Poetry, jazz mingle at University event

by Jessica Hampton

It was a jazz and poetry fusion endeavor that would have made Langston Hughes proud.
Friday evening two performers and a jazz quartet presented their depiction of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ previously unfinished work “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz” to a crowd of around 200 at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the West Bank.
John Wright, Afro-American and African studies professor, and Dawn Renee Jones, a freelance director, writer and actor, read the poem alongside music performed by the Ron McCurdy Quartet. McCurdy is director of Jazz Studies at the University.
Two large screens behind the performers showed interchangeable images of paintings, drawings and photographs created or taken around the Harlem Renaissance period.
The multimedia event debuted in 1994 for the opening of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum.
Wright, Jones and the Ron McCurdy Quartet have since traveled around the country performing the piece for audiences in various cities such as Detroit and New Orleans. The group is hoping to take the project to Europe for jazz festivals this summer.
“Everywhere we’ve done it we’ve had a great response,” McCurdy said.
Unlike many artists who do not receive critical acclaim until they have passed away, Hughes was recognized during his lifetime for his strong role in the Harlem Renaissance movement. Beginning in the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance brought a strong current of African-American literature, art and music into popular culture.
“Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz” is an 800-line poem that Hughes began writing in the early 1960s. His primary inspiration came from his participation in the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1960. Hughes’ aim was to collaborate with Charles Mingus for the musical accompaniment, but unfortunately Mingus died before the music was composed. The piece itself was to be a tribute to legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong.
Working from cues written in the margin of the original text, McCurdy filled in the musical blanks with selections from John Coltrane, Cole Porter and Charlie Parker, as well as composing a few selections of his own.
“It’s never the same piece twice,” McCurdy said. “That’s what makes it jazz.”
“It is an opportunity to practice what we preach,” he said with a smile. “We do this because we want to.”
McCurdy explained that the group continues to put on this piece to expose audiences to the powerful “triangle” of poetry, music and visual images.
Hughes’ writing characteristically has a very musical quality, which lends itself easily to such collaborations.
“Jazz is getting from point A to point B by the most scenic route,” McCurdy said.