Weary Blues: Poetry and Jazz from Langston Hughes
On display in the UCSB Arts Library Lobby (First Floor) June 1 - Dec. 11, 2015
In the margins next to a section of the poem “Ode to Dina” from Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, Langston Hughes wrote the following directions for the jazz musicians who, in his vision of the 12-part epic poem’s performance, were playing along:
“Drums alone softly merging into the ever-questioning ‘Hesitation Blues’ beginning slowly but gradually building to up-tempo as the metronome of fate begins to tick faster and faster/ as the music/ dies/ TACIT” – Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, 1961
Hughes died before Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz was performed as he imagined it, but a recent multimedia presentation of The Langston Hughes Project / Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz at UCSB’s Multicultural Center in January 2015, under the direction of Dr. Ron McCurdy, brought Hughes’ original vision to life. A CD recording of The Langston Hughes Project, displayed here, is now available in the Music Library.
Inspired by the recording and recent performance, this exhibition contains UCSB Library materials from the Music, Art, Black Studies, and Special Research Collections, as well as posters and fliers for The Langston Hughes Project from McCurdy’s personal collection. These materials showcase and honor Hughes’ lasting contributions to American culture.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key/ He made that poor piano moan with melody./ O Blues! — The Weary Blues, 1926
This display was curated by Kyra Folk-Farber, Assistant Music Librarian and Evolving Workforce Resident at UCSB Library.
How does art, in all its forms, reflect our society?
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) is known as the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, which spanned the 1920s. He is also considered the father of jazz poetry, which burgeoned into the beat movement of the 1950s. His long, deeply influential career stems from being a voice of the people. Hughes’ impact goes beyond beautiful poetry; his work reflects the common experience of black America for over four decades. For that reason, the items in this display illustrate not only Hughes’ contribution to American culture, but also the contributions of his African American contemporaries such as artists Archibald Motley, Beauford Delaney, and Bob Thompson.
Interweaving different art forms was a vital aspect of Hughes’ work. Many of the materials here marry diverse artistic disciplines in such a way that it is hard to tell where the visual imagery, music, and poetry begin and end. Other materials, such as Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose, edited by Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey, provide academic analyses of such interdisciplinary artistic works. In 1955, photographer Roy DeCarava collaborated with Langston Hughes on the book The Sweet Flypaper of Life, displayed here. DeCarava once expressed how “a musician’s sense of rhythm is at least as important as the artist’s sense of sight”: 1
An expression can be in transit and there are points when that expression is meaningless because it’s so transitory. But, there are moments when that expression reaches a zenith, when it is so real it becomes universal, it finds its stillness. If you don’t capture it at the right moment, it is not only particular, it is universal. The only way to do this is to be in tune, to have the same sense of time that the subject has. This means you have to give yourself to the subject, accept their sense of time. (P. 225)
How can art affect society?
Perhaps by distilling actual events and feelings into images, poetry, and music, those directly involved in the events can be comforted. Perhaps those who feel detached from the events — as if they are outside, looking in — can learn by gaining a new perspective.
1 Cawthra, B. (2011). Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and jazz. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.