The influence of African-American popular music on the culture is nothing new. A new collection showcases the vibrant musical life that even predated the rise of Broadway in the early 20th century. Black Manhattan, Volume 3 is the most recent release by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and its founder and conductor Rick Benjamin. The project started because he wanted to hear the music discussed in a classic book about the Harlem Renaissance by James Weldon Johnson called Black Manhattan.

You can find out more about the recording at the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra website.

It began when he read James Weldon Johnson’s book about the Harlem Renaissance called Black Manhattan, “…about the artistic life of African Americans in the metropolis from the early part of the 1800s to the time it was written, 1930. And I wanted to listen to the music! But here I hit a brick wall, because all this stuff had been taking place, or most of it, before the era of audio recording.” He was greatly helped by an important find. “What made this project work was in 1985, I had discovered the lost music collection of the Victor Talking Machine company. And that outfit, when they were starting operations in 1903, were a voracious accumulator of all sorts of musical scores.” So, armed with the scores for thousands of fully orchestrated works for small ensemble, he began exploring them, playing, and ultimately recording them. “We’ve recorded over 3 ½ hours of music from Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan, 60 pieces by 32 different composers, and I think it presents a really fine sonic portrait of what was happening there, and how it influenced all other kinds of American music.” This third volume includes some names that he says would have been familiar back in the day. “If you were in New York City in, say, 1910, these would be familiar names to you. You would know all of these people, you would know about Gussie Davis, you’d know about Leubrie Hill, and Tom Lemonier. They would be people that other people were talking about, and sheet music you’d be buying.”