According to Wikipedia, a rent 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. The rent party played a major role in the development of jazz and blues music.
Further reading suggests that rent parties started in Harlem in the 1910s as a way to offset rising rents.
Harlemites soon discovered that meeting these doubled, and sometimes tripled, rents was not so easy. They began to think of someway to meet their ever increasing deficits. Someone evidently got the idea of having a few friends in as paying party guests a few days before the landlord’s scheduled monthly visit. It was a happy; timely thought. The guests had a good time and entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the party. Besides, it cost each individual very little, probably much less than he would have spent in some public amusement place. Besides, it was a cheap way to help a friend in need. It was such a good, easy way out of one’s difficulties that others decided to make use of it. Thus was the Harlem rent-party born….
Jazz pianist Fats Waller was associated with these parties and lived a short but colorful life.
The ebullient young man with the dazzling jazz style was a big hit at the Sherman Hotel. His nightly audience included men with wide lapels and bulging pockets. One evening Fats felt a revolver poked into his paunchy stomach. He found himself bullied into a black limousine, heard the driver ordered to East Cicero. Sweat pouring down his body, Fats foresaw a premature end to his career, but on arrival at a fancy saloon, he was merely pushed toward a piano and told to play. He played. Loudest in applause was a beefy man with an unmistakable scar: Al Capone was having a birthday, and he, Fats, was a present from “the boys”.
The party lasted three days. Fats exhausted himself and his repertoire, but with every request bills were stuffed into his pockets. He and Capone consumed vast quantities of food and drink. By the time the black limousine headed back to the Sherman, Fats had acquired severeal thousand dollars in cash and a decided taste for vintage champagne.
I was inspired to read about rent parties and Waller by this interview with Michel Gondry, director of Be Kind Rewind. Gondry says about his film:
It’s important in the story that there’s a parallel between what’s happening in the film and what happened in the past with rent parties, which were very real. Fats Waller became the great musician he was through those parties. When someone could not afford the rent for one month, they’d make a party. You’d bring a dollar, and there would be a piano contest all night long. People making their own entertainment, that’s exactly what it is.
Here’s Waller performing one of his most well-known pieces, Ain’t Misbehavin’.