Billie Holiday Center hosts a rent party

A black-and-white photo of African Americans dancing at a party in the early 190
A black-and-white photo of African Americans dancing at a party in the early 1900s.
Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts hosts a rent party

The April 18 event at the Baltimore Museum of Art will feature the music and dance of Black urban migrants in the early 1900s

The bright jolt between cuts at the piano, the palpable rhythm of stomping feet, and the smell of hot fried fish combined with the sweat of dancing bodies are all characteristics of the early 1900s rent party.

The Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts , in partnership with the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), will recreate the sounds, sights, and feeling of these unique get-togethers of the past with its own version of a rent party at the BMA on Thursday, April 18, from 6 to 9 p.m. The event, centered on music and dance for Black urban migrants in the early 1900s, will educate attendees through a lecture, a short documentary, and a performance inspired by the sound and movement of the rent party.

Rent parties were social occasions where tenants hired musicians to play, sometimes passing around a hat to raise money for their rent, but not always. This form of entertainment originated in 1910’s Harlem and in terms of the Black social scene it "took up where the jook joint and hoe down left off, and the house party in the basement is its heir," says Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Lawrence Jackson , who directs the Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts. "These sacred Black performance spaces are recuperative sites where deep tones and essential rhythms inspire kinetic caress and provide reprieve from daily hardships and discrimination."

Historically, the rent party was "an opportunity for confident, joyful self-expression, freedom from codes that regulated racial and sexual conduct, and freedom from the time period’s ideals of uplift, sobriety, and propriety. It was a moment and a space for staking vernacular pleasure. It was an unapologetic place for Black creative expression," says Jackson.

The documentation of rent parties in literature is perhaps most famously found in The Big Sea by Langston Hughes. As he recounts his own coming of age in 1920s Harlem he writes, "The Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any night club, in small apartments where God knows who lived-because the guests seldom did-but where the piano would often be augmented by a guitar, or an odd cornet, or somebody with a pair of drums walking in off the street."

The Billie Holiday Center’s event commemorates the life of Donald V. Bentley , one of Baltimore’s promising young leaders who was a rising sophomore at Morehouse College when he was shot during an armed robbery on Maryland Avenue during the summer of 1989. The evening will begin with a presentation by Shana Redmond, a professor at Columbia University, about the scholarly and symbolic significance of the rent party.

The presentation will be followed by a short documentary film, The Birth of Jazz in Baltimore. The evening will conclude with music and dance performances that pay tribute to the dynamic rent party musical tradition. Peabody jazz studies faculty members Nasar Abadey (percussion) and Richard Johnson (piano) will play an improvisational jam session highlighting this particular moment in Black musical history. Five Baltimore house music dancers will respond to the music live, recreating the improvisational movements of dancers at the historical rent party. A catered reception will immediately follow the program.

Registration for the event is highly encouraged.