Sun Ra Applies to NASA’s Art Program: When the Inventor of Space Jazz Applied to Make Space Art

You may have seen the image above floating around, especially if you follow jazz lovers and writers like Ted Gioia: the first page of Sun Ra’s application to NASA’s art program. The program was “somewhat of a glorified PR campaign,” writes Shannon Gormley at Willamette Week, but one nonetheless that has employed many prominent artists since its inception in 1962, including Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, and Norman Rockwell. NASA has “enlisted musicians, poets and others for more variety,” the Administration notes. “Patti LaBelle even recorded a space-themed song.”

But Sun Ra—given name Herman Blount; legal name (as he writes in parentheses) Le Sony’r Ra—was not, it seems, considered when he applied in the 1960s, even if he more or less invented space jazz in the previous decade. After many years in Chicago, he’d relocated his free jazz big band, the Arkestra, to New York, where they influenced later Beats and the early psychedelic scene (just as he was to influence funk, prog, and fusion in the 70s, and come in for a major revival in the 90s through indie rock and hip hop.)

Likely, whoever read his application was unfamiliar with the creative idiosyncrasies of his language, written just as he sang and played—with incantatory repetition, syntactical surprises, and ALL CAPS all the time. The prodigious, visionary bandleader proposes to contribute “music that enlightens and space orientate discipline coordinate.” One might cast a wary eye on this description, from an applicant who lists their educational mission as “space orientation.” Unless you’d heard what Sun Ra meant by the phrase.

Take his orientation in 1961’s “Space Jazz Reverie” from The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, recorded just after he arrived in New York, on the threshold of pushing the Arkestra further out into the solar system. The tune “ostensibly sounds like a large-ensemble take on hard bop,” writes Matthew Wuethrich at All About Jazz. "Mid-tempo swing, strange-but-not-unheard-of-intervals and a string of solos.” But the composition starts to warp and wobble. “Ra’s comping on the piano generates an unsettling backdrop.” A “bizarre bridge” after the solos throws things further off-kilter.

This is not cold, crystalline music of the stars, but an emotional journey into the excitation, coordination (to take his phrase), and defamiliarization of space travel. Listening to Sun Ra almost inclines me to believe his tales of interstellar travel and alien abduction—or at least to feel, for a few minutes, as though I had taken a cosmic trip. NASA’s art program would have certainly been enriched by his contributions, though whether it would have raised either one’s profile is uncertain.

Ra’s application “reads like a prophecy,” writes Gormley. We need music, in space and otherwise. “What is called man is very anarchy-minded at present,” he wrote. But Sun Ra himself was “anarchy-minded,” in the best sense of the term—he gave his imagination free rein and did not cater to any authority. This rankled many of his jazz peers, who frequently said he went too far. Sun Ra never seemed to bother about the criticism.

He may have taken the NASA snub a little hard. In his landmark 1972 film Space is the Place, he discusses the space program with a group of black Oakland youth, saying, “I see none of you have been invited.” Sun Ra and the young people to whom he brought the hope of outer space could not have known about the hidden history of African American scientists and astronauts in the space program. In any case, Ra had his own space program. A one-band cultural revolution that was too forward-looking for both jazz and NASA.

via Ted Gioia

Related Content:

NASA Enlists Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell & 350 Other Artists to Visually Document America’s Space Program

Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols Creates a Short Film for NASA to Recruit New Astronauts (1977)

Stream 74 Sun Ra Albums Free Online: Decades of “Space Jazz” and Other Forms of Intergalactic, Afrofuturistic Musical Creativity

Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Lives of John Coltrane & Billie Holiday Are Now Told in Two Graphic Novels

How do you tell the stories of larger-than-life cultural figures—of people whose histories intersect with pivotal moments in American history, whose careers set new standards for excellence—without oversimplifying and risking caricature? With comic art, of course. Graphic novels have long proven themselves worthy vehicles for biography. Something about the bold strokes of the illustrations, the dialogue in word bubble form, and the panel style of storytelling makes for a particularly vivid encounter with history.

Artist Paolo Parisi has capitalized on this kismet of form and content in three biographical graphic novels now, one of which—the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rise to fame and fortune—we highlighted just a couple days ago.

Parisi’s earlier efforts took on no less iconic figures than John Coltrane and Billie Holiday in Coltrane and Blues for Lady Day: The Story of Billie Holiday. The Italian artist has demonstrated a passion for American music, especially jazz, in his career as an illustrator. As a writer, he also displays a talent for restraint, largely letting the images tell the story.

