Have you looked up Charles Mingus lately? You should. Mingus, who died in 1979, has a “lost” album coming out—live recordings made in ‘73, aired on the radio once, then disappeared into obscurity until now. Seems there’s always something new to learn about our favorite jazz musicians—and our favorite jazz poets. Newly-discovered poems from Langston Hughes, for example, appeared a few years back, written in “depths of the crisis” of the Great Depression.
These poems are dark and bitter, “some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American,” writes Hughes scholar Arnold Rampersad. They are not the celebratory Hughes we read in school. While angry conservatives and McCarthyism may have forced this side of him into hiding, in Hughes’ view, poetry, like jazz, had room for everything, whether it be love or rage.
“Jazz is a great big sea,” he wrote in his 1956 essay “Jazz as Communication.” The music “washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat.” His task, in poems like “The Weary Blues” had been to put “jazz into words,” with all of its wild mood swings, lovers' quarrels, rapid-fire conversations, and heated arguments.
Throughout his career, Mingus had been moving in the other direction, taking storms of ideas—angry, melancholy, joyful, etc.—and turning them into sounds. But his music, always “supremely vocal,” notes The Nation’s Adam Shatz, spoke in one way or another. Mingus “collaborated with poets in East Village Coffeehouses” and won his only Grammy for a piece of writing, the liner notes for his 1971 album Let My Children Hear Music.
For Mingus, critic Whitney Balliett remarked, jazz “was another way of talking.” For another composer, pianist and journalist Leonard Feather, language and music played equal roles. Feather, notes Jason Ankeny, was known both as “the acknowledged dean of American jazz critics” and author of “perennial” standards “Evil Gal Blues,” “Blowtop Blues,” and “How Blue Can You Get?”
Two years after Hughes read “Jazz as Communication” at the Newport Jazz Festival, he collaborated with Feather’s All-Star Sextet and Mingus and the Horace Parlan Quintet on an album first released as The Weary Blues. It has recently been re-released by Fingertips as Harlem in Vogue—22 tracks of Hughes reading poems like “The Weary Blues,” “Blues at Dawn,” and “Same in Blues/Comment on Curb” (top) over original compositions by Feather and Mingus, with six additional tracks of Hughes reading solo and two original songs by Bob Dorough with the Bob Dorough Quintet. (Mingus plays bass on tracks 11-18.)
You can stream the album in full above (and buy it here). Here, listen to the Poetry Foundation’s Curtis Fox, jazz musician Charley Gerard, and poet Holly Bass discuss the record and Hughes’ relationship to jazz and blues. Hughes’ poems, notes Gerard, are “structured just like blues,” their meters, rhymes, and rhythms always invoking the sounds of Harlem’s musical scene. In these recordings, Feather and Mingus transpose Hughes’ language into music, just as he had turned jazz into words.