Langston Hughes has been called the 'Poet Laureate of Black America,' but his work reaches beyond the boundaries of race. Inspired by the rhythm and romance of jazz in 1920s' New York, Hughes introduced the language of jazz into his poems and changed the sound of modern poetry.
Hughes came to Manhattan to study engineering at Columbia University, but dropped out to pursue his writing. He published his first poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1921, the same year that Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake had a Broadway hit with Shuffle Along. With an all-black cast that included soon-to-be legends Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson in the chorus line, Shuffle Along wowed audiences with its ultra-hip jazz rhythms and hot dancing. These two cultural events, the publication of Langston Hughes' first poem and Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along on Broadway, helped spark the Harlem Renaissance.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, the great actor and bass baritone William Warfield joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in a concert presentation at Stanford University, combining Mr. Warfield's masterful readings of Langston Hughes' poems with musical selections composed by Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson.
An icon of American stage and screen, William Warfield is known for his fabled role as 'Joe the Dock Hand' in the 1951 MGM motion picture adaptation of Jerome Kern's Show Boat, in which he famously sang "Old Man River." Warfield also played the title role in Porgy and Bess on Broadway, and won a Grammy Award in 1964 for his recording of Porgy with Leontyne Price. His narration of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait also won a Grammy, and he toured widely as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
On the Riverwalk Jazz series, Mr. Warfield frequently portrays classic jazz figures, including King Oliver and W.C. Handy. He has joined forces with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band bringing to life theatrical works, such as Show Boat and Porgy and Bess, with his powerful narrations. William Warfield has been a frequent collaborator with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on tour, widely-known for their popular live concert presentations of Porgy and Bess.
Photo credit home page: Langston Hughes. Courtesy jkamersoncarter.com
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick © 2011