As a jazz trio settled on the front-right corner of a glowing white stage, a noisy but scattered crowd talked among themselves in the less-lighted area facing the band.
All in attendance were silenced the moment a blaring, bright timbre of a golden trumpet blasted through the entire ballroom.
The band, now a quartet with the addition of the trumpet, sat unflinching as Ron McCurdy, the trumpeter, continued his unaccompanied solo.
So began the Thursday night performance of the epic poem, “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,” by Langston Hughes, interpreted with musical accompaniment by the Ron McCurdy Quartet at the University of Colorado’s Glenn Miller Ballroom in Boulder.
The performance was a special event organized by several on-campus student and university groups at CU.
The performance is part of the Langston Hughes Project started by McCurdy, who works as a professor and chair of jazz studies at the University of Southern California.
McCurdy started the project after careful academic exploration discovered that Hughes’ poem, written in the early 1960s, actually contained musical cues meant to transform the piece into a full-fledged musical work.
For six months, McCurdy said he “locked himself in” along with a musical partner to compose a score.
He said the project is about enlightening people.
“It’s about giving people an understanding of how we, as human beings, can all work together,” McCurdy said.
Hughes was one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s and a prolific writer and poet among other artistic venues. He never received an opportunity to organize his jazz piece; he died in 1967.
McCurdy’s project is meant to be a homage to Hughes, incorporating jazz and images from the era of Hughes’ lifetime, including the 1930s through the 1960s.
The motive behind constructing the project was simple for McCurdy, he said.
“I love Langston Hughes,” McCurdy said. “He’s such a great storyteller. He has a way of communicating with people from all different races, creeds, religions. He’s just a great communicator.”
Although a majority of the performance is illuminated with music and dramatic visuals, in black-and-white and full-color photographs, the focus of the performance remains on the unity Hughes suggested in his many works.
“The music and the visuals are also connected,” McCurdy said. “The music helps illuminate the words. The visuals help illuminate the words.”
Despite the upbeat atmosphere, many of the words scribed on the epic poem by Hughes defined a generation filled with the daily reality of racism, discrimination and segregation.
But the poem also lives on as proof of Hughes’ deft ability of combining satire and drama.
The title, “Ask Your Mama,” was a reference to a repeated line within the written work where a question is answered with that phrase, resulting in what sounds like a vintage “yo-mama” joke.
McCurdy suggested Hughes’ ultimate goal in his many writings was about demonstrating unified humanity.
“We are all a part of the human race,” McCurdy said. “It’s not about the black culture, the white culture or the Latino culture. It’s about being human beings and that’s what Langston was about. He was about human beings all coexisting, working together for a common good.”
Ryan Flanders, a 22-year-old senior international affairs major, works as the Outreach Coordinator for the Dennis Small Cultural Center at CU, one of the programs that sponsored the event.
“It was originally my idea,” Flanders said of bringing the quartet. “The performer emailed me and told me they bring the show around the country and that they’d like to bring it to CU.”
Flanders then proposed collaboration with the Cultural Events Board and other groups like the Center for Multicultural Affairs.
He said the performance offered an opportunity to learn about the country’s past and learn about the arts and, “how arts today can promote civil rights and social justice,” within the community.
Nikos Syropoulos was onstage with McCurdy as the pianist. After graduating from USC in May of 2010, McCurdy asked him to join his quartet.
Syropoulos said the project is particularly relevant considering February is Black History Month.
“As you can probably tell, it’s a really dense work, so there are a lot of different motives for putting this kind of thing on,” Syropoulos said. “We have a lot of gigs around the country, really just keeping this type of work alive.”
As fond as Syropoulos is of the work, there was one unpleasant factor about coming to Colorado.
“We came in [Wednesday] and it was negative 15 at night,” he said with a grin. “It was not fun.”
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