Langston Hughes concert filled PAC with jazz

molly erdmann

Dr. Ronald McCurdy and his Jazz Quartet had the audience clapping and on their feet during their performance “Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz” at the Performing Arts Center on March 29.

“Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz,” or, “The Langston Hughes Project,” is a performance that incorporates the poetry of Langston Hughes, original jazz music and on-screen visuals to create a multi-sensual experience for its audience. The poetry focuses on the struggle of African American artists to achieve social and artistic freedom during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1960s.

Dr. McCurdy narrated the poetry of Langston Hughes while live jazz music played in the background, creating a harmony of vocals and music that kept the crowd engaged during the entire performance, lasting nearly two hours. Correlating pictures and videos showing famous African American artists such as Louis Armstrong and Aaron Douglas, as well as other images from the Harlem Renaissance, played on screen.

The crowd listened as the poetry and music transitioned between the 12 moods of jazz. Some moods in the collection were bluesy and upbeat, such as Mood 6, “Horn of Plenty,” which caused the audience to clap along and sway in their seats. Other moods, like Mood 8, “Is it True?” were more somber.

“This work is like a Picasso painting, you can’t hear it one time and say ‘I got it,’” McCurdy said. “It requires repeated visits. Each time you listen to it … you’re going to see something that you didn’t see before.”

Between moods, McCurdy paused from the poetry and played trumpet with the band — showing off his talents as a pianist, drummer and bass player. McCurdy and the pianist are the only permanent members of the quartet. Before they come to a performance, they find a local bass player and drummer for their one-night event.

Dustin Retzlaff, director of the Morris Jazz Program at the University of Minnesota, played bass and Aberdeen-native, Bryce Job, was the drummer. The musicians only had one month to learn the music, which was handwritten in the margins alongside the poetry.

“Most of the performance was on the spot,” Job said. “What you saw was our first time playing it as a group.”

The fact that it was their first time playing together as a group went unnoticed and McCurdy marveled about how the two additions performed.

“They were amazing,” McCurdy said. “I’m so honored to have a chance to work with them.”

During the final mood, many audience members rose out of their chairs to dance and clap to the music. At the end of the performance, the crowd stood and applauded McCurdy and his Jazz Quartet.

“The program was everything I thought it would be and more. Langston Hughes’ edgy, in-your-face, social commentary, McCurdy’s outstanding musicianship, and all the gripping images that were shown during the performance combined to make for an unforgettable evening,” said David Reynolds, head of the Music Department.

McCurdy is currently a professor of music at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. He was recognized as Jazz Educator of the Year in 2005 and served as president of the International Association for Jazz Education from 2000 to 2002. He graduated from Florida A&M University in 1976 and received both his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Kansas in 1978 and 1983.

“The Langston Hughes Project” was sponsored by SDSU College of Arts and Science, the Department of Music, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Honors College and the English Department.

“I am especially grateful for the support from so many groups on campus,” Reynolds said. “We could not have brought this program to fruition without their support and participation