'Ask Your Mama': A Music And Poetry Premiere Langston Hughes' epic poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz gets a multimedia makeover at Carnegie Hall, complete with opera's Jessye Norman, a full symphony orchestra and the hip-hop group The Roots.

'Ask Your Mama': A Music And Poetry Premiere

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Jessye Norman will sing tonight at Carnegie Hall. She has performed there dozens of times, but this time it's a little different. She's sharing the stage not only with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, but with the hip hop artists The Roots. What brings them together is a poem by Langston Hughes called "Ask Your Mama." The poem has been set to music before, but not on this scale. Tonight's world premiere is part of a festival called "Honor!", showcasing the cultural legacy of African-American musicians. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Composer Laura Karpman was going through a bookstore when she stumbled onto a little-known epic poem by Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. It was called "Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz."

LAURA KARPMAN: And of course what attracted me to the piece was not only was it by Langston Hughes - who I think is one of the most brilliant poets who ever lived - but in the right-hand margins of the poem, Langston says exactly how the music should sound.


JESSYE NORMAN: Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)

NORMAN: (Singing) Can I get it now? Or must I hesitate?

LUNDEN: Hughes wrote this sprawling poem late in his career, in 1960, while he was attending the Newport Jazz Festival. He had music in his ears, and dictated a kind of soundtrack in the margins of the poem that included everything from blues to German lieder to gospel and Latin music together, says Singer Jessye Norman.

NORMAN: One of the poems is called "The Gospel Cha-Cha," where there's sort of African-American gospel music, but also the music that one would have heard that was coming up from the Caribbean.


TAMMIE JENKINS: (Singing) Cha, cha-cha, cha-cha-cha, cha-cha-cha- cha. They cast the nets in the (unintelligible) cha-cha-cha...

LUNDEN: That's Tammie Jenkins singing Jessye Norman's part in a demo recording. Annie Dorsen, who directed "Passing Strange" on Broadway, is overseeing the physical presentation of "Ask Your Mama," which will include video. She says Langston Hughes was paying homage to generations of African-American artists, while experimenting with the form.

ANNIE DORSEN: You know, he's taking in - Charlie Parker is taking in, you know, bebop. He's taking in sort of innovations from more radical artists. And he's, you know, experimenting a little bit late in life, wondering what it all means, what his life as an artist has meant, how he fits into the marketplace, how he fits into black history, how he fits into American history.


WERTHEIMER: (Singing) I moved out to Long Island, even further than St. Albans, which lately is going nowhere. I moved out even further, further, farther on the south way off the turnpike. I'm the only colored here. Got here, yes, I made it, made it in the papers every day. Got here, yes I made it, made it in the papers every day. Famous the hard way...

WERTHEIMER: ...from nobody and nothing to where I am...

LUNDEN: Laura Karpman has written something of a maximalist score for "Ask Your Mama." She's using hip-hop. She's using a full classical orchestra. She's using jazz instruments. She even has two musicians sitting at keyboards, triggering samples from laptops.

KARPMAN: When Langston asks for old-time, traditional 12-bar blues, instead of making the orchestra do that - which always sounds not quite right, to be kind - I actually trigger the sample of Cab Calloway doing "St. James Infirmary Blues."


CAB CALLOWAY: Unidentified Man #3: The quarter of the Negroes where the doorknobs left in leider more than German ever bore...

LUNDEN: Langston Hughes is a presence throughout the piece.

KARPMAN: We found an old recording of Langston reading the poem. I digitized that, and then what I did is I sampled from that, as well. He begins the poem, and he speaks to us constantly throughout the poem. He also does a little bit of singing, too.

LUNDEN: Karpman demonstrates at the keyboard.

KARPMAN: So Langston's singing...


LANGSTON HUGHES: (Singing) de, de, de, de, de, de, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight, delight.

LUNDEN: Composer Laura Karpman says she felt delight creating the piece for Jessye Norman as well. They began working on it together two years ago.

KARPMAN: And I went and sat next to her on her couch, and she sat very close and she started singing spirituals to me. And, well, I thought I was just going to melt. But I'd never heard her sing like this. I'd never heard her sing that intimately. I don't think anybody had.


NORMAN: "Ask Your Mama" is really a microcosm of this festival. All of these names, all of this music that Langston Hughes heard in Harlem at the time, the newer immigrants from Latin America and people coming to this country from Africa that were making their music that he was hearing, all of this is indicated in the margins of the poem. And all of this Laura has been able to bring to this piece.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


WERTHEIMER: You can hear more music from "Ask Your Mama" and hear more from its creators at nprmusic.org.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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