jazz Age exhibit (through August 20, 2017), which demonstrates the influence of the jazz aesthetic upon the arts, culture and industrial design of the 1920’s.
Talk about your interest in the Jewish/Black connection, especially relating to the arts.
I went to a lecture about seven years ago on the Lower East Side titled “When Harlem was Jewish.” Jeffrey Gurock, the author of the book by the same name, spoke on how the Jewish tenement dwellers were being displaced by the building of the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges and the expanded roadway access they required. During the same period African American tenement dwellers were being displaced by the building of Pennsylvania Station and its associated railway yards. Both groups followed their more well-to-do counterparts who’d already established homes and religious institutions in districts of Harlem.
The curious point that links the young people of both the tenement class with their well-to-do peers was their shared love for the new music of the day, ragtime. That audience and its influence changed the direction of Harlem’s theater and musical entertainment. George Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Sophie Tucker would be drawn to the talents of Bert Williams, James Reese Europe, Fats Waller and Bessie Smith. That this was all happening in Harlem at the turn of the century and prior to the Harlem Renaissance was a revelation to me. It also served to explain why the Harlem Renaissance happened when and where it did, in that this earlier period with its artistic interactions served as the underpinning of the Jazz Age.
Your favorite jazz artists?
I would have to say Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong for the breath of their genius and influence on other talents that I admire like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and many others. Also, Ella and Louis had very rough beginnings, yet their spirit and artistry were very uplifting. I think that discovering their gift in music had very much lifted them, and they saw that it could lift us as well. When I discovered them, they were mature performers, so initially I didn’t appreciate what innovative artists they’d been. For example, Ella’s first love was dance, so as a singer in the swing era she was more naturally attuned to what would also get the feet to move! Even in some videos, watch her when she starts to improvise and dance, it’s pure joy!
Your favorite sub-genre in jazz and why?
I would pick that poetic, political and musically savvy jazz subset that includes the likes of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Oscar Brown, Jr., Gil Scott-Heron and others. They sang what I would consider musical folk tales, the wise village griot signifying to us, pay attention, beware. I’m thinking of Nina singing “Three Women,” “Mississippi God Damn” or “To Be Young Gifted and Black.” Or say, Abbey’s song, “Throw it Away,” Oscar’s tune, “The Snake,” or Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.”
What inspired you to start a walking tour of Harlem?
I always admired Harlem’s architectural beauty, its wide boulevards, its natural landscape with its variation from the heights to the plains. Just recalling those photographs of Marcus Garvey, in his feathered Lord Nelson’s hat parading down streets that look like Paris boulevards in the background, not Catfish Row! Those photographs were the “Ralph Lauren” ads of their day for African Americans. Many of those boulevards look very much as they did when the “Harlem Hellfighters” regiment, with James Reese Europe leading its marching band, paraded them during the armistice celebration that followed World War I. As an African American, I find recollecting such historic moments in the context of today very exhilarating and I hope in some way I can pass that knowledge and excitement onto others.
What is the most often-asked question you hear from tour participants?
At least one person in every tour group I have still presents me with that question posed by Laurence Oliver’s character in the film Marathon Man, “Is it safe?”
It’s so ridiculous, I’ve lived in Harlem since 1980 and have never heard of a tourist being physically abused or injured. After all, we welcome visitors into what is for African Americans our most sacred space, our churches, yet that hospitality isn’t translated into our community as a whole. Residents already know that the visitor has crossed some perceived or imagined culture barrier to be in Harlem in the first place, we realize that you either have a lover here or are in love with our culture.
Biggest myth about that era of jazz, or jazz as an art form?
I think in jazz, as in any endeavor where African Americans excel, the exalted standard bearers of the culture tend to assign it to “their natural gift,” almost as if it’s instinctual, never an engaged intellect, hard work or a drive to innovate and experiment beyond what are the standard norms. I think any endeavor where an individual pushes the standards to that degree, whether that be jazz, basketball or quilt-making, he’s moved it into the realm of an art form.
How did you become involved with the Cooper Hewitt?
I’ve worked with the Cooper-Hewitt in other ways. My professional background is in architecture and I curated a speakers’ series for them titled “Harlem Focus,” where I moderated interviews with artists and professionals who were either based in Harlem or who’d executed projects there. This included a photographer, landscape architect, graphic designer, fabric printer and others.
Talk a little bit about the Jazz Age exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt (now through August 20, 2017). And, how is the feel of jazz reflected in the art and design of the era?
It’s fascinating to appreciate how the evolving technology of the period fueled the global influence of jazz, so much so that it became the transforming spirit that defined the age. Films, recordings and broadcasts served to inspire and link jazz to every other artistic endeavor of the era. The exhibition does a wonderful job in conveying how African-inspired patterns and syncopated rhythms were set off by singular bursts of colors and shapes, not unlike how a solo improvisation by Louis Armstrong might be set against the underlying rhythms of a jazz band. Such motifs are reflected in everything, from a Chinese-inspired woman’s evening coat to the intricacies of French furniture and jewelry design.
How did you actually create this very specialized niche (tours of Harlem that have a jazz connection)?
My natural curiosity directs me. I always feel that if I’m curious enough about something to explore it, then others too will be interested in what I discovered and how I got there. My first love is architecture and the physical environment, which in reality is the physical reflection of history. So, I often see connections between buildings and the underlining Harlem culture that others might not pick up on.
I collect and sell African American memorabilia, photographs, posters and sheet music that focus on Harlem, and the artists and players with histories there. The broad range of notables that lived and worked in Harlem is pretty astounding. Think of it, James Reese Europe and George Gershwin, Moms Mabley and Milton Berle, James Baldwin and Arthur Miller, Harlem residents all! My hope is to eventually have a shop, though currently people can acquire items from my collection for sale at the Studio Museum in Harlem’s gift shop.
And of course, paramount in my future, is to continue to live, work and enjoy my life here in HARLEM!
(c) Debbie Burke 2017