As in Basquiat, these images are both drawn from famous photographs and from imaginative reconstructions of what it might have been like, sitting in on recording sessions, in the clubs, and in the heated conversations. Parisi may inevitably view his subjects through an outsider's lens—he may romanticize them at times and may elide important, but hard to visualize, details, as is the nature of the form.

But he excels at making these two musical giants approachable, telling their stories in broad strokes so that those who haven’t read the dense, heavily-footnoted tomes about them can develop appreciation and empathy for their art and too-short lives. It is a sad irony that those who burn bright and die young leave behind the most compelling material for those who tell their stories.

Parisi seems drawn to such tragic figures, or perhaps the form itself requires high-contrast highs and lows. “How could a graphic treatment provide anything other than the sketchiest of details?" asks Coltrane reviewer William Rycroft Tring. “Perhaps by choosing the right subject.” In Coltrane and Holiday, Parisi has two subjects whose lives were inherently dramatic, full of major triumphs and tragedies.

Above all is the music. Graphic novels may not be substitutes for a “proper biography,” as Tring writes, but they are excellent supplements for getting to know the artists as you listen to Lady Sings the Blues or A Love Supreme, whether for the first time or the millionth.

You can pick up copies of Coltrane and Blues for Lady Day: The Story of Billie Holiday online.

Related Content:

The Story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rise in the 1980s Art World Gets Told in a New Graphic Novel

An Animated John Coltrane Explains His True Reason for Being: “I Want to Be a Force for Real Good”

How “America’s First Drug Czar” Waged War Against Billie Holiday and Other Jazz Legends

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The 1959 Project: A New Photoblog Takes a Day-By-Day Look at 1959, the Great Watershed Year in Jazz

If you’ve hung around Open Culture long enough, you’ve heard said that 1959 was a watershed year for jazz—the year of modal classics Giant Steps and Kind of Blue, “harmolodic” masterpiece The Shape of Jazz to Come, and the forever cool Time Out and Mingus Ah Um. Sixty years later in 2019, these experiments and confident leaps forward continue to mark pivotal moments in modern music—moments documented heavily by the photographers who gave the albums their inimitable look.

To celebrate that year in musical breakthroughs and photographic near-perfection, sportswriter and jazz history “superfan” Natalie Weiner has launched a blog called The 1959 Project. “The premise is simple,” writes Tim Carmody at Kottke, “every day, a snapshot of the world of jazz sixty years ago.” Simple it may be, but its dive into jazz history is deep and satisfying. The project has already occasionally strayed outside the lines, posting materials from 1958 and 1960. But great moments in music history cannot be forced to fit tidily inside calendar years.

In addition to iconic photos, Weiner posts short summaries, news clippings, film and television clips, and recordings from albums like Milt Jackson and John Coltrane’s Bags & Trane (1960). Yesterday’s post focused on Max Roach’s 1959 The Many Sides of Max (see him in the studio with Booker Little at the top). January 18th brought us Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag, recorded 1959, released 1960, featuring Donald Byrd, Sonny Clark, Paul Chambers, and Philly Jones, and made for Blue Note by the great Rudy Van Gelder.

Only twenty-three days into the year and The 1959 Project has already covered Kenny Dorham and Cannonball Adderley, Bill EvansCharles Mingus (for 1958’s live Jazz Portraits), and singer Anita O’Day, riding “a wave of critical and commercial success” after her 1958 album Anita O’Day at Mister Kelly’s. That’s only to mention a handful of the entries so far. “It only promises to get better as the year goes on,” Carmody writes—and so does the depth of your jazz knowledge and appreciation if you check in with this dedicated project even once or twice a week.

via Ted Gioia/Kottke

Related Content:

1959: The Year That Changed Jazz

The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s Highly Controversial Film on Jazz & Race in America (With Music by Sun Ra)

The Impossibly Cool Album Covers of Blue Note Records: Meet the Creative Team Behind These Iconic Designs

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Impossibly Cool Album Covers of Blue Note Records: Meet the Creative Team Behind These Iconic Designs

If you stepped into a record store in the 1950s and 60s, you would likely be drawn almost immediately to a Blue Note release—whether or not you were a fan of jazz or had heard of the artist or even the label. “If you went to those record stores,” says Estelle Caswell in the Vox Earworm video above, “it probably wasn’t the sound of Blue Note that immediately caught your attention. It was their album covers.”

