The Langston Hughes Project is a multimedia concert performance of Langston Hughes’s kaleidoscopic jazz poem suite. Ask Your Mama is Hughes’s homage in verse and music to the struggle for artistic and social freedom at home and abroad at the beginning of the 1960s. It is a twelve-part epic poem which Hughes scored with musical cues drawn from blues and Dixieland, gospel songs, boogie woogie, bebop and progressive jazz, Latin “cha cha” and Afro-Cuban mambo music, German lieder, Jewish liturgy, West Indian calypso, and African drumming — a creative masterwork left unperformed at his death.
Jazz was a cosmopolitan metaphor for Langston Hughes, a force for cultural convergence beyond the reach of words, or the limits of any one language. It called up visual analogues for him as well, most pointedly the surrealistic techniques of painterly collage and of the film editing developed in this country in the 1930s and 40s, which condensed time and space, conveyed to the viewer a great array of information in short compass, and which offered the possibility of suggesting expanded states of consciousness, chaotic remembrances of past events or dreams — through montage. “To me,” Hughes wrote, “jazz is a montage of a dream deferred. A great big dream — yet to come — and always yet to become ultimately and finally true.”
By way of videography, this concert performance links the words and music of Hughes’ poetry to topical images of Ask Your Mama’s people, places, and events, and to the works of the visual artists Langston Hughes admired or collaborated with most closely over the course of his career — the African-inspired mural designs and cubist geometries of Aaron Douglas, the blues and jazz-inspired collages of Romare Bearden, the macabre grotesques of Meta Warrick Fuller and the rhythmic sculptural figurines and heads and bas reliefs of Richmond Barthe, the color blocked cityscapes and black history series of Palmer Hayden and Jacob Lawrence. Together the words, sounds, and images recreate a magical moment in our cultural history, which bridges the Harlem Renaissance, the post World War II Beat writers’ coffeehouse jazz poetry world, and the looming Black Arts performance explosion of the 1960s.
Ask Your Mama was dedicated to Louis Armstrong, “the greatest horn blower of them all,” and to those of whatever hue or culture of origin who welcomed being immersed in the mysteries, rituals, names, and nuances of black life not just in America but in the Caribbean, in Latin America, in Europe and Africa during the years of anti-colonial upheaval abroad and the rising Freedom Movement here at home. Not only the youthful Martin Luther King, Jr. but the independence leaders of Guinea and Nigeria and Ghana and Kenya and the Congo fill the chants and refrains of Hughes’s epic poem.
Originally, Langston Hughes created Ask Your Mama in the aftermath of his participation as an official for the five-day Newport Jazz Festival of July 1960, where he shared the stage with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Dakota Staton, Oscar Peterson, Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, Otis Spann, Ray Charles, and Muddy Waters. The musical scoring of the poem was designed to serve not as mere background for the words but to forge a conversation and a commentary with the music. Though Hughes originally intended to collaborate with Charles Mingus, and then Randy Weston, on the full performance of his masterwork, it remained only in the planning stages when Langston Hughes died in 1967. Its recovery now in word, music, and image provides a galvanizing experience for audiences everywhere.