Today, we turn our video spotlight on The Langston Hughes Project, a multi-media setting of Hughes' 1961 poem “Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz” that will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 24 at the Meridian Ballroom on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville under the auspices of SIUE's Arts And Issues series.
Led by trumpeter and jazz educator Ron McCurdy, the project combines a reading of Hughes' 12-part poetic suite with live music from McCurdy's quintet and projected images of the Harlem Renaissance by African American artists and photographers including Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks and Romare Bearden. Hughes originally had intended to collaborate with bassist Charles Mingus on a musical score for "Ask Your Mama," but died in 1967 before the project could be developed.
Four decades later, McCurdy and Dr. John Wright of the University of Minnesota expanded on Hughes’ original concept by adding the visuals, and since then, The Langston Hughes Project has been performed by McCurdy and Wright all around the country. The chairman of jazz studies and professor of music at the University of Southern California, McCurdy also has performed with jazz artists such as Joe Williams, Arturo Sandoval, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton and Dianne Reeves and with pop singers including Rosemary Clooney and Leslie Uggams.
Up above, you can see a brief video trailer that introduces The Langston Hughes Project. Down below, you can see and hear performances of the first section "Cultural Exchange" and the sixth, "Horn of Plenty." The fourth video is an excerpt from the piece's world premiere in 2008, a big-budget extravaganza that featured an orchestral score written by McCurdy and performed by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as well as rapper/actor Ice-T reading Hughes' words.
Though he's most often associated with Harlem, Hughes (1902-1967) actually was a Missouri native. He was born in Joplin, grew up in Lawrence KS and Cleveland OH, and moved to New York as a young man just in time to be part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. An avid jazz and blues fan, Hughes enjoyed sitting in clubs listening to music and writing poetry, and he was quite a prolific writer. His works include writing sixteen books of poems, two novels, three collections of short stories, four volumes of fiction, and twenty plays, plus children's poetry, musicals and operas, three autobiographies, a dozen radio and television scripts, and dozens of magazine articles and essays, as well as editing seven anthologies.
For more about Hughes' life and work, check out these two shortbios of him. You can read a selection of his poems here, and hear him reading his own work in a 1945 audio recording posted to YouTube in four parts (1, 2, 3, 4). Hughes also was recorded reading "Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods For Jazz" in 1967 for an album called The Black Verse. Although the LP is out of print, you can hear those recordings (interspersed with a variety of jazz cuts) on this program paying tribute to Hughes that aired earlier this year on KDVS, a public radio station associated with the University of California-Davis.