Now those designs are hallowed jazz iconography, with their “bold typography, two tone photography, and minimal graphic design.” Of course, it should go without saying that the sound of Blue Note is as distinctive and essential as its look, thanks to its founders’ musical vision, the faultless ear of producer and engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and the roster of unbelievably great musicians the label recruited and recorded.

But back to those covers….

“Their bold use of color, intimate photography, and meticulously placed typography came to define the look of jazz” in the hard bop era, and thus, defined the look of cool, a “refined sophistication” vibrating with restless, sultry, smoky, classy, moody energy. The rat pack had nothing on Blue Note. Their covers “have today become an epitome of graphic hip,” writes Robin Kinross at Eye magazine. (And lest we fetishize the covers at the expense of their contents, Kinross makes sure to add that they “are no more than the visible manifestation of an organic whole.”)

Flip over any one of those beautifully-designed Blue Note records from, say, 1955 to 65, the label’s peak years, and you’ll find two names credited for almost all of their designs: photographer Francis Wolff and graphic designer Reid Miles. Wolff, says producer and Blue Note archivist Michael Cuscuna in the Earworm video, shot almost every Blue Note session from “the minute he arrived.”

“One of the most impressive, and shocking things” about Wolff’s photo shoots, “was that the average success rate of those photos was really extraordinary. He was like the jazz artist of photography in that he could nail it immediately.” Once Wolff filled a contact sheet with great shots, it next came to Miles to select the perfect one—and the perfect crop—for the album cover. These saturated portraits turned Blue Note artists into immortal heroes of hip.

But Reid’s experiments with typography, “inspired by the ever present Swiss lettering style that defined 20th century graphic design,” notes Vox, provided such an important element that the lettering sometimes edged out the photography, such as in the cover of Joe Henderson’s In ‘n Out, which features only a tiny portrait of the artist in the upper left-hand corner, nestled in the dot of a lower-case “i.”

Miles pushed the exclamation point to absurd lengths on Jackie McLean’s It’s Time, which again relegates the artist’s photo to a tiny square in the corner while the rest of the cover is taken up with bold, black “!!!!!!!!!!!”s over a white background. It’s “startlingly getting your attention,” Cuscuna comments. On Lou Donaldson’s Sunny Side Up, Miles dispenses with photography altogether, for a striking black and white design that makes the title seem like it might up and float away.

But Miles' type-centric covers, though excellent, are not what we usually associate with the classic Blue Note look. The synthesis of Wolff’s impeccable photographic instincts and Miles’ surgically keen eye for framing, color, and composition combined to give us the pensive, mysterious Coltrane on Blue Train, the impossibly cool Sonny Rollins on the cover of Newk’s Time, the totally, wildly in-the-moment Art Blakey on The Big Beat, and so, so many more.

Reid Miles had the rare talent only the best art directors possess, says Cuscuna: the ability to “create a look for a record that was highly individual but also that fit into a stream that gave the label a look.” Learn more about his work with Wolff in Robin Kinross’s essay, see many more classic Blue Note album covers here, and make sure to listen to the music behind all that brilliant graphic design in this huge, streaming discography of Blue Note recordings.

Related Content:

Stream a 144-Hour Discography of Classic Jazz Recordings from Blue Note Records: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman & More

The Groundbreaking Art of Alex Steinweiss, Father of Record Cover Design

Enter the Cover Art Archive: A Massive Collection of 800,000 Album Covers from the 1950s through 2018

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jazz Deconstructed: What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Groundbreaking and Radical?

John Coltrane bore an unusual burden. Many experimental artists who radically change their forms of music, and music in general, are so out on the edge and ahead of their time they elude the public’s notice. But Coltrane was responsible for both “furthering the cause” of free jazz and “delivering it to an increasingly mainstream audience,” as Lindsay Planer writes at Allmusic. This meant that he achieved the kind of recognition in his short life that most musician/composers only dream of, and that his every attempt was heavily scrutinized by critics, a listening public, and record companies not always ready for the most forward-thinking of his ideas.

His immense popularity makes Coltrane’s accomplishments all the more impressive. While 1959 is often cited as the “year that changed jazz” with a series of landmark albums, two releases by Coltrane in 1960—My Favorite Things and Giant Steps—completely radicalized the form, with repercussions far outside the jazz world. In the latter recording, writes Planer, Coltrane was “in essence, beginning to rewrite the jazz canon with material that would be centered on solos—the 180-degree antithesis of the art form up to that point. These arrangements would create a place for the solo to become infinitely more compelling,” culminating “in a frenetic performance style that noted jazz journalist Ira Gitler dubbed ‘sheets of sound.’”

