In 1960, near the dusk of his career, and the dawn of the civil rights movement, Langston Hughes began an epic poem in a hotel room in Newport, R.I. He had come for the Newport Jazz Festival to hear many of the most compelling musicians of the day: Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker. A riot broke out at the festival that year when many fans — mostly young and white — were barred from entering the sold-out show and became violent. The festival’s roaring rhythms and racial tensions made their way to the page, as Hughes penned what would be his longest poem, “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.”
“Ask Your Mama” was never meant to be simply read silently to oneself. Alongside the words of the poem, Hughes sketched out detailed instructions for musical accompaniment. He planned to stage an elaborate performance of his piece with the help of jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus, but died before seeing it to fruition.
Five years ago, Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman stumbled across a copy of Hughes’ work while wandering in a book store. She was instantly struck by the power and potential of the piece, believing it cried out to be realized as a 21st century multimedia performance.
“The ways he asks for things to happen from the 12-bar blues to the German lieder to African drums — the tempo is a more 2009 Internet/Google/mash-up tempo,” Karpman said. “The tempo fits more in the present even than his own time.”
Listen to an interview with composer Laura Karpman:
To make Hughes’ vision a reality, Karpman collaborated with legendary soprano Jessye Norman to create the show: a multimedia spoken-word performance with jazz interludes. It incorporates recordings of readings by Hughes, along with voices and video of historical figures referenced in the poem.
The music comes from a full orchestra and members of the hip-hop group the Roots, along with vocals by Norman, de’Adre Aziza, Tracie Luck and others.
Listen to an interview with the Roots’ drummer Questlove Thompson:
It premiered last March at Carnegie Hall, and now Karpman and company are taking the show on the road. This Sunday, a second performance will be staged at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, with plans for a nationwide tour.
Below are selections from “Ask Your Mama”:
“Shades of Pigmeat”
“Horn of Plenty”