When the Weary Blues Met Jazz

February 11, 2009

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, February 11th 2009. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, when the weary blues met jazz. In 1958, Langston Hughes did a meek collaboration with jazz musicians. He read some of his poems to arrangements by Leonard Feather and Charles Mingus.


Langston Hughes:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

     I heard a Negro play.


Curtis Fox: On today’s program we’re going to sample some of the tracks of The Weary Blues, a recording from Verve Records. I’m joined by saxophonist and composer Charles Girard and by poet and multimedia performer Holly Bass. Their ensemble, Washington Music Of Eva, recently performed a recreation of The Weary Blues with original tracks at Buss Boys and Poets Cafe in Washington, D.C. Charlie is here with me in Brooklyn and Holly joins me by phone from Washington, welcome to Poetry Off The Shelf.

Charles Girard: Hello.

Holly Bass: Hi.

Curtis Fox: Now Holly, Langston Hughes must have been surrounded by jazz his whole life, especially when he lived in Harlem in the 20s. He talks a lot about blues, and a lot of his poems are riffs on blues in one way or another. But do you hear jazz in his poetry?


Holly Bass: I definitely hear jazz and the blues in Langston’s poetry. He would have been exposed to music like that early on when he was born in the South. I feel like we have this idea that somehow all of the things we associated with Langston happened in Harlem, when in reality it was a culmination of his whole life. By the time he got to New York, he had already written his first book and had already established the themes of working class black life, of the street, of blues, of jazz in his writing.

Curtis Fox: He had written The Weary Blues I think in Washington, D.C., which he hated.


Holly Bass: Yes, he did hate D.C. He was very depressed the entire time.


Curtis Fox: He lived in a YMCA and he was a bus boy.

Holly Bass: The bus boy wasn’t the part he hated most, I think it was the Washington black elite social scene that got him down.


Langston Hughes: I don’t dare start thinking in the morning.

I don’t dare start thinking in the morning.

        If I thought thoughts in bed,

        Them thoughts would bust my head -

So I don’t dare start thinking in the morning.


I don’t dare remember in the morning

Don’t dare remember in the morning.

        If I recall the day before,

        I wouldn’t get up no more -

So I don’t dare remember in the morning.


Curtis Fox: He’s always trying to capture the musicality of black cultural life, whether it was in the speaking cadence of regular folk or in the actual music.


Charles Girard: One of the things along those lines that’s really obvious is that a lot of the poems are structured just like blues.


Holly Bass: The 12 bar blues. The lyrics repeat in the same format.


Charles Girard: Right, and they are stanzas after stanzas done that would fit with the blues, it could’ve been sung.

Curtis Fox: So you jazz musicians, you see something written in that form, you think I know what to do with that.


Charles Girard: It’s pretty obvious.


Holly Bass: So the beginning of the weary blues —


Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

     I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

     He did a lazy sway . . .

     He did a lazy sway . . .

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.


Langston Hughes: With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

     O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

     Sweet Blues!

Coming from a black man’s soul.

     O Blues!


Curtis Fox: So he performed these and he went with jazz musicians, and you are a performer in many things you do. What do you think of Langston Hughes’ performance.


Holly Bass: In all honesty I don’t think Langston was the best reader.


Curtis Fox: I’ve heard his poems many times, they always struck me as a little flat in his reading.


Holly Bass: The recordings with the music are much more engaging. Not every poet is a performer, and when you hear Langston, he’s a writer. He delivers his words clearly, but not necessarily with any great oratorical skill.


Langston Hughes:

Had a dream last night I

Thought I was in hell.

I drempt last night I

Thought I was in hell.

Woke up and looked around me—

Babe, your mouth was open like a well.


I said, Baby! Baby!

Please don’t snore so loud.

Baby! Please!

Please don’t snore so loud.

You jest a little bit o’ woman but you

Sound like a great big crowd.


Curtis Fox: There’s something kind of buttoned up about his reading style, even though the text itself is often very slangy, jazzy and so on.There’s sort of a contradiction between his presentation and the reality of the words.


Holly Bass: Part of his reading style is a reflection that he as an educated black man might not want to be seen as mocking working class or less educated folks by trying to sound like them when he didn’t generally speak in black vernacular or with a strong southern accent. I think maybe he was avoiding trying to sound false in that way.


Langston Hughes:

I'm a bad, bad man

Cause everybody tells me so.

I'm a bad, bad man.

Everybody tells me so.

I takes ma meanness and ma licker

Everwhere I go.


I beats ma wife an'

I beats ma side gal too.


Curtis Fox: The first side of the recording, the first side of the album as it came out originally as an album, was written and arranged by Leonard Feather, the other side Charles Mingus. Charlie, they sound different to my ear but I can’t explain why, musically. What’s the huge difference between these two?

Charles Girard: Basically, Leonard Feather has a much older style, almost Dixie Land jazz, or New Orleands jazz, and then with Mingus, it’s Mingus. It’s very hip.


Curtis Fox: It seems much more current, like he’s right with us.


Charles Girard: I also have the feeling that Mingus’ attitude was, I’m Charles Mingus, I’m doing Charles Mingus’ music. If it works with Langston Hughes’ poetry, great.


Langston Hughes:

Don’t let your dog curb you!
Don’t let your dog curb you!
Curb your dog

Like you ought to do,

But don’t let that dog curb you!

You may play folks cheap,

Act rough and tough,

But a dog can tell

When you’re full of stuff.

Them little old mutts

Look all scraggly and bad,

But they got more sense

Than some hustlers ever had.

Cur dog, fice dog, weary blue —

Just don’t let your dog curb you!


Curtis Fox: I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think in African American poetry in general, there has been an incredibly close relationship and interest on the part of poets and writers to jazz and to music in general. I can’t think of a major African American poet who doesn’t write a lot about music.


Holly Bass: I would have to agree with you. Washington, D.C. has a really wonderful black writing scene, and we used to joke that every black poet needs a Coltrane poet in their pocket. It would always be this thing of, have you written your Coltrane poem? Your jazz ars poetica? Even though you may not see as many poets performing with live jazz, it’s definitely in the poetry. I think that will always be the case.


Curtis Fox: Holly and Charlie, thanks so much.

Holly Bass: Thank you.


Charles Girard: Thank you.


Curtis Fox: Holly Bass is a poet and multimedia performer. Charles Girard is a composer and a saxophonist. You can find out more about Washington Music of Eva on the web at The Weary Blues recording of Langston Hughes with Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather is published by Verve. Let us know what you think of this program, email us at The music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

Langston Hughes's collaboration with Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather.

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