Langston Hughes Creates a List of His 100 Favorite Jazz Recordings: Hear 80+ of Them in a Big Playlist

Image by The Library of Con­gress, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“Langston Hugh­es was nev­er far from jazz,” writes Rebec­ca Gross at the NEA’s Art Works Blog. “He lis­tened to it at night­clubs, col­lab­o­rat­ed with musi­cians from Monk to Min­gus, often held read­ings accom­pa­nied by jazz com­bos, and even wrote a children’s book called The First Book of Jazz.” The 1955 book is a strik­ing visu­al arti­fact, with illus­tra­tions by Cliff Roberts made to resem­ble jazz album cov­ers of the peri­od. Though writ­ten in sim­ple prose, it has much to rec­om­mend it to adults, despite its some­what forced—literally—upbeat tone. “The book is very patri­ot­ic,” we not­ed in an ear­li­er post, “a fact dic­tat­ed by Hugh­es’ recent [1953] appear­ance before Sen­a­tor McCarthy’s Sub­com­mit­tee, which exon­er­at­ed him on the con­di­tion that he renounce his ear­li­er sym­pa­thies for the Com­mu­nist Par­ty and get with a patri­ot­ic pro­gram.”

Ear­li­er state­ments on music had been more can­did and close to the heart: “jazz to me is one of the inher­ent expres­sions of Negro life in Amer­i­ca,” Hugh­es wrote in a 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Moun­tain”—“the eter­nal tom-tom beat­ing in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weari­ness in a white world, a world of sub­way trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laugh­ter, and pain swal­lowed in a smile.”

The sweet bit­ter­ness of these sen­ti­ments may lie fur­ther beneath the sur­face thir­ty years lat­er in The First Book of Jazz, but the children’s intro­duc­tion to that thor­ough­ly orig­i­nal African-Amer­i­can form made it clear. “For Hugh­es,” as Cross writes, “jazz was a way of life,” even when life was con­strained by red scare repres­sion.

Hugh­es invites his read­ers, of all ages, to share his pas­sion, not only through his care­ful his­to­ry and expla­na­tions of key jazz ele­ments, but also through a list of rec­om­men­da­tions in an appen­dix: “100 of My Favorite Record­ings of Jazz, Blues, Folk Songs, and Jazz-Influ­enced Per­for­mances.” (View them in a larg­er for­mat here: Page 1Page 2.) In this playlist below, you can hear 81 of Hugh­es’ selec­tions: clas­sic New Orleans jazz from Louis Arm­strong, blues from Bessie Smith, “jazz-influ­enced” clas­si­cal from George Gersh­win, bebop from Thelo­nious Monk, swing from Count Basie, gui­tar gospel from Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe, and much more from Son­ny Ter­ry, Tom­my Dorsey, Char­lie Park­er, Mem­phis Min­nie, Bil­lie Hol­i­day, and oh so many more artists who moved the Harlem Renais­sance poet to put “jazz into words” as he wrote in “Jazz as Com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” an essay pub­lished the fol­low­ing year. If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, down­load it here.

For Hugh­es, jazz was a broad cat­e­go­ry that embraced all black Amer­i­can music—not only the blues, rag­time, and swing but also, by the mid-fifties, rock and roll, which he believed, would “no doubt be washed back half for­got­ten into the sea of jazz” in years to come. But what­ev­er the future held for jazz, Hugh­es had no doubt it would be “what you call preg­nant,” and as fer­tile as its past.

“Poten­tial papas and mamas of tomorrow’s jazz are all known,” he con­cludes in his 1956 essay. “But THE papa and THE mama—maybe both—are anony­mous. But the child will com­mu­ni­cate. Jazz is a heartbeat—its heart­beat is yours. You will tell me about its per­spec­tives when you get ready.” Just above, see Hugh­es recite the poem “Weary Blues” with jazz band accom­pa­ni­ment in a CBC appear­ance from 1958.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Langston Hugh­es Presents the His­to­ry of Jazz in an Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book (1955)

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

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

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

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Comments (5)
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  • berit branch says:

    I had to can­cel my deb­it card. Auto­mat­ic pay­ment is can­celled. I will remake my HUGE con­tri­bu­tion again as soon as I receive my new deb­it card. Thank you. Bert Branch

  • James Henry says:

    The playlist did­n’t work at all. This has nev­er hap­pened to me before on Spo­ti­fy. I could down­load Spo­ti­fy as often as I want­ed but hear the playlist? No.

  • Tony says:

    These embed­ded spo­ti­fy lists don’t work for erery­one PLEASE include a sim­ple link or name of the actu­al list so when this hap­pens we can find it in Spo­ti­fy direct­ly. I have Spo­ti­fy app on this machine and yet they can’t fig­ure that out. Your arti­cle does­n’t include the most sim­ple info like THE NAME OF THE PLAYLIST> not help­ful. I guess it’s more impor­tant ror to get cred­it for views than for it’s users to access the con­tent.

  • Sonya says:

    What can’t I access the playlist through my Spo­ti­fy?!

  • Tony says:

    For all of the rest of us who can’t access this (because some­one can’t be both­ered to actu­al­ly post THE NAME OF THE PLAYLIST) open your Spo­ti­fy app and search open­cul­ture­dot­com (spelled that way) and then click on their pro­file and the list is there. I tried sev­er­al ways to post a link but it won’t work.

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