Langston Hughes, renowned poet, novelist, playwright, essayist and songwriter, was a significant contributor to the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance that in the early part of the last century transformed the upper New York City community into the nation’s Black cultural and literary capital. Often called “the bard of Harlem,” Hughes wrote in a lyrical style, at times as complicated as a John Coltrane solo, at times as simple as a nursery rhyme, at times as haunting as a Billie Holiday song, but always beautiful and swinging like a Duke Ellington composition.
When not traveling, Hughes did most of his writing in his Harlem brownstone located on a quiet tree-lined block at 20 East 127th Street. Over the years following the poet’s death in 1967, the brownstone changed hands several times. Today, the house is jumping once more with creativity, thanks to pianist-composer Marc Cary, Shon “Chance” Miller, M.C., poet and producer, and Jana Herzen, president of Motema Music, who recently rented and renovated Hughes House.
“We had been looking for a smaller space and this just fell into place,” says Cary. “We never imagined we would be in the house of Langston Hughes.”
The goals of Cary, Miller and Herzen are as inspiring as Hughes’ writings. They have turned the house into a studio-gallery-performance space; the offices of a production company also call the brownstone home. The first floor, which serves as the gallery and performance space, boasts a brand-new Fazioli piano, one of the world’s most expensive handmade instruments. A state-of-the-art multi-track recording studio is housed on the second floor.
“This great space offers us the opportunity to all work together,” Miller says. “We make and create the music on one floor; package, promote and market the music on another; and perform on the first floor.” They also have the capability to set up live webcasts.
Cary and Miller say they are using the space to feature “new cats that have something to say … artists who have new material and want to express their individual creativity.” Cary recently released his debut album, Focus, named after his trio, featuring bassist David Ewell and Sameer Gupta on drums and tablas, in a series of spirited jazz concepts. He and Miller formed the XR (Cross Rhodes) Project, whose debut release, Abstrakt Blak, is an explosive combination of jazz, hip-hop, spoken word, R&B, Go-Go and Afro-Caribbean music.
“This CD takes you to the here and now as it relates to the struggles, hard work and genius put forth by our forefathers,” says Miller. “This is our interpretation of the new Harlem Renaissance.” Both Abstrakt Blak and Focus were released on Motema Music.
The steps leading up to the building are painted green. Inside, the walls bear photos of Hughes, framed personal letters, proclamations Hughes received over the years and handwritten music with lyrics. You can almost feel the bard’s joyful spirit wandering about, observing the new scene.
The Hughes House presents open mike poetry on Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. and a youth jazz series featuring Hughes House Youth Ensemble and special guests on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. The house is open for school field trips every other Wednesday. Reservations are required. For more information on Hughes House and live performances, call the 212-927-3413 or visit the Web site at www.thehugheshouse.org.