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Langston Hughes' epic poem, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz is the text for the piece performed by Jessye Norman, among others. (Corbis)

A Jazzed-Up Langston Hughes

A long-forgotten poem about the African-American experience is given new life in a multimedia performance

smithsonian.com

“The words need to float above the orchestra,” composer Laura Karpman instructs world-renown soprano Jessye Norman who is singing passages of Langston Hughes’ most ambitious though nearly forgotten work, his 1960s epic poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. Sitting in folding chairs in a Carnegie Hall rehearsal room, Norman and Karpman, along with mezzo-soprano Tracie Luck and jazz vocalist de’Adre Aziza, prepare for the first major performance of Hughes’s jazz poem, which premieres on March 16 at the historic theater.

“Of course,” replies Norman, who has sung at the hall dozens of times. She lifts her chin, and in the voice that has thrilled millions of grand opera lovers the words take flight, soaring to the rafters. But this music isn't about a tragic heroine; it's about the African American experience.

Luck and Aziza join in, the three distinct voices merging and separating as the piano accompanist plays a stripped-down version of Karpman’s multi-layered score.

Diamonds in pawn
(And I never had a diamond
in my natural life)
Me
In the White Hous
e
(And ain't never had a black house)
Do, Jesus!
Lord!
Amen!

They repeat the “Amen” several times, then erupt in laughter and smiles. The lines resonate with everyone in the room. Hughes’s phrase “Me in the White House” seems both funny and prescient just a month after the inauguration of the first African-American president.

Hughes’s Ask Your Mama is playful and serious all at once. He teases the reader by couching his verse in the black urban expression known as the “dozens," but the work is intended to dig deep into the American consciousness. Hughes’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, describes the sardonic verbal jousting as "a familiar ritual of personal insult in the black American world.” The title of the poem is a “dozens” riposte and is repeated throughout the work.

They asked me at the PTA
Is it true that Negroes—?
I said, ask your mama.

Hughes began the cycle of poems after witnessing white youths rioting at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival because the performances were sold out. Perhaps he saw the irony in the fact that whites were now fighting for the right to see black performers and sensed a shifting of old ways. When Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz appeared in 1961, the collection was largely ignored by reviewers and the public, according to Rampersad. Shortly after Hughes death, the book went out of print and only a few small-scale performances have been staged.

“The poem amounts to a bristling challenge to the established American social and political order,” Rampersad says in the introduction to the recent reissue of the Hughes biography. Hughes, who died in 1967, seems keenly prophetic. Writing 50 years ago, he imagined a future when “Martin Luther King is governor of Georgia” and “wealthy Negroes have white servants.”

The Ask Your Mama production is part of “Honor!” a three-week festival on African American music commissioned by Carnegie Hall and curated by Norman. “There are kids today who are making hip hop and rap who are too young to have had any personal knowledge of the sixties,” she says. “I want them to understand that what they’re doing has grown out of something very old.”

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