[By: Jerry W. Ward Jr.]
It might be argued that Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971) can make readers more attentive to combinations of words and music and to the issues of response and interpretation broached in Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (New York: William Morrow, 1973). More recent critical discussions of musical and verbal aspects of African American poetry extend the thinking Henderson initiated, but they do not displace the centrality of his formations in the development of theoretical discourses. We have yet to sufficiently critique his insights about how “mascon” (a massive concentration of Black experiential energy) informed African science and currently informs “the meaning of Black speech, Black song, and Black Poetry” (44). Henderson’s considerations of origins play nicely against the laughing barrel, signifying humor of Hughes’s liner note entitled “Jazztet Muted”:
Because grandma lost her apron with all the answers in her pocket (perhaps consumed by fire) certain grand- and great-grandsons play music burning like dry ice against the ear. Forcing cries of succor from its own unheard completion — not resolved by Charlie Parker — can we look to monk or Monk? Or let it rest with Eric Dolphy? (92)
For Hughes’s blues-jazz composition, Dolphy, Monk, Ornette Coleman, Dizzy, Duke, Ella, Miss Nina, Carmen, and Hawkins revolve in the orbit of Charlie Yardbird Parker, but John Coltrane (1926-1967) remains unnamed (not called for or evoked) “in the quarter of the Negroes/where black shadows move like shadows”(77); the absence of Coltrane may be a cultural comment rather than an oversight. The tacit comment, of course, signals the limits in Hughes’s imagination of the space that consciousness of theoretical science should occupy. When Hughes wrote Ask Your Mama, a brilliant example of what jazz poetry can be, Coltrane had yet to be embraced by many black music aficionados with a love supreme; a handful of Coltrane’s fellow musicians might have overtly appreciated his sustained interest in physics, although good musicians intuit physics in their improvising.