Your Mama" is more than an epic poem. Its subtitle
is a direct reference to both its structure--a 12-part poem cycle--and
the poet's apparent passion for jazz. It is a most eloquent
example of the genre known as JAZZ POETRY that was in large part
his creation. And perhaps the most explicit, given not only its
subtitle but, more remarkably, the right-hand margin of every
page on which he wrote notations for a musical score (see excerpt
Hughes began creating the poem
late in his career while participating in the 1960 Newport Jazz
Festival and indeed planned a performance of the work in collaboration
with jazz great Charles Mingus. Unfortunately, he died before
he could bring his plans to fruition.
The poem is an uncommonly original
paean to the African American icons of Hughes' generation: musical
(e.g., from mood #1 entitled "Cultural Exchange," lines
27 and 28: LEONTYNE SAMMY HARRY PORTIER LOVELY LENA MARIAN LOUIS
PEARLIE MAE), intellectual (e.g., RALPH ELLISON, GEORGE SCHUYLER,
RICHARD WRIGHT), and political (e.g., FREDERICK DOUGLASS, MARTIN
LUTHER KING). Pulsating with a natural rhythm that could verily
have inspired the rap music so ubiquitous today - one wonders,
could HUGHES be enshrined as the "father of rap?", it
skillfully paints with folksy wit, humor and pathos a colorful
canvas of African American life during the years cradled between
the heady exhilaration of the Harlem Renaissance and the bloody
turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement. Well-known non-African
American personalities of the time who wielded power for good
or ill (e.g., CASTRO, NASSER, NIXON) are not ignored, along with
lesser figures whose now largely unfamiliar names the curious
could mine for hidden meanings.
If you are a music lover (not only
of jazz) AND new to Langston Hughes, "Ask Your Mama"
is perhaps your best introduction to one of the 20th-century's
most creative and prolific writers. (Known as the O. Henry of
Harlem, he authored poetry, prose, drama and political tracts.)
You will instantly find him a kindred soul, beginning with the
interesting way he prefaced the poem - with the musical notes
to a traditional melody which he chose, in Wagnerian fashion,
as the poem's leitmotif "in and around which a spontaneous
jazz improvisation" could be played between verses. The
poem itself cuts across musical genres, the subtitle "12
moods for jazz" notwithstanding, With multiple references
in the first verse to German Lieder, LEONTYNE (PRICE)
and MARIAN (ANDERSON)--who both blazed trails in opera for Jessye
Norman and her league--it then marches on to the suggested beat
of gospel and folk, patriotic song, pop and swing, bebop, blues
and the many variations of jazz, depicting with pointillist rhythm
the rigors of African American life and--intersecting culture
with politics--his prescient dreams of the future for himself
and his people (e.g., "Dreaming that the Negroes / Of the
south have taken over - / Voted all the Dixiecrats right out of
power - / Comes the colored hour:" and "Me / In the
White House / And ain't never had a black house").
At the same time, the poem itself
is a tacit measure of the man that was LANGSTON HUGHES, one who
took great pride in his race but was no prisoner of it, who embraced
as dearly that which he found to be true and good and beautiful
outside and beyond his ethnic heritage, as exemplified in the
words he wrote about himself: "My chief literary influences
have been Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman.
My favorite public figures include Jimmy Durante, Marlene Dietrich,
Mary McLeod Bethune, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marian Anderson
and Henry Armstrong." and "I like 'Tristan,' goat's
milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats and
bullfights; I dislike 'Aida,' parsnips, long novels, narrative
poems, cold, pretentious folk, buses and bridges."
It was seemingly by accident that
Laura Karpman while browsing in a bookstore some
five years ago discovered "Ask Your Mama." By
her own account she is a big LANGSTON HUGHES fan, but like many
others did not know the poem existed. For some reason that's hard
to understand today, it had been largely ignored by reviewers
and opinion makers. But perhaps it was not entirely fortuitous.
A couple of years later, Karpman's path crossed Jessye
Norman's and the composer grounded in both Beethoven and jazz
began a collaboration with the bigger-than-life opera singer--revered
for her powerhouse voice, magnificent stage persona, and the wide
range of her repertoire-- who would be curating Honor!, a Carnegie
Hall-based festival celebrating the African American cultural
legacy. There couldn't have been a better artistic partnership.
The result was a one-of-a-kind, multi-dimensional score that called
for a panoply of diverse images, sounds and voices, a high-tech,
multimedia show that juxtaposed classical orchestra with jazz
band, scat with Lieder, song with spoken word, and projected
images with archival video- a fitting homage to one of the most
multi-faceted figures in African American culture.
From all reports, a unique adventure in music. Can't wait for
the show to get to the Hollywood Bowl!
GCajipe / FanFaire
MAMA: Laura Karpman, composer; Hollywood Bowl Orchestra-George
Manahan, conductor; Jessye Norman, soprano; Nnenna Freelon, vocalist;
SUNDAY, AUGUST 30, 2009, at 7:30 PM HOLLYWOOD BOWL, 2301 N. Highland
Ave. in Hollywood
Tickets: ($28 - $116) on sale at HollywoodBowl.com,
at the Hollywood Bowl Box Office (Tuesday–Saturday, 12 p.m.–6
p.m.), at all Ticketmaster outlets OR call Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000.
Groups of 10 or more may be eligible for a 20% discount, subject
to availability; call 323.850.2050 for further details.
For general information or to request a brochure, call 323.850.2000.
Learn more about
"Ask your Mama:"
1. from the official
2. from the
National Public Radio (NPR) report on "Ask Your
Mama" which aired shortly before the work's world premiere
at Carnegie Hall featuring both Laura Karpman and Jessye Norman.
3. from the promotional
Learn more about
HONOR! and JESSYE NORMAN from her engaging interview with