The saxophonist’s “polytonal torrents” upend the “cordial solos that had begun decaying… the genre, turning it into the equivalent of easy listening.” There was nothing easy about keeping up with Coltrane. The title track of Giant Steps has become known for a rapid chord progression that cycles through three keys, built on an earlier technique known as the “Coltrane Changes.” Improvising over these chords has become “a rite of passage for jazz musicians” explains the Vox Earworm video above, making the tune "one of the most revered, and feared, compositions in jazz history.”

We can intuit the difficulty of Coltrane’s compositions by listening to them, but without a background in music theory, we won’t understand just what, exactly, makes them “so legendary.” Earworm’s “crash course” in theory from musicians Adam Neely and Braxton Cook demystifies Coltrane’s intimidating progression—so challenging it tied up pianist Tommy Flanagan during his solo, and his halting stabs can be heard on the record, followed by Coltrane’s astonishingly fluid cascade of notes. “That’s messed up,” says Braxton, in sympathy. “I would want another shot.” What, besides the maddeningly fast tempo, sent Flanagan into the weeds?

As with most music based in Western harmony, the song’s structure can be demonstrated by reference to the circle of fifths, a method of organizing notes and scales that Coltrane made his very own. His brilliance was in taking recognizable forms—the standard II-V-I jazz progression, for example—and pushing them to their absolute limit.

“There are 26 chord changes in the 16-bar theme of ‘Giant Steps,’” notes Jazzwise magazine in its history of the album. (Watch them all fly by in the animated sheet music above). The progression “provides a formidable challenge for the improvisor with its quickly changing key centres.” Coltrane himself, “handled patterns derived from pentatonic scales, transposed to fit each chord as it flew by, exceptionally well.”

Keep watching the Earworm video to find out how the “Giant Steps” progression is like a “musical M.C. Escher painting,” and to understand why Coltrane is considered a god, or at least a saint, by so many who have followed—or struggled to follow—his work.

Related Content:

John Coltrane Draws a Picture Illustrating the Mathematics of Music

John Coltrane’s Handwritten Outline for His Masterpiece A Love Supreme (1964)

Stream Online the Complete “Lost” John Coltrane Album, Both Directions at Once

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“A Great Day in Harlem,” Art Kane’s Iconic Photo of 57 Jazz Legends, Celebrates Its 60th Anniversary

Image by Art Kane, via Wikimedia Commons

Sixty years ago, Art Kane assembled one of the largest groups of jazz greats in history. No, it wasn’t an all-star big band, but a meeting of veteran legends and young upstarts for the iconic photograph known as “A Great Day in Harlem.” Fifty-seven musicians gathered outside a brownstone at 17 East 126th St.—accompanied by twelve neighborhood kids—from “big rollers,” notes Jazzwise magazine, like “Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Pee Wee Russell to then up-and-coming names, Benny Golson, Marion MacPartland, Mary Lou Williams and Art Farmer.”

Sonny Rollins was there, one of only two musicians in the photo still alive. The other, Benny Golson, who turns 90 next year, remembers getting a call from Village Voice critic Nat Hentoff, telling him to get over there. Golson lived in the same building as Quincy Jones, “but somehow he wasn’t called or he didn’t make it.”

Other people who might have been in the photograph but weren’t, Golson says, because they were working (and the 10 a.m. call time was a stretch for a working musician): “John Coltrane, Miles, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman.” And Buddy Rich, whom Golson calls the “greatest drummer I ever heard in my life” (adding, “but his personality was horrible.”)

The next year, everything changed—or so the story goes—when revolutionary albums hit the scene from the likes of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus. These records pushed experimental forms, leaving behind the confines of both swing and bebop. But Kane’s jazz class photo shows us, Matthew Kessel writes at Vulture, “a portrait of harmony, old and new guard alike peaceably intermingling. The photo suggests that jazz is as much about continuity and tradition as it is about radical change.” The photo has since become a tradition itself, hanging on the walls of thousands of homes, bookshops, record stores, barbershops, and restaurants. (Get your copy here.)

Originally titled "Harlem 1958,"  Kane's image has inspired some notable homages in black culture. In 1998, XXL magazine tapped Gordon Parks to shoot “A Great Day in Hip Hop” for a now-historic cover. And this past summer, Netflix gathered 47 black creatives behind more than 20 original Netflix shows for the redux “A Great Day in Hollywood.” The photo also inspired a documentary of the same title in 1994 (at whose website you can click on each musician for a short bio). At the Daily News, Sarah Goodyear tells the story of how Kane conceived and executed the ambitious project for a special jazz edition of Esquire.

