Rent party

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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.[1][2] 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.

Historical background

At the start of the Great Migration, and the start of World War I large populations of African Americans moved north. This is brought on with the need of 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 are a places for the middle class African Americans to go on their nights off to get away from the everyday struggle. During this time the African Americans face high rent prices due to discrimination large numbers of people would be forced to live in small spaces for very high rent prices.[3] Historically these parties were an answer to a problem. During the nineteen twenties around two-hundred thousand African Americans migrated to the north.

The rent parties would have invitations to the location prompting African Americans to come with these cards, that would only be handed to the “right” people.[3]The rent parties always had to stay somewhat of a secret due to the threat police presented at the time. Around the same time prohibition began which made the consumption of alcohol and as well as the production illegal which added on top of the party being an African American party. The party would have a cover charge as well as charges for food and drink. Commonly alcohol would be served as refreshments and common foods such as fried chicken and potato salad. Also live music would be performed with area around to dance and mingle.

Rent parties not featuring either Jazz or specifically African American crowds are featured in the plots of movies set in New York during in the 80s, 90s such as Party Girl (starring Parker Posey). The Waldo's 1994 album "Rent Party" is a reference to the practice.


  1. ^ Harlem Rent Parties, (The Library of Congress excerpt)
  2. ^ Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2011), chapter 4 Harlem
  3. ^ a b Byrd, Frank (August 23, 1938). "Harlem Rent Parties". Retrieved November 23, 2016. 

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