Harlem's Good Ol' Days

Music Exhibit Recalls Another Time For Jews and Blacks

By Seth Berkman

Published January 18, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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Reddick began collecting sheet music three years ago, after he attended a lecture given by Jeffrey Gurock, author of the 1979 book “When Harlem Was Jewish.” Gurock explained the similarities between the black and Jewish migrations to Harlem, and this resonated with Reddick. Black residents in Manhattan were forced out of Midtown dwellings because of the construction of Penn Station. Jews came in large numbers after plans were made to build the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, and families like the Marx Brothers and the Gershwins began to leave the tenements of the Lower East Side.

The collaboration between black composers and Jewish musicians often took place in apartments, away from the public eye. Black artists were often not admitted to clubs, even in Harlem, and Jewish performers occasionally went to great lengths to keep their collaborations with black performers away from their families, who did not approve of their associations with blacks.

“Fanny Brice’s first hit was written by a black composer who couldn’t go into a lot of theaters where she was performing,” Reddick said, referring to her hit “Lovie Joe” written by Joe Jordan.

The buzz surrounding Harlem’s budding music scene led downtown impresarios to turn their attention uptown. One of the displays at Settepani is for “Darktown Follies,” composed by Harlem resident John Leubrie Hill in 1913 and performed at the Lafayette Theatre near 132nd Street. Florenz Ziegfeld saw the performance and copied songs from “Darktown Follies” for his own Broadway show, “which started a whole trail of people coming uptown to see what’s going on and taking it downtown,” according to Reddick.

Reddick said disputes over money and royalties likely led to the downfall of black and Jewish musical collaboration in Harlem. At the same time, the rise in popularity of motion pictures led a majority of influential Jews in the entertainment industry to move to California. Karp said a riot in Harlem in 1935 also contributed to a sharp decline in whites from other areas of Manhattan visiting clubs uptown.

Reddick, who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, attending friends’ Seders and bar mitzvahs, said he hopes to continue the exhibit at a larger, permanent space in the future. “I really resent the Gray Line double decker [bus]; it kind of goes through the neighborhood, you get the Apollo marquee from the second level of the bus and they’ve checked off Harlem as having visited,” he said.

To support Reddick’s mission, Settepani’s co-owner Leah Abraham, a native of Ethiopia, added Jewish dishes to her menu for the duration of the exhibit, including caponata, a mixture of vegetables and eggplant that was a staple of Sabbath luncheons in Sicily, and sweet-and-sour trout, which, Abraham said, is referred to in mainstream Italian households as “the Jewish fish dish.” Reddick is also giving walking tours of the neighborhoods, showing visitors the houses, synagogues and theaters where Jewish performers made their living.

“There’s a richness in the community I’d like to see last, particularly in the physical environment, and I want to see everyone invested in it,” Reddick said.

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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