"Harlem Air Shaft": A True Programmatic Composition?

Edward Green

Abstract


In 1944, Duke Ellington told a writer from The New Yorker that his composition “Harlem Air Shaft,” recorded four years earlier, was inspired by the myriad sounds heard in the air shaft of a Harlem apartment building (“You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love…”). Many scholars have contended that Ellington invented this “storyline” after the composition was written. This article addresses the authenticity of “Harlem Air Shaft” as programmatic music. The author finds ample evidence—from unpublished manuscripts, unissued radio broadcasts, analysis of arranging devices and compositional design, and other Ellington testimony—that Ellington did indeed have the sounds and smells of a Harlem air shaft in mind as he wrote the composition.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14713/jjs.v7i1.9

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