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Central Washington University

Langston Hughes Project performed at CWU to honor Martin Luther King

Langston Hughes Project posterLangston Hughes was a famed American poet, columnist novelist, playwright, and social activist. He was also credited with being among the earliest innovators of a new literary art form called jazz poetry.

Hughes died in 1967 but his literary work has been set to jazz through the efforts of Ron McCurdy, professor of music in the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, through his Langston Hughes Project.

The multimedia concert performance of Hughes’s work, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, will be presented at Central Washington University in a free, public performance, set for 6:00 p.m. Thursday, January 17, in the Student Union and Recreation Center Theatre on the Ellensburg campus.

The Langston Hughes Project is a multimedia performance featuring spoken work, jazz quartet, and videography that chronicles the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hughes was among those who was those heavily influenced by the artistic, intellectual, and social evolution that took place during that period.

“When people come to our concerts, they come with the preconceived idea that they are just going to learn something,” McCurdy said. “What I’ve discovered is that people leave the concerts actually having had a great time. They enjoy the music, they enjoy the poetry, they enjoy the videography. And, also, Langston helps us to understand how we as a people might live and work together.”

Hughes was to have been an emcee of the 1960s Newport Jazz festival. But, after thousands of people who had been shut out of the sold-out concert started rioting necessitating a response from the National Guard, it was canceled. Hughes subsequently wrote the poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz based upon that event.

“This became Langston Hughes’s social commentary on the struggle for freedom and equality among Africans and African-Americans,” McCurdy said. “This proved to be a very powerful moment in our history because Langston was telling the stories of people of color, primarily Africans and African-Americans.”

McCurdy, the artistic director, serves as both narrator and the featured trumpeter, backed by musicians on bass, drums, and piano

“Langston was also a huge jazz fan,” McCurdy pointed out. “As Langston wrote Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, he heard jazz music. And he wrote what are called musical cues to give the composer an idea of what music should accompany each of the sections of the poem. We took the musical cues that Langston Hughes had provided as a blueprint for how we would compose the music.” 

It was a lengthy task, involving a line-by-line dissection of the poem to determine what should be done musically to support the text.

“You might compare this to a movie soundtrack, where the music enhances the text and that was our mission,” he added.

Celebrities including actors Blair Underwood and Malcolm-Jamal Warner and rapper Ice-T have joined performances of the Langston Hughes Project over the past 15 years.

The critically acclaimed performance is sponsored by the university’s Black Student Union, Diversity and Equity Center, Africana and Black Studies program, and Center for Leadership and Community Engagement in commemoration of Martin Luther King Day 2019.

Media contact: Robert Lowery, Department of Public Affairs, 509-963-1487, Robert.Lowery@cwu.edu

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