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June 1, 2016

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Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month

Happy Jazz Appreciation Month! To honor the art of jazz and the art of poetry (it is National Poetry Month as well, don’t forget!), we’ve decided to explore some of the rhythmic, jazzy poetry of Langston Hughes.

Imagine it’s 1936 in New York City’s Harlem district and you’re standing in line for a jazz club. You can’t see where the line ends as it stretches all the way around the corner.

The notes of a roaring saxophone pour out the front door and settle into the nighttime air, stirring the waiting people to dance.

You finally pay the cover and enter the club, but only in time to hear a deafening applause from the crowd that signals the end of the act. The man onstage closes the case on his saxophone. You see his silhouette take a bow and walk off the stage.

Lights come on and the chatter of conversation picks up again naturally. Finally a tall and slender African American man walks onto the stage, smirking the whole while. The lights cut out and silence strikes the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Langston Hughes,” a voice announces over a loud microphone. Standing in the spotlight and then sitting on a piano bench, he begins to read some poetry.

 

“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.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

Sweet Blues!

Coming from a black man’s soul.

O Blues!

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—

‘Ain’t got nobody in all this world,

Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’

And put ma troubles on the shelf.’

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.

He played a few chords then he sang some more—

‘I got the Weary Blues

And I can’t be satisfied.

Got the Weary Blues

And can’t be satisfied—

I ain’t happy no mo’

And I wish that I had died.’

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.”

—“The Weary Blues,” Langston Hughes, 1925

 

syncopated—a musical term meaning to have a shifted accent (for example, to begin on an unaccented beat and continue through the next accented beat)

croon—a gentle singing

Lenox Avenue—a boulevard (now called Malcolm X Boulevard) in the Harlem section of Manhattan in New York City

 

For more of Hughes’s jazz poetry, check out Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes available now online in paperback! It’s a neat little collection of some of his more famous poems, with beautiful illustrations to boot. Happy reading!

 

About the Author: Jamie is a Scholastic Reading Club staffer who is known to bust a move to a nice jazz tune.

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