Jazz Poetry & Langston Hughes

By Rebecca Gross
Langston Hughes was never far from jazz. He listened to it at nightclubs, collaborated with musicians from Monk to Mingus, often held readings accompanied by jazz combos, and even wrote a children’s book called The First Book of Jazz. For Hughes, jazz was a way of life. He was, of course, not an ordinary jazz fan simply enamored with the sound. A vocal proponent of racial consciousness, the poet considered jazz and the blues to be uniquely African-American art forms, both of which spurned the desire for assimilation and acceptance by white culture, and instead rejoiced in black heritage and creativity. Rather than wish away daily hardship, the blues instead elevated the troubles of the workaday African American into art. As he wrote in his 1926 story “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”:
“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”
Early on, Hughes’s love for the music found its way to the page, giving rise to the fusion genre known as jazz poetry. In the same vein as his beliefs about jazz, Hughes felt that jazz poetry could be a uniquely African-American literary form, distinctive among the venerable—and very white—poetic canon. When he wrote about jazz, Hughes often incorporated syncopated rhythms, jive language, or looser phrasing to mimic the improvisatory nature of jazz; in other poems, his verse reads like the lyrics of a blues song. The result was as close as you could get to spelling out jazz. Below is the opening to Hughes’s 1925 poem “The Weary Blues,” which you can hear him recite in the video above. The reading, accompanied by the Doug Parker Band, was broadcast on the Canadian program The 7 O’Clock Show in 1958. "Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,            I heard a Negro play. Down on Lenox Avenue the other night By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light            He did a lazy sway . . .            He did a lazy sway . . . To the tune o' those Weary Blues."