and Ron McCurdy – The Langston Hughes Project
@ the Barbican Centre
21 November 2015
Click an image to enlarge.
What is The Langston Hughes Project?
The Langston Hughes Project is a multimedia concert
performance of Langston Hughes’s kaleidoscopic jazz poem suite.
Ask Your Mama is Hughes's homage in verse and music to the struggle
for artistic and social freedom at home and abroad at the beginning
of the 1960s. It is a twelve-part epic poem which Hughes scored
with musical cues drawn from blues and Dixieland, gospel songs,
boogie woogie, bebop and progressive jazz, Latin “cha cha”
and Afro-Cuban mambo music, German lieder, Jewish liturgy, West
Indian calypso, and African drumming - a creative masterwork left
unperformed at his death.
Jazz was a cosmopolitan metaphor for Langston Hughes,
a force for cultural convergence beyond the reach of words, or the
limits of any one language. It called up visual analogues for him
as well, most pointedly the surrealistic techniques of painterly
collage and of the film editing developed in this country in the
1930s and 40s, which condensed time and space, conveyed to the viewer
a great array of information in short compass, and which offered
the possibility of suggesting expanded states of consciousness,
chaotic remembrances of past events or dreams - through montage.
“To me,” Hughes wrote, “jazz is a montage of a
dream deferred. A great big dream - yet to come - and always yet
to become ultimately and finally true.”
By way of videography, this concert performance
links the words and music of Hughes’ poetry to topical images
of Ask Your Mama’s people, places, and events, and to the
works of the visual artists Langston Hughes admired or collaborated
with most closely over the course of his career - the African-inspired
mural designs and cubist geometries of Aaron Douglas, the blues
and jazz-inspired collages of Romare Bearden, the macabre grotesques
of Meta Warrick Fuller and the rhythmic sculptural figurines and
heads and bas reliefs of Richmond Barthe, the colour blocked cityscapes
and black history series of Palmer Hayden and Jacob Lawrence. Together
the words, sounds, and images recreate a magical moment in our cultural
history, which bridges the Harlem Renaissance, the post World War
II Beat writers’ coffeehouse jazz poetry world, and the looming
Black Arts performance explosion of the 1960s.
Ask Your Mama was dedicated to Louis Armstrong,
“the greatest horn blower of them all,” and to those
of whatever hue or culture of origin who welcomed being immersed
in the mysteries, rituals, names, and nuances of black life not
just in America but in the Caribbean, in Latin America, in Europe
and Africa during the years of anti-colonial upheaval abroad and
the rising Freedom Movement here at home. Not only the youthful
Martin Luther King, Jr. but the independence leaders of Guinea and
Nigeria and Ghana and Kenya and the Congo fill the chants and refrains
of Hughes’s epic poem.
Originally, Langston Hughes created Ask Your Mama
in the aftermath of his participation as an official for the five-day
Newport Jazz Festival of July 1960, where he shared the stage with
such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver,
Dakota Staton, Oscar Peterson, Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, Otis
Spann, Ray Charles, and Muddy Waters. The musical scoring of the
poem was designed to serve not as mere background for the words
but to forge a conversation and a commentary with the music. Though
Hughes originally intended to collaborate with Charles Mingus, and
then Randy Weston, on the full performance of his masterwork, it
remained only in the planning stages when Langston Hughes died in
1967. Its recovery now in word, music, and image provides a galvanising
experience for audiences everywhere.