Langston Hughes – Ask Your Mama

With a playful air and a total lack of apology, the Langtson Hughes Project filled the Meridian Ballroom last Thursday. The performance was a stream-of-consciousness-like explosion of jazz, poetry and supporting video imagery. Hughes’ 12-part epic poem, “Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz” speaks of the struggle for freedom in the early 1960’s. The poem was supported by an eclectic admixture of blues, Dixieland, gospel, boogie-woogie, bebop, Latin ‘cha-cha,’ Afro-Cuban mambo, German Lieder, Jewish liturgy, West Indian calypso, and African drumming — all of which permeated a progressive jazz chassis that captured the audience, and set the pace for the evening.

SIUE Music Professor “Reggie Thomas was the person who originally suggested bringing in this group,” Director of Arts and Issues Grant Andree told This Week In CAS. “Langston Hughes always wanted a musical score to his poem “Ask Your Mama,” but he died before he was able to complete the piece.”

University of Southern California Professor of Jazz Studies Ron McCurdy took up the challenge of recreating Hughes’ vision, working from liner notes in the poets hand that gave strong indications of what kind of music Hughes intended for different parts of the poem. He also brought in the multimedia aspect of the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age, to provide modern audiences with a richer experience.

“It’s wonderful how he blends the music, spoken word and visuals,” Andree said. “It’s a great opportunity for the students, professors and staff but we are also able to bring in the wider community of alumni, retired professors, and even students from the local high schools. I want to give credit to (SIUE) Student Affairs, who lets us give away 50 tickets to students for each Arts and Issues show.”

Hughes briefly lived in Lincoln, Illinois as a child — and is said to have written his first poem there. He was an important cultural figure bridging the Harlem Renaissance and the post World War II ‘Beat’ writers’ coffeehouse jazz poetry world, as well as the looming Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s.

Next up in the Arts and Issues series is musician Simon Shaheen, Thursday, April 14th in the Meridian Ballroom of the Morris University Center. Tickets are available in the Fine Arts box office of Dunham Hall or by calling (618) 650-5774.


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