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Langston Hughes
Harlem In Vogue: The Poetry and Jazz of Langston Hughes Brad Sanders , July 20th, 2011 09:10

By the time the most important writer of New York’s 1920s Harlem Renaissance movement recorded a collection of his poetry set to jazz in 1958, the concept wasn’t new. The Beat Generation had made the fusion of urban black music and heady, syncopated verses fashionable, with everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac doing their early precursor to rapping over sax-and-drums backbones. Though already in his late 50s at the time that he started to record his own jazz poetry, Langston Hughes comes off more interesting and more at ease with the material than most of his ironically younger predecessors.

It’s likely that part of the reason why is simply because he was black. Jazz was a style of music created for and by African Americans, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that white poets trying to get a foothold in the genre sounds and feels a bit like cultural imperialism. More importantly than his blackness, however - inherently tied to race as it may be - was his familiarity with the scene. Langston Hughes did not walk into the jazz world for the first time in 1958. He was actively participating in it and hanging around its progenitors in his Harlem home, writing all the while, when Allen Ginsberg was still in the womb.

Harlem in Vogue: The Poetry and Jazz of Langston Hughes is a compilation of four separate recording sessions. The first ten tracks come from a session the poet did with Leonard Feather’s All-Star Sextet; the next eleven come from a series of recordings with Charles Mingus and the Horace Parlan Quintet; the next six see Hughes reading his poetry with no instrumental accompaniment; and the last two tracks are jazz interpretations of Hughes poems by the Bob Dorough Quartet, complete with sung vocals by Dorough in place of Hughes’ trademark cadence. The set is something of a mishmash in terms of quality, with certain tracks (‘The Weary Blues’ with Leonard Feather’s All-Star Sextet; ‘Motto/Dead in There’ with Charles Mingus and the Horace Parlan Quintet) rivaling the best moments of Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s careers, and others (most of the unaccompanied solo material and both of Bob Dorough’s reinterpretations) falling so profoundly flat that it’s difficult to determine why they were included by Fingertips Records at all. At 29 songs and a nearly filled-to-capacity running length on the CD, even slogging through the collection feels more than a little like running a marathon.

Where this compilation’s essentialness comes (if we presume that it possesses any) is as a historical document. Langston Hughes is one of the most important American poets of the early 20th century, and, notwithstanding the last two songs on the record, Harlem in Vogue is an opportunity to hear him read his poetry as he intended it to be read, and with accompaniment from contemporaries whom he respected. It’s difficult for any student of literature not to be staggered when hearing “I wonder if one bullet would do?/ Hard as my head is, it would probably take two” read by the man who wrote it over a screaming saxophone line and primal drumbeat. Would it be nice if more of those saxophone lines and drumbeats were any good? Of course, but that doesn’t totally invalidate the album. It’s a snapshot of a great writer operating in his element at the peak of his talents, and for that alone, it’s fascinating.

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