The Jazz Age: Illustrating Harlem

By John T. Reddick

Over the last several years, I have been researching a book focused on Harlem’s Black and Jewish music culture from 1890 to 1930. As I went about establishing musical timeframes and the evolution of careers, I found one of the best ways to acquire information was through collecting sheet music to establish and document varied and interconnected relationships. Those efforts revealed nineteenth century African American links to Tin Pan Alley and associated theatrical producers of the era who also lived or had theaters in Harlem. These pivotal relationships also clarify the role Harlem played in facilitating the interplay between Blacks and Jews in music, theater, and film early in the twentieth century. An even more exceptional surprise came as I began to take note of the cover art on sheet music and saw how, like the American songbook itself, it began to evolve beyond early stereotypical images and points of view. Equally fascinating was discovering how many of those illustrators also lived and worked in Harlem. That revelation opened my eyes to the effect their proximity and observation of the area’s rising Black jazz culture had in shaping their art and point of view on African American life.

Berenice Abbott, Barclay Street Elevated Platform, 1933. Photo: Museum of Contemporary Photography, Gift of Maxine and Lawrence K. Snider

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E. Simms Campbell, A Nightclub Map of Harlem, Manhattan Magazine, 1932.

E. (Elmer) Simms Campbell (American, 1906–1971)

Perhaps the most vibrant, evocative, and informative image of Harlem’s 1930s jazz era and speakeasy culture is not a painting, a photograph, or a single line of prose from Harlem Renaissance literature, but an illustrated map, a metaphorical Rosetta Stone of Harlem’s club scene, lingo, and period entertainment, created by the illustrator E. Simms Campbell in 1932. Campbell, an African American artist, was born in St. Louis, though his family soon moved to Chicago, where he attended Englewood Technical Prep Academy, later took classes at the University of Chicago and went on to earn a degree at the Chicago Art Institute. Campbell moved to New York in 1929 and found work contributing art to a variety of magazines while also taking classes at the National Academy of Design. He became a pal and an intimate friend of the Black musical performer, Cab Calloway, who provided Campbell with an insider’s view of Harlem’s 1930s nightlife. That knowledge, in partnership with his artistic talent and cartoonist’s skills, were used to full advantage when he was commissioned in 1932 to produce A Night-Club Map of Harlem for the fledgling and short-lived publication, Manhattan: A Weekly for Wakeful New Yorkers. Witty and informative, the map directs the outsider to local nightspots, but it’s also filled with insider details that a streetwise Harlemite would recognize. The trajectory of Campbell’s career and the focus of his work would be influenced by another friend and colleague, the cartoonist and illustrator Russell Patterson, whose stylish flapper illustrations were as celebrated and influential in the 1920s and 30s as the Gibson Girl had been in the decades before. Patterson encouraged Campbell to focus his cartooning talents on what he called “good girl art,” a creation of the lithe, full-breasted, long-legged white American goddess that Patterson himself had celebrated. To that end, Campbell created Harem Girls, a cartoon series, which appeared in the 1933 debut issue of Esquire. He would also create the magazine’s poppy-eyed mascot, Esky, and continue to contribute cartoons to every issue until 1958, making Campbell the most successful African American cartoonist and illustrator working in the American print and advertising media of his day. That also meant his art focused on serving the nature and audience of his clients, with his cartoons and illustrations for Esquire and other mainstream publications seldom depicting African Americans outside stereotypical situations or professional roles. Even in his work for Black magazines and newspapers like Ebony and A Journal of Negro Life, and The Chicagoan, Campbell would never again capture the vibrant, celebratory energy of his Harlem club map, or its joyous depiction of African American life and its sense of community.

Al Hirschfeld, (American, 1903–2003)

Like Campbell, Al Hirschfeld was a child of St. Louis, where he demonstrated an early artistic talent—so much so that his parents were motivated to move to New York, where they felt he would have greater creative opportunities. The family settled in Harlem, where Hirschfeld attended the Vocational High School for the Arts and took classes at the National Academy of Art, along with his schoolmate and friend Sidney Lefkowitz. As they entered their senior year, the vocational school required students to seek professional experience, and this led to Hirschfeld’s initial employment as a gofer in the art department of Goldwyn Pictures. Soon after, however, Goldwyn’s director of publicity and advertising, Howard Dietz (a soon-to-be-famous lyricist and director), spotted Hirschfeld’s drawing talent and began to give him regular movie illustration assignments for the company’s magazine and newspaper ads. That job was followed by several freelance assignments, which led to work at Selznick Pictures; at 20, Hirschfeld became the studio’s art director in 1923. But the work at Selznick was boom and bust, and soon Hirschfeld found himself unpaid, unemployed and in debt. With little on the horizon, he attended a party at the home of the writer, photographer, critic, and New York gadfly, Carl Van Vechten, who was then the reigning cultural arbiter and connecting link between Harlem Renaissance talent and the creative downtown elite. At the party Hirschfeld met the newly arrived Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, and they became fast friends. Mutually admiring each other’s talent, they soon began sharing a work studio. Van Vechten touted Covarrubias’s talents to the leading celebrities and publications of the day, which helped to introduce Hirschfeld to that circle as well. Beyond their talent and shared artistry, Covarrubias, Hirschfeld, and the German artist Winold Reiss were equally passionate about political thought, Harlem, and Harlem life, and they all became artist chroniclers, documenting the neighborhood players and everyday African American life. So engaged and respected were they among the community’s literary circles that they contributed illustrations to numerous Black publications. Reiss and the African American artist Aaron Douglas provided illustrated images for Alain Locke’s The New Negro in 1925. Covarrubias provided art for the cover of Langston Hughes’s Weary Blues in 1926 and had his own book, Negro Drawings, published the following year. In 1929 Hirschfeld was hired by MGM to produce a promotional pre-production image for the film Hallelujah, an early talkie with an all-Black cast. For the assignment, Hirschfeld created a vibrant image of an African American singer-dancer and musicians, in an effort to stimulate excitement among movie distributors and raise their expectations for what was to be a racially groundbreaking film. Having lived in and around Harlem most of his life, in 1941 Hirschfeld produced a portfolio of lithographs, From Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld, that chronicled Harlem’s culture, community, and diversity through Hirschfeld’s iconic imagery.

