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Langston Hughes and Jazz: A Black History Primer

Dr. Ron McCurdy, a jazz musician and professor of music at the University of Southern California, pays tribute to the works of poet Langston Hughes in a multi-media performance.

The jazz riffs of Ron McCurdy’s sweet trumpet wafted out of the Bonnell Auditorium, piquing the curiosity of passersby. Inside, a sepia image of literary giant Langston Hughes, superimposed on a big screen behind the musicians, provided a fitting backdrop for telling the story of one writer’s struggle for artistic and social freedom.

On Oct. 27, Community College of Philadelphia students watched and listened to a special multimedia concert performance of Langston Hughes’ 12-part, epic poem, “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,” performed Dr. Ronald C. McCurdy, a professor of music at the University of Southern California, who, along with his trio of musicians, traveled from Los Angeles to educate and entertain the College community about jazz, poetry and justice.

Student Life organized and hosted the concert to recognize and celebrate the diversity in all cultures.

“It is important to remember that our students are not only Latino during Latina/o History Month, gay during LGBT History Month, Black during Black History Month, etc. They are these things all the time,” said David Greene, Director of Student Life. “The mission of Student Life is to help students gain a better understanding of themselves and their communities. The Langston Hughes project allows us to achieve that mission.”

Most students kept their hands in their laps when McCurdy asked them to raise their hands if they had ever heard of Hughes - all the more important to learn about a man who was arguably the most important African American poet of the 20th century; a leader of the Harlem Renaissance; a social activist and one of the earliest innovators of the literary art form known as jazz poetry.

With the help of video montages, the concert performance linked the words and music of Hughes' poetry to topical images of people, places, and events, and to the works of the visual artists Langston Hughes admired. Together the words, sounds, and images recreated moments in African American history, which bridged the Harlem Renaissance and the post- World War II Beat writers' coffeehouse jazz poetry world to the looming Black Arts performance explosion of the 1960s.

Perhaps no one on campus understands music’s connection to learning better than Dr. Donald Guy Generals, the College’s president. Dr. Generals, himself a jazz musician, has played the drums at College events and believes that the arts enrich learning and inspire creativity.

Artists such as Hughes, he noted, evoke questions, provide answers and heighten curiosity that is crucial to student success.

“I think the way that you learn, how you learn, and the company that you keep while you learn, are important,” Dr. Generals said in an interview conducted earlier this year. “The environment in which you learn enables you to be innovative because you are around different points of view. Innovation can manifest itself through many ways, through many media and in many formats. To the extent that we foster curricula that encourages creative thinking, I think that adds to the overall direction and soul of the city.”

Hughes originally created “Ask Your Mama” after Newport Jazz Festival of July 1960. The musical scoring of the poem was designed to forge a conversation and a commentary with the music. It remained only in the planning stages when Hughes died in 1967. McCurdy’s discovery of it, and subsequent performance, provides an illuminating learning experience for all who experience it.