A rent party (sometimes called a house party) is a social occasion where tenants hire a musician or band to play and pass the hat to raise money to pay their rent, originating in Harlem during the 1920s. The rent party played a major role in the development of jazz and blues music. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the term skiffle means "rent party", indicating the informality of the occasion. Thus, the word became associated with informal music. However, many notable jazz musicians are associated with rent parties, including pianists Speckled Red, James P. Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith, and Fats Waller, although rent parties also featured bands as well. The OED also gives boogie as a term for rent party.
Rent parties were often the location of so-called cutting contests, which involves jazz pianists taking turns at the piano, attempting to out-do each other.
The band Steely Dan's 2009 tour of the United States was named the "Rent Party 09" tour.
At the start of the Great Migration, and at the start of World War I large populations of African Americans moved north. This was brought on with the need for a large labor force to help supply the war effort. Out of this grew the red light districts and the grounds for rent parties. Culturally, rent parties were places for middle class African Americans to go on their nights off and get away from the everyday struggle. During this time the African Americans faced high rent prices due to discrimination and large numbers of people would be forced to live in small spaces for very high rent. Historically these parties were an answer to a problem. During the 1920's, around two-hundred thousand African Americans migrated to the north.
Rent parties often had to be held in secret due to the threat that police presented to African American people, and also due to the presence of alcohol which was illegal under Prohibition. Therefore, attendees often carried special cards that could be handed to the "right" people to gain access to the party. The rent parties often charged a cover or fee for entry and provided alcohol and food. Typically dishes included fried chicken and potato salad.
Rent parties not featuring either Jazz or specifically African American crowds are featured in the plots of movies set in New York during the 1980s and 1990s such as Party Girl (starring Parker Posey). The song "House Rent Party" (1955) by Babs Gonzales and The Waldos' 1994 album "Rent Party" are references to the practice.
- Harlem Rent Parties, (The Library of Congress excerpt)
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2011), chapter 4 Harlem
- Byrd, Frank (August 23, 1938). "Harlem Rent Parties". www.loc.gov. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
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