Just south of the bustle of Harlem’s famed 125th Street corridor, a mix of brownstones and churches in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park neighborhood prospers today as home to a large working-class black population. But walk down these streets with John T. Reddick, and he will show you the remnants, still-visible, of the vibrant Jewish life of the early 20th century, which forged a rich era of musical collaboration between blacks and Jews.
There, etched high atop the facade of apartment buildings on 119th Street, are Stars of David, created when Jewish residents began moving uptown from the tenements of the Lower East Side. A few buildings down on 119th Street stands Emanuel A.M.E. Church, originally Temple Mount Zion, where future comedian Milton Berle was bar mitzvahed. On 120th Street, composer Richard Rodgers lived next to Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, a popular composer, known as “The Jewish Caruso,” who led prayers at Congregation Ohab Zedek, then located at 116th Street. The cantor’s building bordered the house of lyricist Lorenz Hart, Rodgers’ songwriting partner, to the north. Hart, often annoyed by Rosenblatt’s constant singing from his backyard, would throw water out his window and onto the cantor’s head.
”People think it was Jewish and became black, but it was a shared community,” said Reddick, an African-American architect and historian who has lived in Harlem since 1980.
These days, Reddick is reviving this forgotten history through an exhibition of sheet music and photos from the era. “Jews worked with black performers behind the scenes, and I want to get across the richness of the engagement and the proximity in which they lived,” he said.
The restaurant Settepani on 120th Street and Lenox Avenue is hosting Reddick’s exhibit, “Harlem’s Black and Jewish Music Culture 1890–1930,” through the end of February. The restaurant’s walls are adorned with about 50 sheet music covers featuring artists and performers like actress and singer Sophie Tucker, Tin Pan Alley composer Abe Holzmann and Sigmund Romberg, whose popular operettas were performed by such singers as Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
Music companies often hired artists with similar illustration styles to create these sheet music covers. One such artist was Harlem resident Al Hirschfeld, who drew caricatures for The New York Times. The images provide a glimpse into the musical and social atmospheres of the era. There are images with performers in blackface, as well as ones that endorse racial equality.
“Holzmann really looked at us in a different way, and his images are really diverse, upscale,” Reddick said. “It was blacks in a middle-class imagery, and that’s what blacks were trying to promote.”
Holzmann lived on West 122nd Street in Harlem and attended the National Conservatory of Music under Antonin Dvorak, who, particularly in his symphony, “From the New World,” was strongly influenced by black composers and Harlem residents Will Marion Cook and Harry T. Burleigh,
Another performer who collaborated with black artists was Tucker. She appeared onstage at the Lenox Casino on 116th Street, which is now a mosque where Malcolm X once gave speeches. Tucker began her career often performing in blackface, but she evolved into one of the era’s best-known performers of blues, ragtime and Yiddish music.
Jonathan Karp, director of the American Jewish Historical Society, said Jewish immigrants from Europe had experience as brokers and intermediaries, which also enabled them to act as mediators of black culture in Harlem. By the 1920s, Jews were heavily involved in publishing, booking agencies and eventually independent record labels specializing in black music.