On Thursday, Feb. 1, Concordia played host to the Langston Hughes Project, a multimedia undertaking bringing Langston Hughes’ 12-part epic poem “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz” to a jazz quartet, videography, and narration.
The performance was directed and narrated by Dr. Ron McCurdy, a professor of music in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, notable within his field for his work as a consultant for the Walt Disney All-American Summer College Jazz Ensemble, as well as for the Grammy Foundation educational programs. McCurdy’s performance was sponsored by Concordia Cultural Events.
The historical significance of “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz” was quickly addressed at the event, as McCurdy explained that Hughes’ poem was originally written in response to the 1960 Newport Jazz festival, where Hughes was the master of ceremonies. The festival was shut down by the National Guard; riots ensued after the event oversold 2,000 tickets and many ticket holders were barred from entrance. McCurdy noted that many of the members that were allowed entrance were young, white men, and not those who shared heritage and culture with the predominantly black artists performing.
The original poem includes guides for how music should sound and feel, and McCurdy took those staging directions to heart has he built a “kaleidoscopic jazz poem suite” including more than six original works.
McCurdy stayed true to the nature of jazz by recognizing that while the quality of the performance is always high, the content changes with every performance.
“This poem is cerebral,” he said. “I’ve done it for 20 years, thousands of times and each time, in the spirit of jazz, it’s different.”
McCurdy envisions his performances of the Langston Hughes Project as an extension of his classroom, and it is not hard to see why. In addition to voicing the epic poem “Ask Your Mama” and acting as the trumpeter, McCurdy freely and often adds in context to the poem. This, coupled with the video playing in the background, offers better understanding of the work, where one feels like they are being guided along almost as if in a classroom.
While McCurdy’s guidance throughout the performance had a professorial feel, junior Mikayla Clements countered that this performance went beyond the normal collegiate study.
“[The Langston Hughes Project] is different than anything you learn in the classroom. Definitely more imagery,” she said.
With the Cultural Events programming attracting both Concordia students and the Fargo-Moorhead community to campus, this alternative to normal teaching allowed for audience members young and old to take away the larger themes. Being an ambassador for lifelong learning is something that Bruce Vieweg, a member of the Cultural Events Committee, is proud of.
“Cultural events attract community. I think that’s a terrific role for Concordia to play,” Vieweg said.
Ronnie Allen, a Concordia senior, felt that McCurdy’s multimedia performance of Hughes’ work was an especially poignant event for the start of February.
“The music goes along with history of black people in America, and it is a great way to celebrate the beginning of Black History Month,” Allen said.
Cultural Events Coordinator Roxane Case estimated 125 total attendees, including 20 to 30 Concordia students. While these numbers were lower than anticipated, McCurdy still believed that he was able to get the project’s message across.
“Langston had a way to communicate. It didn’t matter about your education, your ethnic background, or where you came from. He made people feel good,” McCurdy said. “That’s all anybody wants.”