The jazz classic “Harlem Nocturne” has nothing to do with the obnoxious once-ubiquitous latest version of the “Harlem Shake” (which actually has almost nothing to do with Harlem or the original Harlem Shake).
Originally done without words, the music for “Harlem Nocturne” was given to me by my high school band teacher when I was a young tenor sax player. I never did learn to play the song well and never performed it anywhere, but it has been one of my favorites since then. The version I like best also fits well with “film noir” (a genre that Joanna and I enjoy) as demonstrated by its selection as the theme music for a couple of “Mike Hammer” TV series.
And of course we’re both fans of saxophone music. Earlier this month we had the opportunity to see two great sax players in the space of a week — Chris Potter on a Saturday night, followed the next Thursday by Harry Allen, who, along with guitarist Chris Flory, accompanied wonderful jazz pianist Judy Carmichael. (By the way, though it probably was an unpaid volunteer, whoever did the paper program for the latter event should be fired — Allen and Flory each had their names spelled two different ways on the same page of the program, while the name of a company sponsor also was misspelled.)
Now for us “Harlem Nocturne” is a reminder of Harlem itself, that fascinating section of Manhattan just north of Central Park and not far from the hostel we stay in when we visit the city. The title of a famous Langston Hughes poem that provided the name for a Broadway play (set in Chicago), Harlem also houses the Amsterdam News, one of the oldest Black newspapers in the country. Last time we were in the city we visited the newspaper, getting a warm welcome and a fascinating history lesson from editor/publisher Elinor Tatum and one of her reporters.
“Harlem Nocturne” has been performed and recorded by numerous artists since it was written in 1939. The Viscounts had the most famous version, while Herbie Mann was among those who offered a more upbeat take. Silvia Brooks sings a version of the song with one set of lyrics, while Mel Torme sang another.
As for us, we like the song played slow and deep, without words or a lot of other instrumental accompaniment, as done by Georgie Auld in the video below.