Langston Hughes wrote his long-form poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz with musical accompaniment in mind. His musical cues ran alongside the text in the initial 1961 publication, and he hoped that jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus might create a musical accompaniment for the poem, just as Mingus had orchestrated another work by Hughes, Weary Blues. The collaboration never happened. Hughes, a dominant if slightly eccentric force behind the flowering of African-American art in the early part of the century known as the Harlem Renaissance, lived long enough to influence another generation of writers in the early ’60s (including Indianapolis poet Mari Evans), but died in 1967 without seeing Ask Your Mama, his last major work published in his lifetime, fully realized. Neither Mingus nor another collaborator on Weary Blues, Leonard Feather, got around to composing music for Ask Your Mama before or after Hughes’ death.
Leave it to the living, then, to approximate Hughes’ vision for his poem. Composer, trumpeter and University of Southern California professor Ron McCurdy and his quartet have been performing a version of Ask Your Mama in educational circles for the past decade, working with a score composed by McCurdy that hews as close as possible to Hughes’ somewhat nebulous musical suggestions. McCurdy is premiering his most ambitious and fully-realized version of Ask Your Mama in Indianapolis June 18.
What’s new? A full orchestration of the music for Ask Your Mama, to be performed by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in concert with McCurdy’s quartet, who will remain from earlier incarnations of the piece. A video presentation featuring work by African-American artists and photographers that will be projected behind the musicians. (The video has always been part of Ask Your Mama, but has been updated since the first performance of the piece.) And a gentleman named Ice-T handling MC duties.
When Ice-T — rapper, actor, producer — narrates the 800-plus lines of Ask Your Mama, it will be the first time he steps before a symphony orchestra. Speaking from his Phoenix home about a month before the concert, Ice-T said he was surprised when he got the invitation to perform — he couldn’t quote a Hughes poem from heart — but quickly came around.
“I feel an affinity with him,” Ice-T (or just Ice to friends and/or reporters) explains. “It’s just more about being outspoken and being honest and being willing to say things that everybody doesn’t necessarily want to hear but that needs to be said. He wasn’t necessarily politically correct, if anything he was out to jumble the status quo and talk about things that were gonna be touchy. So I feel that; I like to do that.”
‘Ask Your Mama’
While Hughes includes “Liner Notes” at the close of Ask Your Mama intended to explain and summarize the poem for the “poetically unhep,” he assumes that the reader is comfortable with modernist techniques in poetry and a familiarity with history, the headlines and African-American cultural figures. The poem is a challenging and multivoiced collection of scenes and encounters (or “moods”) that, in part, explores the travels of African-Americans (with stops in Haiti and other foreign lands), covering the arrival of blacks in the suburbs, the escape of freed slaves North, a later migration North in the 20th century to find jobs and the plight of those left in poor Southern towns.
Some parts of the poem are striking and emotionally resonant — McCurdy says he was moved by a passage where the speaker talks about Sojourner Truth bearing her breast to a crowd to prove she was a woman. Ask Your Mama is also often funny, particularly when the title is deployed to play the dozens (an African-American oral tradition of which any modern “Your mama’s so [insert undesirable quality]” line is a variation). For instance, in the close of one mood, the speaker, a black transplant to the suburbs, delivers this retort to his new neighbors: “THEY RUNG MY BELL TO ASK ME / COULD I RECOMMEND A MAID / I SAID, YES, YOUR MAMA.” (Yes, the whole poem is in caps.)
Jazz not only provides the soundtrack; it also figures in the text itself. Free jazz figures like Ornette Coleman share space with Charlie Parker (one mood is titled “Bird in Orbit”). The mood “Ode to Dinah” is, in part, an ambivalent study of the legacy of singer Dinah Washington. At the close of the “Ode,” Hughes acknowledges both a cultural connection and economic disconnect between poor black listeners and rich black stars: “MEANWHILE DINAH EATING CHICKEN / NEVER MISSED A BITE / WHEN THE MAN SHOT AT THE WOMAN / AND BY MISTAKE SHOT OUT THE LIGHT.”
Writing a soundtrack
Because Ask Your Mama is a lot to digest, McCurdy and his composing partner, pianist Eli Brueggemann, added compositions between the moods, two- to three-minute interludes that feature the band. It’s the only time the music is in the foreground, according to McCurdy: “From a musical standpoint, we try to look at a musical composition much the same way as if you were writing a soundtrack for a movie. So we try not to have the soundtrack get in the way of the words, because they’re the most important thing.”
Not that listeners will understand everything on the first try. “I always make the analogy that this poem is like a Picasso painting; that is, you don’t walk by and look at it for three or four minutes, and then walk away and say, ‘I got it,’” McCurdy says. “The reason why we chose this work, from an educational standpoint, was to inspire young people in particular to become inquisitive about their own history and culture.”
The world premiere of the fully-orchestrated version of Ask Your Mama is the realization of three years of talks between McCurdy and the ISO, with ISO Vice President Beth Perdue Outland leading the slow but steady charge.
According to Ice-T, “The beauty of this whole thing is that, from what I got from the symphony, they got more response to this particular thing than they’ve ever had. You’re gonna bring a lot of people. A lot of symphony people might go, ‘Wow, this is a rapper. Maybe I should go investigate some of their work.’ And then I think some of the younger people that are into rap might take a look at the symphony, and say, ‘This is kind of dope.’”
What: The Langston Hughes Project presents Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz with narrator Ice-T
Where: Hilbert Circle Theatre
When: Wednesday, June 18, 7:30 p.m., $18-$70, all-ages
Tickets at indianapolissymphony.org