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Al Hirschfeld, Elaine Hammerstein, Selznick Pictures, c. 1922.

Al Hirschfeld, Drawing of tap dancer, actor, and singer Bill Robinson for Blackbirds of 1928.

Al Hirschfeld, Promotional pre-production image for the MGM film Hallelujah, King Vidor, Director, 1929.

Sydney Leff (American, 1901–2005)

Sydney Lefkowitz, born and raised in Brooklyn, trekked to Harlem daily as a teenager to attend the Vocational High School for the Arts, where Al Hirschfeld was his classmate. Together they would take classes at the National Academy of Art, and they remained lifelong friends and colleagues. Lefkowitz began to take on freelance work and started abbreviating his surname to Leff when signing his artwork. Unlike Hirschfeld, whose early work experience led him into the motion picture business, Leff moved into the music business when he answered an ad for an illustrator placed in 1923 by the songwriter Sam Coslow. Irving Berlin, then America’s leading songwriter, took a liking to his work and its simple style, and soon Leff was providing calligraphy and illustrations for two of Berlin’s 1927 hits, “Me and My Shadow” and “Blue Skies,” written for the singer Belle Baker, who was then starring in Rodgers and Hart’s first musical, Betsy. Baker demanded that the show’s producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, engage Berlin rather than the neophytes to compose a show-stopping song for her. For the aforementioned film Hallelujah, Berlin composed “Swanee Shuffle,” with the sheet music’s cover illustration clearly drawing upon Hirschfeld’s earlier promotional image for the movie. Though no artist is credited on the cover, and since it’s a Berlin song, the image was most likely drawn by Leff, interpreting Hirschfeld’s illustration. During this period, Leff’s work generated a new vitality, and he showed a greater sophistication in his depiction of African American performers. Hirschfeld’s style and influence remain evident in Leff’s bold reinterpretation of the dancing figure in his cover art for “Underneath the Harlem Moon” in 1932. In his illustration for Fats Waller’s popular tune “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Leff presented the chorus line of Connie’s Hot Chocolates with all the glamour and attitude of Josephine Baker; the once prerequisite watermelon image is cleverly disguised and graphically rendered in green and red as a stage floor and parted curtains. It is clear as well in Leff’s artwork for the Cotton Club’s Rhyth-Mania that he frequented the clubs and watched performances firsthand, picking up nuanced details, the dancers’ angularity and their high-stepping movements, while also conveying the fashionable way they were being presented. Beginning in the 1920s and going through the 30s, Leff designed and drew covers for more than 1,000 songs. He was a popular favorite of the composers Duke Ellington, Andy Razaf, and Harold Arlen, and of the venues that produced and presented their music, like Harlem’s Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn. Such enduring musical standards as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Stormy Weather,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” can all lay claim not only to those mythic Jazz Age venues, but to the distinction of a Sydney Leff cover as well.

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Sidney Leff, “Me and My Shadow,” 1927.

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Sidney Leff, “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” 1932.

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Sidney Leff, “Blue Skies,” 1927.

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Sidney Leff, “Swanee Shuffle,” 1929.

9. Aint Misbehavin LEFF Fats Waller.jpg

Sidney Leff, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” 1929.

10. Ryth-Mania LEFF Harold Arlen Andy Razaf.jpg

Sidney Leff, Rhyth-Mania, 1931.

About the Author:

John T. Reddick is Director of Community Engagement Projects for the Central Park Conservancy and a Columbia University Community Scholar. An enthusiastic resident of Harlem and scholar of its history, Reddick is at work on a book exploring Harlem’s Black and Jewish music culture from 1890 to 1930, from which the subject of this article is drawn.

 

All Photos: From the collection of the author

 

Sources:

  1. Cab Calloway & Bryant Rollins, 1976. Of Minnie the Moocher & Me, Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

  2. E. Simms Campbell. “Black Publications” in American Art Archives online. http://www.americanartarchives.com/campbell,es.htm

  3. No author, 1971. New York Times, “Obituary,” January 29, 40.

  4. David Leopold, ed. 2015. The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age. New York: Albert A. Knopf.

  5. Steven Otfinoski, 2003. African American Artists in Visual Arts. New York: Facts On File, Inc.

  6. Russell Patterson, 1977. New York Times, “Gibson Girls,” March 19, 16.

  7. Patterson, no date. “Good girl art,” American Art Archives online. http://www.americanartarchives.com/campbell,es.htm

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Winter 2020. View a digital version of the full journal here.