Langston Hughes, Laura Karpman, and Jessye Norman Ask Your Mama!

The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Dr. Stephanie Akau.

Soprano Jessye Norman was more than a prolific performer; she made time for philanthropy, started her own business to manage her career, and developed numerous side projects. For three weeks in March 2009, she curated and presented HONOR! A Celebration of African American Culture, a three-week series consisting of nineteen performances, musical tributes, panel discussions, and masterclasses by musicians and scholars in arts venues across New York City. The featured guests included the Imani Winds quintet, historian and professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Philadelphia Orchestra, author Toni Morrison, the African American all-woman a cappella vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, and tenor George Shirley. In HONOR!’s promotional video, Ms. Norman says that each component of the festival highlights “contributions of African Americans to the cultural mosaic” of the United States.[1]

Typed and annotated in black ink.

Draft of the Honor! Festival schedule of events annotated by Jessye Norman, circa 2006-2008. Box-Folder 103/8, Jessye Norman Papers, Music Division.

Programmed in the middle of HONOR! was the world premiere of composer Laura Karpman’s multimedia piece, Ask Your Mama! Karpman and Norman had been introduced by Edgar Baitzel of the Los Angeles Opera Company and they thought the work would be an opportunity to explore the dialogue “between Black and white America.”(Jessye Norman Papers, Box-Folder 103/8). Karpman originally wrote the music for a project for CBS that was tabled in the early 2000s.[2] She kept it for later use and found that the text of Langston Hughes’s longest poetic work, a cycle titled Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), would be a good fit.[3] For HONOR!, Karpman orchestrated her earlier work and expanded it to include spoken-word performers, an opera singer, a jazz singer, and two computers. One computer delivers the audio of Hughes’s reading of Ask Your Mama. The other controls sampled dialogue, music, and singing, including some by Norman recorded before the performance, and other music. Screens above the stage project excerpts of films and documentaries about the Black experience in America designed by Kate Howard.

The first sound the audience hears is the recorded voice of Langston Hughes explaining that he wrote most of the poems during the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. He includes notes in the margins of the poetry describing the music he experienced at Newport. For example, he noted that the stanza, “In the pot behind the / paper doors what’s cooking? / What’s smelling, Leontyne?/ Lieder, lovely lieder / and a leaf of collard green, / Lovely Lieder Leontyne” should be accompanied by “Delicate lieder on piano continues between verses to merge softly,” music befitting a classical singer, such as Leontyne Price.[4] In the print version of the poem cycle Hughes included musical notation for a leitmotif which he titledHesitation Blues,” that reappears periodically. Karpman used some of Hughes’s musical marginalia as inspiration for the instrumental parts. Throughout the piece, the singers, speakers, and Hughes’s recording take turns exchanging the text, to great effect. Stylistically, the music is as expansive as Hughes’s poems, an amalgamation of classical, jazz, gospel, and hip-hop. Hearing Hughes’s recitation of his poetry combined with Karpman’s music results in a uniquely emotional experience for the listener.

Printed page 32 highlighted and annotated in pencil.

Jessye Norman’s annotated piano-vocal score of Laura Karpman’s Ask Your Mama!, 2008. Box-Folder 11/6, Jessye Norman Papers, Music Division.

In November 2008, Karpman and Norman workshopped Ask Your Mama! at their alma mater, the University of Michigan.[5] According to the production schedules in the collection, rehearsals in New York started on February 20, 2009. The premiere performance of Ask Your Mama!, at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, was directed by Annie Dorsen and conducted by George Manahan and featured Jessye Norman, hip-hop band The Roots, mezzo-soprano Tracie Luck, jazz singer de’Adre Aziza, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Although there are no publicly-available recordings of the HONOR! world premiere, the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra released a recording on Avie Records in 2015. It is available to stream so that audiences can continue to experience a part of HONOR! for themselves.

Colorful, printed two pages of program with photograph of The Roots and Lizz Wright.

Ask Your Mama! program, March 16, 2009. Box-Folder 103/8, Jessye Norman Papers, Music Division.

The Jessye Norman Papers are fully processed and available for research. To find out more about Jessye Norman’s projects and performing career, you may consult the collection’s finding aid and read a previous blog post by Howard University intern Cienna Benn. The Library of Congress Music Division recently acquired Laura Karpman’s papers; contact the Music Division through Ask-a-Librarian for more information.

Related Information

HONOR! included Norman’s reinterpretation of some of Duke Ellington’s sacred music, Sacred Ellington. For more information, see a previous In the Muse blog post by former Music Division intern Dr. Jessica Grimmer. In 2021, the Jessye Norman processing team tried out her cake recipe. Find out how it went.

[1] Carnegie Hall. “Jessye Norman Introduces the HONOR! Festival,” November 18, 2009.

[2] New Music Box. “Five Questions for Laura Karpman.” March 5, 2009. https://newmusicusa.org/nmbx/ask-your-mama-five-questions-for-laura-karpman/ [accessed August 24, 2022].

[3] NPR. “‘Ask Your Mama’ a Music and Poetry Premiere,” Morning Edition. March 16, 2009.

[4] Langston, Hughes. ASK YOUR MAMA: 12 Moods for Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1961, page 6.

[5] The University of Michigan “Evocative Composition Fine-Tuned at University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance Heads to Carnegie Hall” [press release]. US Fed New Service, March 5, 2009.

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