RED SPRINGS — Standing on the sun-lit stage of Red Springs Middle School’s auditorium amid the crashing of cymbals, banging of piano keys and deep tones of a upright bass, Ron McCurdy snapped his fingers and stamped one foot in time.
Sometimes stopping his three-piece ensemble to offer direction, and at other times encouraging them to continue, McCurdy’s overall impression of the group which had joined him on Thursday for a multi-media performance of a Langston Hughes poem, “Go Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz” was positive. After all, it was the first time the group had played together — but McCurdy says that shouldn’t matter.
“In the spirit of jazz, we speak a universal language,” he said. “I could walk into a jazz club in Poland, and not speak a bit of Polish, and go ‘do di ti do wop wop’ and in three minutes we’d all be playing the same song.”
McCurdy, a jazz musician and a music professor at the University of Southern California, was the first to translate Hughes’ poem to music — a direction for which he said the poem was always intended. The poem, according to McCurdy, was written after race riots halted a 1960 jazz festival, but Hughes died before his vision for the piece could be realized.
“It’s not the most sexy topic, but if you read his poetry you realize how cerebral he was, as a writer and singer,” he said. “People ask what he’d be doing today, and I tell them he’d be a rapper, because he’s always talking about social issues and experiences.”
McCurdy picked up the piece in 1995 and read Hughes’ notes in the margin, realizing that he had music in his head as he was writing it. McCurdy’s interpretation includes a slide show and spoken-word monologue punctuated with music. On Thursday, students piled into the auditorium, some filling the front rows and others hanging in the back.
“To be able to do it at the middle school with the resources we have is amazing,” said Margie Labadie, president of the Red Springs Art Council.
It’s the third time that Labadie has brought the performer to the area since the two met in 2007. Labadie says he is “amazing, not only as a performer but as a human being.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you, other than just listen, because he’s so good,” she said.
On Sunday, he performed at the Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Events Center.
For more on Ron McCurdy, visit ronmccurdy.com.