It is nearly impossible to separate the poems of Langston Hughes from jazz, if only for their clever use of syncopation and repetition. He is often described as a jazz poet, and evidence of this influence can be seen as early as “When Sue Wears Red,” poem he wrote as a teenager.
As a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, he in turn influenced many jazz musicians — when last we visited Hughes here on the Hymies blog, it was to hear Nina Simone sing the song he wrote for her, “Backlash Blues” as well as a 90s collaboration between Courtney Pine and Cassandra Wilson to interpret his poem “I’ve Known Rivers.” This second song was first recorded by Gary Bartz in 1973, but we still haven’t found a replacement for our warped copy!
Hughes himself made a jazz album in 1958 for MGM Records, which was later reissued (as pictured here) by Verve Records in 1966. On it, he reads a ‘Greatest Hits’ assortment of poems over two small jazz combos, one led by jazz writer and occasional composer Leonard Feather, who produced the project, and one led by Charles Mingus.
You have almost certainly on the back of an LP jacket if you own more than a handful of jazz records. He was, for many years, perhaps the most prolific writer of jazz liner notes in the world. In addition, his 1960 New Encyclopedia of Jazz is an absolutely indispensable compendium of history and criticism. He was a friend to Louis Armstrong, once employed as a press agent by Duke Ellington, and one of the earliest supporters of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker with his 1949 book Inside Be Bop. He recorded albums as a pianist sporadically in the 50s and again in the 70s, but remains best known as a writer.
Leonard Feather never wrote the notes to a Charles Mingus album (in fact, the Mingus eulogy from Eric Dolphy’s Last Date we quoted just last week was replaced on reissues by notes from Feather). He often wrote about Mingus’ music, however, twice inviting him to his “Blindfold Tests” (featured in his Platterbrains radio broadcasts as well as printed in Metronome and Down Beat) in which an artist responds to several unidentified selections of jazz music.
Two years after their collaboration with Langston Hughes, Feather would be “recording director” for Mingus’ only Mercury album, Pre-Bird, which included a reworking of Weary Blues‘s “Weird Nightmare.” Still, Feather and Mingus are strange bedfellows, and it comes across in the difference between the arrangements they produced to accompany Hughes.
Weary Blues is of interest to collectors of Mingus’ extensive discography. Falling just before the watershed year (1959) in which he composed and recorded Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, his apparently extemporaneous arrangements hint at what he had in the works. Several motifs from those three great albums can be recognized, even though he’s working with a substantially smaller group and under far more auspicious conditions — for contractural reasons, the quintet’s leadership was credited to pianist Horace Parlan, even though the work is undeniably Mingusonian.
Mingus is far more fit for the role of framing Hughes’ words than Feather, although the later is himself also a writer. Consider Mingus’ second appearance in Feather’s “Blindfold Test” in April 1960, in which he completely dismisses the first record, Manny Albam album, and would rather talk about the Civil Rights movement:
Take it off … Look, I don’t want to drag you or anybody. I don’t think maybe you should give me a Blindfold Test , because I’ve changed. I didn’t let it get started — maybe that’s not fair of me? But it disturbs my ulcer. I’d rather talk about something important — all the stuff that’s happening down south.
Feather’s form — intended to slyly suggest talent is often not judged on its own merit but under pre-conceived notions of race, gender or age — undoubtedly frustrated the iconoclastic Mingus.
Although he certainly had extensive connections in New York’s jazz scene (as evident in the group he created to perform his arrangements on Side A), Feather chose Mingus to arrange music for Weary Blues likely because of the bassist’s often confrontational attitude. When, in 1979, he wrote Mingus’ obituary for the L.A. Times, Feather described him as “a brilliant man of strong convictions, he was outspoken on racial and social matters and became a storm center in many confrontations during his peak years.”
The section here is titled “Dream Montage” and contains all or portions of fourteen of Hughes’ poems (depending on how you count his superfluous commentaries). The most notable of these is “Harlem,” the 1951 poem known for asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” as it explores the American dream as experienced by African Americans. Its final line — “Or does it explode?” — almost ideally suited to Mingus’ musical and political leanings.
Another of the poems in this passage reads almost like it came from Mingus’ 1971 autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. In its entirety, “Final Curve” reads:
When you turn the corner
And You have run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left
Of course, Langston Hughes’ readers have been wondering what he might have meant here for decades. Is the “Final Curve” the conclusion of a personal journey along the lines of Mingus’ Me, Myself and Eye and other late compositions, or is the poem part of Hughes’ push for cultural nationalism. So much of his work was about how the African American journey to the American dream began at home, in taking pride and ownership of a heritage even when others do not. Or, as Mingus wrote in Beneath the Underdog:
So he must use what time he has creating now for the future and utilize the past only to help the future, not as a razor strop for guilts and fears that inhibit his very being. Or like it said at the end of a labor song I liked a lot when I was a kid: what I mean is, take it easy, but take it.