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

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