Arts & Culture » Calendar

Music Notes: Hale Smith makes poetry sing



"Langston Hughes was one never to forget an artistically inclined child," says jazz and classical composer Hale Smith. "He came to my high school in Cleveland in '42--which he'd attended briefly many years earlier--and I was in the crowd to greet him. I handed him a sheet of music that I'd written. He autographed it. Four years later, right out of the army, I was in Harlem for a visit. I ran into him at the post office on 125th Street. He saw me and said, 'Say, aren't you from Cleveland? Are you still writing music?' I was astonished that he could remember a kid from four years ago! He was that kind of a man."

The famous poet and the aspiring composer became pen pals, and the friendship deepened after Smith moved to New York in 1958 for a teaching job. "I became a part of the wide circle of artists that hung around him," says Smith. "He was interested in my music, and I was, of course, interested in his writings." They talked about collaborating but never got around to it. Smith did turn a number of Hughes's poems into songs, as did many other composers, including Kurt Weill, who appreciated the cadence and rich allusions in Hughes's verse. "Some of his poetry is plain doggerel--in fact, he wrote a couple of homages to dogs--but most of it is very lyrical, a composer's dream," Smith says.

Hughes, who had written some opera librettos, intended some of his poems to be read to music; he thought one series would be ideal for Muddy Waters. In 1961, six years before his death, he produced an opus that combined his love for the spoken word, jazz, and blues in one swoop. Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz, says Smith, is the granddaddy of rap. "The title refers to a verbal game that holds resonance for blacks to this day--an art of talking in verse about another person's ancestry, humorlessly and with malice. Something like 'Your grandmama wears no drawers because she has no drawers.' All this is a form of anecdotal storytelling as old as The Arabian Nights."

The poem's 12 sections are stream-of-consciousness meditations on the African-American experience. "Hughes wanted to address the racial configuration of the time, the late 50s, right before Martin Luther King," Smith says. "In the poem, he's angry, he's amused, he's ironic, he's moody. He pays respect to black pioneers, many of whom I myself knew. One [Zelma Watson George] is the soprano who sang in Menotti's The Medium when so few black singers had lead roles on Broadway. Another is Inez Cavanaugh, who ran the famous Chez Inez, across from the Sorbonne in Paris, where many Negro jazz musicians performed."

Four years ago singer Rawn Spearman asked Smith to arrange the music for a recitation of Ask Your Mama at a Hughes festival in New York. Smith jumped at the chance. "I thought I could at last honor Hughes," Smith says. In the margins of the manuscript the poet had written the titles of specific songs or indicated the type of music that would be appropriate. "I observed his notes scrupulously--it was like working with him right next to me." Smith incorporated all of the tunes and added some others, fashioning a score for a jazz band that he believes is a counterpart to--and at times counterpoints--the meaning of the text. "I included strains of 'Dixie' for satirical effect," he points out, "and added a syncopated rendition of a 20s catchphrase ['Shave and a haircut, two bits'] as a silly commentary. In a section on Leontyne Price, following Langston's instructions, I played with the fact that she's from Mississippi and sang Schubert's lieder."

The premiere was such a success that Smith, who teaches at Columbia College's Center for Black Music Research, and the Jazz Institute's Lauren Deutsch arranged to present Ask Your Mama with Smith's score as part of the Chicago Jazz and Heritage Program. Margaret Burroughs offered the DuSable Museum of African American History as the venue; she'd known Hughes since the late 30s. "Langston came to Chicago quite often," she recalls. "The University of Chicago or someone else would invite him to read. And each time he'd stop off at the South Side Community Art Center to meet with us. We thought we knew him intimately, maybe also because in the 40s and 50s he had a weekly column in the Defender. He liked people, and he was inspirational....Langston spoke a language that ordinary people could understand. He gave a flawless mirror image of the African-American experience."

Ask Your Mama will be performed at 7:30 Friday and Saturday at the DuSable Museum, 740 E. 56th Place. Singer Maggie Brown and poet Sterling Plumpp will narrate with the accompaniment of an ensemble led by Richard Wang. Burroughs will read "Shakespeare in Harlem," a eulogy she wrote after attending Hughes's funeral. Admission is free. Call 312-747-1430 or 312-427-1676 for more information.

--Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nathan Mandell; Langston Hughes uncredited photo.

Add a comment