04/17/08

The Langston Hughes Project - Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz

Recorded words recited dramatically by Langston Hughes, the poet/writer laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, filled the stately Huntington Library’s auditorium in Pasadena resoundingly. Then in rapid succession a pre-taped oratory by Ronald McCurdy, chair of the Jazz Dept. and Professor of Music for the USC Thornton School of Music, followed. These highly charged non-musical moments set the mood for Hughes’s Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz, a multimedia program that included accompaniment by Eli Brueggemann on piano, Peter Buck on drums and Edwin Livingston on bass, led by McCurdy on trumpet.

More than 40 years after Hughes’ death in 1967 his long-lost synergy of poetry and music was resurrected and performed to a capacity audience. Of all the talented, enlightened and very influential African-American writers during the 1920s-’40s, Hughes long before jazz was reputable and socially acceptable, voiced an endearing and everlasting affinity for it. In fact, many of his poems resembled the rhythmic cadences and melodic textures of the genre, beginning with “Weary Blues” in 1926. Unquestionably, his homage, or tribute, celebrating the vitality and artistry of the music was predestined.

Yet, it wasn’t achieved during his lifetime. Seven years before Hughes’s death he was asked to be an official for the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. After enjoying performances by Louis Armstrong, Horace Silver, Dakota Staton, Oscar Peterson and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, along with blues and R&B from Otis Spann, Muddy Waters and Ray Charles, he was strongly moved and created the poetic foundation for Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz. The concept was a conversation between music and verse, instead of the arrangements merely being a backdrop. Interestingly, it was dedicated to Armstrong, with Charles Mingus and later Randy Weston’s involvement as Hughes’ collaborators, for performances that never came to fruition.

Amazingly, McCurdy and quartet, in sync with a milieu of vintage and historic projected footage and stills that included Martin Luther King, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other luminaries, conveyed Hughes’ majestic love for jazz and African-Americans. The audience, comprised mostly of people older than 40, with a considerable representation of those younger, were spellbound by the presentation. McCurdy’s playing, command of the material and improvisations were the main reasons: He ignited the concert by coming through the audience blazing away, before connecting with the other players.

Additionally, McCurdy put life into Hughes’ verse, alternating between being sassy, scholarly and humorous. McCurdy boldly proclaimed that it was a church service, and spiritually it did possess qualities of reverence and inner wisdom. However, musically the program was far too freewheeling and extensive, ranging from Caribbean/calypso to barrelhouse blues, gospel and modal jazz, to conform to any sacred guidelines. Prime examples were “Ride Red, Ride” featuring hard-hitting band interaction; “Blues in Stereo,” pulsated with Livingston’s walking bass; “Jazztet Muted,” on which Brueggemann astounded the house with stride piano; and “Gospel Cha Cha,” propelled by Buck’s intriguing Latin and gospel rhythms.

Bringing it all home was “Show Fare, Please,” showcasing the bandleader’s contrast with his sidemen’s cool shuffle grooving, with exuberant soloing, while the audience clapped along. A well-deserved standing ovation for the ensemble followed, but it was really for Hughes, for his creation finally being realized. Although interweaving of verse, music and images is not unusual these days, few have created such a poignant, eloquent and exceptionally soulful work. Unquestionably, wider exposure and many more presentations around the country are in order. For more information and possibly other shows go to Ron McCurdy’s website.

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