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, theater legend William Warfield joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in an encore presentation, combining Mr. Warfield’s masterful readings of Langston Hughes’ poems with musical selections by Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson.
William Warfield is best known for his role of Joe the Dock Hand in the 1951 movie version of Show Boat, in which he sang “Old Man River.” He also played the title role in a Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, and has recorded Aaron Copland’s settings of American folk songs.
On the Riverwalk Jazz series, Mr. Warfield frequently portrayed classic jazz figures, including King Oliver and W.C. Handy. And he brought to life theatrical works, such as Show Boat and Porgy and Bess with his powerful narrations. Warfield was a frequent collaborator with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on tour, known for their popular live concert presentations of Porgy and Bess.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Langston Hughes. Photo courtesy jkamersoncarter.com
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick