The first-ever performances outside the United States of Ron McCurdy’s multimedia version of Langston Hughes will take place at the Barbican in this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival on Saturday November 21st. Ron McCurdy spoke to Sebastian Scotney
Langston Hughes’ epic poem Ask Your Mama – 12 Moods for Jazz (published 1961) was described on its original dust-jacket like this:
“In language bursting with sound and rhythm–angry, blue, fiercely ironic, funny and haunting–Langston Hughes has unleashed here a sequence of brilliant jazz poetry that cannot fail to stir even the tone-deaf.”… “These are poems that demand to be read aloud, and whether or not the proper instruments are handy, the description, line by line, of the musical accompaniment which appears beside the verse is so vivid that the music can be imagined.”
The backstory to the work is that poet Langston Hughes s was MC-ing at at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, introducing appearances by Louis Armstrong (to whom Ask Your Mama is dedicated), Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Dakota Staton, Oscar Peterson, Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, Otis Spann, Ray Charles, and Muddy Waters….
A fight broke out among white youth who couldn’t get in to see the predominantly black artists at the festival, and the Governor of Rhode Island brought in the National Guard. Hughes was moved, and also fascinated by the irony. He went to his hotel room, and started work on an epic poem.
Ask Your Mama was always intended for public recitation, and Hughes puts into the poem detailed verbal cues of the kinds of music he was expecting to hear at each point as the poem evolved.
Example: “The rhythmically rough scraping of a guira continues monotonously until until a lonely flute call high and far away merges into piano variations on German Lieder.”
Hughes certainly had discussions with both Randy Weston and with Charles Mingus about a performing version, but nothing was ever perforrmed in Hughes’ lifetime – he died in 1967. Mingus and Langston Hughes had previously worked together on the album Weary Blues. What happened? “They probably just never got around to getting it done,” McCurdy reckons.
Ron McCurdy is a Florida-born trumpeter and educator who has worked with Dianne Reeves and Wynton Marsalis, is a past president of the International Association of Jazz Educators, has produced a multi-media version, which now receives several per year. At this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival it will receive its first ever performances outside the USA
The origins of the performing version by Ron McCurdy is that he was commissioned in the early 1990s to make a new work for the opening festival of Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. That premiere was successful. The work has since received dozens of performances all over the United States.
“We have done it for fifteen years, and we try to reman true to what Langston Hughes had in mind It is a multi-media performance, we have added a visual component.” And in a nutshell what is it? “The poem,” says Ron McCurdy, “ is Langston Hughes’ social comment on the struggle for freedom.”
The performers in London include rapper Ice-T, who has performed it once before, with an orchestra, in 2008 Indianapolis. McCurdy will be performing the work in London with a quartet including his regular piano player Yuma Sung, Mark Hodgson on bass and Mark Mondesir on drums.