A Jazzed-Up Langston Hughes

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

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

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Collaborating with Karpman, the Emmy-winning composer of the PBS series The Living Edens, Norman seems primed to deliver a multimedia tour de force with jazz, opera and world music as well as film and spoken word. In addition to Luck and Aziza, the concert features the hip-hop band The Roots, who recite passages and provide their signature percussion. Vintage clips of films and entertainers play on several big screens behind the orchestra, and visual artist Rico Gatson provides a kaleidoscope of images of African American artists and leaders. Hughes makes an appearance via film and audio recordings of him reading the poem. After the Carnegie Hall debut, the show travels to the Hollywood Bowl for an August 30 show and then to Baltimore on February 4-6, 2010 for a performance with the Baltimore Symphony.

Although Norman did not know this particular Hughes work, her mother, a schoolteacher, had introduced her to many of his popular poems such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Upon reading Ask Your Mama, Norman was struck by the poet's "soundtrack of the world in the sixties.” His margin notes call for familiar gospel songs and jazz standards. He riffs on "lovely leider Leontyne," in homage to opera great Leontyne Price. The shout-outs to political leaders, sports heroes and newsmakers of the era, like Jackie Robinson and Emmett Till, still resonate. “There are call-outs of these names,” Norman says, “names that everyone should know, because they increase the understanding of the meaning of civil rights.”

Karpman, the piece’s composer, was raised on bebop as well as Beethoven. Having played jazz and scatted while a graduate student at Juilliard, she feels in sync with the jazz sensibilities of Ask Your Mama. “The thing that was so attractive about it," she says, "was that in the right hand margins of the text, Langston actually said how the music should sound. He creates kind of a sonic landscape for the poem. For me that was just irresistible.”

She opens the book to one of Hughes’s directions: “Delicate leider on piano continues between verses to merge softly into the melody of the ‘Hesitation Blues.’” She follows the cues, but notes that “Hughes has left a lot of room for interpretation.”

Karpman turns to her singers. “Could you bleed over into the rests following Miss Norman’s lead?” A humidifier on a table nearby silently blows moisture to protect the singers’ voices from the hot, dry air of the heated room. Luck and Aziza nod and listen for Norman’s lead.


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