August 2008 SPIN Magazine coverThe New York Renaissance aka “Harlem Rens” got a nice mention in the current issue of SPIN Magazine (August 2008).

The mention is in an article on the last page, in the Hidden Tracks section, called “Dunk The Funk.”

The byline of the piece is “Could the Olympics save basketball’s musical soul?”

My answer is “no.” Because it’s the wrong question. Basketball’s musical soul isn’t in jeopardy. The caged bird will still sing.

I bring up Converse because the 100-year-old history of that brand is the generation-by-generation diary of the connection between basketball and music.

Anyway, the premise of the piece, by Bethlehem Shoals, the well known blogger and founder of FreeDarko.com, is that somehow basketball’s connection to music is in trouble since music seemingly doesn’t play a role during Olympic basketball games.

Although music is used to pump up the fans in other sports, Shoals observes that, “professional basketball is the only sport in which the game itself seems inextricably tied to music.”

Well, of course not just pro basketball.

Shoals appreciates the modern links between basketball and music, citing Marvin Gaye’s version of the national anthem prior to the 1983 N.B.A. All Star Game, thumping in-game hip hop beats, rap experimentation by N.B.A. players, and N.B.A. experimentation by rappers (well, just Jay-Z for now, although he doesn’t mention Master P’s failed effort nor the court side admiration of numerous music royalty).

“Nor was it by accident that, in the 1920s, the Harlem Rens played on the dance floor between sets by Duke Ellington,” says Shoals. Duke Ellington arrived in Harlem in 1923, the year that future Basketball Hall of Fame member Bob Douglas cut a deal with the Renaissance Ballroom and formed the Rens basketball team.

Ellington was a newcomer to the Harlem scene and would have been just as likely to be found playing at rent parties alongside future legendary pianists Willie “The Lion” Smith, “Fats” Waller, and Eubie Blake. These men weren’t headliners yet, although most played professionally as members of someone else’s orchestra.

Rent parties, where up-and-coming pianists endlessly competed against one another, were called “jumps” or “shouts.” In order to play them, those pianists had to get substitutes and sneak away from their regular night club gigs, or else come out afterwards in the late night. But, to make your reputation, you were obliged to show up. Not to mention that playing rent parties paid better than night clubs.

Meanwhile, from day one, Douglas had a house band in the form of Vernon Andrade’s Orchestra. Ellington might have made appearances with Andrade’s orchestra. He was one of the rent-party regulars, still eagerly learning his way around Harlem on the coat-tails of Smith.

By the mid-1920s, Ellington had joined Elmer Snowden’s Washingtonians, who had copped an exclusive multi-year run at a midtown Manhattan night club, was making records, and was beginning to exert his own musical influence. In 1927, now with his own orchestra, Ellington opened at the Cotton Club, marking the beginning of his rise to national and international stardom.

Ellington may have played the Renaissance Ballroom after that, but not in connection with the Rens. By the late 1920s the Rens began spending the majority of their time on the road due to poor attendance at home.

Back to Shoals, basketball, and music.

The original linkage between basketball and music came immediately after African American teams first emerged around 1907. Every Black Fives Era basketball game was advertised as a “Basket Ball Game And Dance.”

Why? Enterprising basketball managers knew that audiences wanted entertainment and meaningful social events on the one hand, and that black orchestras wanted crowds to play on the other. Black compositions — in ragtime, jazz, and blues — previously had no large-scale “live” outlet, as most of them were underground or rendered to sheet music to be played on parlor pianos. That is, until the emergence of the radio and phonograph around 1910.

After that, people wanted to dance and parlors just weren’t big enough for the live orchestra nor the dancers. A ballroom construction boom followed, and that’s where black basketball teams played, filling in otherwise empty dance floors on off nights, while most athletic facilities remained whites-only.

The marriage of basketball and music at the turn of the last century was an African American innovation, partly of necessity and partly of enterprise, with a social benefit to boot.

Much of this basis continues today, although the blaring music at N.B.A. games and many streetball tournaments often seems like force-feeding.

Given all this, Shoals asks, “So why does our Olympic team compete in silence?”

He continues:

Maybe there’s a subtle element of racism, a desire on the part of powerful institutions to pretend that USA Basketball can still be blandly ecumenical. But I prefer to think of it as a simple missed opportunity.

I appreciate his concern, but believe that we need not worry about basketball losing its 100-year-old musical soul. Instead, my response is that the only music that matters for the United States Olympic Basketball Team right now is the “Star Spangled Banner.” Can I get an Amen?

(Image courtesy of SPIN.com.)