It was his “first professional shooting assignment and, with it, he ended up making history by almost by accident.” Goodyear quotes Kane’s son Jonathan, himself a New York musician, who remarks, “certain things end up being bigger than the original intention. The photograph has become part of our cultural fabric.” For longtime residents of Harlem, the so-called Capital of Black America, and a spiritual home of jazz, it's just like an old family portrait. See a fully annotated version of "A Great Day in Harlem" at Harlem.org, and at the Daily News, an interactive version with links to YouTube recordings and performances from every one of the 57 musicians in the picture.

This month, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the photo, Wall of Sound Gallery will publish the book Art Kane: Harlem 1958, a retrospective with outtakes from the photo session and text from Quincy Jones, Benny Golson, Jonathan Kane, and Art himself. "The importance of this photo transcends time and location," writes Jones in his forward, "leaving it to become not only a symbolic piece of art, but a piece of history. During a time in which segregation was very much still a part of our everyday lives, and in a world that often pointed out our differences instead of celebrating our similarities, there was something so special and pure about gathering 57 individuals together, in the name of jazz."

  1. Hilton Jefferson (1903-1968)
  2. Benny Golson (1929-)
  3. Art Farmer (1928-2003)
  4. Wilbur Ware (1923-1979)
  5. Art Blakey (1919-1990)
  6. Chubby Jackson (1918-2003)
  7. Johnny Griffin (1928-2008)
  8. Dickie Wells (1909-1985)
  9. Buck Clayton (1911-1993)
  10. Taft Jordan (1915-1981)
  11. Zutty Singleton (1898-1975)
  12. Henry “Red” Allen (1908-1967)
  13. Tyree Glenn (1912-1972)
  14. Miff Mole (1898-1961)
  15. Sonny Greer (1903-1982)
  16. J.C. Higginbotham (1906-1973)
  17. Jimmy Jones (1918-1982)
  18. Charles Mingus (1922-1979)
  19. Jo Jones (1911-1985)
  20. Gene Krupa (1909-1973)
  21. Max Kaminsky (1908-1994)
  22. George Wettling (1907-1968)
  23. Bud Freeman (1906-1988)
  24. Pee Wee Russell (1906-1969)
  25. Ernie Wilkins (1922-1999)
  26. Buster Bailey (1902-1967)
  27. Osie Johnson (1923-1968)
  28. Gigi Gryce (1927-1983)
  29. Hank Jones (1918-2010)
  30. Eddie Locke (1930-2009)
  31. Horace Silver (1928-2014)
  32. Luckey Roberts (1887-1968)
  33. Maxine Sullivan (1911-1987)
  34. Jimmy Rushing (1902-1972)
  35. Joes Thomas (1909-1984)
  36. Scoville Browne (1915-1994)
  37. Stuff Smith (1909-1967)
  38. Bill Crump (1919-1980s)
  39. Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)
  40. Rudy Powell (1907-1976)
  41. Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960)
  42. Sahib Shihab (1925-1993)
  43. Marian McPartland (1920-2013)
  44. Sonny Rollins (1929-)
  45. Lawrence Brown (1905-1988)
  46. Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)
  47. Emmett Berry (1915-1993)
  48. Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)
  49. Vic Dickenson (1906-1984)
  50. Milt Hinton (1910-2000)
  51. Lester “Pres” Young (1909-1959)
  52. Rex Stewart (1907-1972)
  53. J.C. Heard (1917-1988)
  54. Gerry Mulligan (1927-1995)
  55. Roy Eldridge (1911-1989)
  56. Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993)
  57. William “Count” Basie (1904-1984)

Related Content:

1959: The Year That Changed Jazz

The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s Highly Controversial Film on Jazz & Race in America (With Music by Sun Ra)

Hear 2,000 Recordings of the Most Essential Jazz Songs: A Huge Playlist for Your Jazz Education

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Hear Langston Hughes Read His Poetry Over Original Compositions by Charles Mingus & Leonard Feather: A Classic Collaboration from 1958

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.

Related Content:

Watch Langston Hughes Read Poetry from His First Collection, The Weary Blues (1958)

Charles Mingus Explains in His Grammy-Winning Essay “What is a Jazz Composer?”

Poems as Short Films: Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda and More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast