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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper

LANGSTON HUGHES AND MAX ROACH, MEET JOHNNY BUTLER AND TOM TEASLEY



IT’S NOT LANGSTON HUGHES’S BEST-KNOWN POEM, not by a long shot. I first encountered it perhaps ten or twelve years ago in the context of its still-unpublished setting by Margaret Bonds (1961). I was smitten then with the setting, which is her final art song and her final setting of a text by Langston Hughes.


            But even though the Note on Commercial Theatre is not as popular as The Weary Blues, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, or many other powerful and beautiful poems of Hughes, it is arguably his most direct and explicit poetic critique of cultural appropriation – a pervasive practice, especially in White America, that “takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way” (Britannica Online). Here’s the text:



It's powerful stuff. Hughes wrote and published it in 1939-40 and collaborated with playwright Robert Glenn to re-use it as the opening number – pride of place! – in the poetic play Shakespeare in Harlem in 1959; he had also recorded it for ASCH Records for a 78 rpm album ca. 1945 (beginning at 5’03” here):



Part of its appeal, of course, is its delicious self-reflexiveness: it’s a blues poem about the blues. But its appeal also resides in its critical reflection on the fact that originally led Hughes to title this poem "Note on Commercial Art" -- for the blues are part of a family of African American art forms – spirituals, theater, implicitly poetry, and probably also gospel – that have been appropriated, exploited, and denatured by White America for its own benefit, with neither benefit nor due respect to the Black experiences and Black folk who created them.   


 

That pointed and incontrovertible critique of cultural appropriation forms a tie to the great composer, bebop pioneer, drummer, and racial-justice activist Max Roach (1924-2007). For the lapsed percussionist (#Roachaholic) penning this post, Roach has long been an idol of sorts – a symbol, like Hughes, of the courage necessary to take enormous risks in order to bring the established art forms of music and literature far beyond anything and everything that was conventional or even acceptable to most folks in the interest of maximized expression, and in order to put art to use in the cause of social justice. His signature contributions in this capacity are of course the albums We Insist! (1960) and It’s Time (1962), which featured the extraordinary Abbey Lincoln (their performance in the Freedom Now Suite / Triptych still gives me chills). But the overarching themes of his work are those of envoicing Black folk and Black experiences, and protesting racism and racist practices – including cultural appropriation.


Which brings us to the recent performance that actually inspired this post. Most readers probably know well that White commodification and exploitation of Black art for White profit and purpose has only increased and worsened since Hughes wrote the Note on Commercial Theatre – which means that the need for active denunciation and dismantling of racism and fearless denunciation of cultural appropriation is, if anything, even greater than it was when Hughes wrote his poem.  


Which is why I was delighted to learn, just this past weekend, of a recent spoken-word performance of the poem with a drum performance that was inspired by Max Roach’s own artistry – and that seizes on today’s greater necessity for amplifying Hughes’s message to combat the forces of White cultural appropriation. In February 2022 baritone and educator Johnny Butler III – a very dear friend of mine – and world percussionist Tom Teasley gave a virtual faculty recital titled The Voice and the Drum. It includes an inspired and intense rendition of Hughes’s Note on Commercial Theatre with a drum-set performance inspired by the style and techniques of Max Roach. You should watch it right now:




That performance is important in a great many ways. Its style and technique are part of it, but they're only the beginning. Its importance is all the greater because it is, in a sense, a latter-day counterpart to Hughes’s own legendary 1958 album of recordings of his poetry in partnership with Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather – but updated and intensified in response to today's worsened systemic commodification and exploitation of Black art by Whites. Butler and Teasley use their artistry to keep the crucial message of Hughes’s poem – indeed, the life’s work of both Hughes and Roach – alive and current (just as Margaret Bonds was doing when amalgamated blues and art song to pen her own setting sixty-three years ago).


 

Max Roach and the other jazz greats of the 1950s and ’60s gave their musical all in pursuit of a sonorous and symbolic freedom that White society of their world exploited for its own purposes even as it denied them their freedom. Today, the freedom for which Roach, like Hughes, fought so fearlessly remains a thing of the future – a dream deferred. The urgency, the resolve, of Butler’s and Teasley’s rendition of the Note on Commercial Theatre – especially in comparison to the comparatively reserved intensity of Hughes’s own reading, linked above, is quite possibly one result of that denial and deferment. For thanks in part to the wisdom of Langston Hughes himself, we all know what happens to a dream deferred:



 

To close, a suggestion: Butler’s and Teasley’s entire recital The Voice and the Drum is powerful and compelling. It’s a thing of beauty of an extraordinary sort (their rendition of Wade in the Water is also unforgettable). Why not watch it now?



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