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Thinking Mingus

By Published: February 15, 2006

I fell into an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbithole of jazz, with no bottom to it and few safe places to rest. There was to be no turning back. I loved it.

"But jazz is decadent bourgeois music," I was told, for that is what the Soviet press had hammered into Russian heads. "It's my music," I said, "and I wouldn't give up jazz for a world revolution."
~ Langston Hughes

"No matter what LeRoi Jones says to the contrary, the essence of this music, this 'way of making music', is not simply protest. Its essence is something far more elemental: an elan vital, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy as breathtaking as that of any true art, that may be felt even in the saddest of blues. Its effect is cathartic... But of course, when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled—slavers, czars, fuhrers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum—then creative energy becomes a protest... That's the way it is...Totalitarian ideologists don't like real life (other people's) because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that, too, evades control—if controlled and legislated, it perishes. But before it perishes—or when it finds refuge in some kind of samizdat underground—art, willy-nilly, becomes protest. Popular art, like jazz, becomes mass protest."
~ Josef Skvorecky, "Red Music" (from the introduction to his novella, The Bass Saxopohone)


(Dedicated to Eric P. and Joe P.)

Not too long ago, a big question was posed to me, in just a few words: Why do I like Mingus so much? It was asked by the teenaged, bass-playing, skateboarding son of the man most responsible for introducing me, almost four decades ago, to the music of Charles Mingus—in fact, to all things good in jazz. I dreaded trying to come up with an answer; at the same time, I couldn't resist the challenge.

Well, why do I like Mingus? I suppose I could talk about his music's energy, its passion—its sheer bigness. But that's not it. Rap has lots of energy and passion, but it's been around for more than 20 years, and it long ago starting sounding redundant to me. Opera certainly has plenty of bigness, but I can't say that any of it moves me very much either.

No, there's something else in Mingus, something more elemental, something that caught me within moments of hearing him for the first time—something that hasn't let go since, that still feels every bit as new, and yet as familiar as it did when I first heard it more than a third of a century ago, early in my freshman year at college.

But I should start before then, when the ground was prepared for the eventual sowing of the jazz seed. It may be a bit of a truism, almost a cliche, to say that Charles Mingus is a complex, many-layered subject, but when I think of Mingus I think of the twisting, bumpy road I took to my fascination with his music.

Preparing the Ground

This story starts when I was 8 or 9 years old, listening to some instrumental rock & roll record or another—I can't remember who, probably some group like the Ventures ("Walk, Don't Run", or some such Duane Eddy-ish guitar-centered romp)—and remarking to my cousin Steve, older than me by eight years, "I don't know why, but I think I like the songs without words the most." I'm sure he just smiled a condescending, older sibling-type smile and went back to his Little Richard and Chuck Berry records (it was around then that he was suspended from high school for singing "Tutti Frutti" in class when the song first came out. His teachers must have thought he was nuts, singing gibberish, and probably assumed he was high on some sinful something or another.)

His father — my uncle and godfather—was a jazz fan. Big band swing, mostly. Sundays, when we'd visit their house, he would frequently have Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall Concert playing—that was one thing he did for himself to relax. I can remember Gene Krupa's drum solo in "Sing Sing Sing" breaking loose from that single, monaural box speaker that Uncle Sam had in the living room (at the time, I thought that the song had something to do with Sing Sing, the prison). This wasn't the music that I heard at home—when my parents listened to records, it was show tunes or Frank Sinatra. Nothing as big as Goodman's orchestra, with Krupa's driving, swinging drum attack.

Three or four years later, Steve came home from college before his mid-term or final exams. He spent what seemed to me an inordinate amount of time studying for those exams—he was a serious student, a regular on the dean's list, and I was only about 11 or 12, so we were in very different worlds, scholastically and otherwise. At one point, he came bounding down the stairs from his room and announced it was time for a "break" (whatever that meant). He told me to pay attention, that this was a necessary part of the studying process. I watched him pull an album off the shelf, slip the vinyl out of its sleeve, and slide it onto the turntable. He turned the sound up loud—loud. When the music started, he jumped into action—dancing and leaping around the room, waving his arms like he was conducting the orchestra, banging on the bookshelves as if they were a keyboard, slapping the counter as if it were drums. I was awe-struck—when I think about it now, I picture myself standing there, speechless, mouth agape, eyes about to jump out of my head. This is what college students do? I was riveted in place watching him (maybe his high school was right, after all, when they suspended him for the "Tutti Frutti incident"). Then, as quickly and unexpectedly as he'd started, he turned off the music, smiled and pushed his hair back with one hand, and went back upstairs to his studies.

I can't remember what album it was. It wasn't rock & roll—I would have remembered something as familiar as that. No, it was something else entirely, and could only have been some high-energy, big band jazz. (I almost want to say it was Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert, but that wouldn't come along for another 10 years. I must connect that particular Ellington album to my cousin's study-break frenzy because that recording had a similar effect on me by the time I got to college.)

But back to my cousin's jazz-soundtracked frenzy. There I was—little baby-faced pre-teen, wondering why I liked instrumental rock & roll better than vocal, hearing Benny Goodman records and knowing it was something different from anything I was hearing anywhere else, and watching my usually fairly staid, serious cousin busting loose over some crazy-ass orchestra music. I didn't know it at the time, but I was hooked—maybe it took a while for the hook to set, but it was there. I was mesmerized by the bait, like a fish that isn't sure if it's hungry enough to bite, but tempted enough to keep close to the lure anyway, only to yield eventually to the inevitable.

From Country to College

By the time I was 13 or 14, I was listening to Country & Western. The deep-voiced storytellers like Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves—and head-over-adolescent-heels infatuated with the young Loretta Lynn. First concert I ever went to was Johnny Cash at the Bushnell Memorial Auditorium in Hartford, Connecticut. Dragged my younger brother there, who I'm sure was bored out of his mind. It was 1964—so Cash was still fairly new to a lot of us in the decidedly non-C&W Northeast. Fortunately, Hartford had a small, but hardcore C&W audience and could attract a major show with this young star. I can still see Cash on the Bushnell stage, singing "Tennessee Flat-top Box", holding his guitar up and behind his head as he sang (which might explain why Jimi Hendrix's stage antics seemed more familiar than exotic to me, years later)—and, of course, "Walk the Line", "Ring of Fire", "Don't Take Your Guns to Town", and the rest. I continued listening to C&W well into high school, causing my friends to think I was completely whacky because I insisted on keeping the car radio tuned to the local C&W radio station (yes, Hartford had its own, dedicated C&W radio station back then—WEXT). And my suburban classmates certainly didn't have a clue as to what to think of my owning albums with titles like "Johnny Cash at San Quentin" and "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison". (Maybe it was a throwback to the days when I thought my uncle was listening to music from Sing Sing?)

By 1966, I was branching out—Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Barry McGuire ("Eve of Destruction"—classic!), and even looking back toward Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Coasters. Then 1967 happened—and I was spending my minimum-wage paychecks on albums by The Doors, Hendrix, and Bob Dylan. I don't think there was much of a transition—it just happened in a blink. My cousin Steve was in his mid-20s by then, teaching high-school in a small, working-class Connecticut town, known primarily for its stock car race track and its proximity to Gene Pitney's hometown. Again, the older-sibling wisdom: Steve told me that once I went away to college, I'd soon be coming home to tell him I was finally listening to "real" music, instead of that "Dylan stuff".

1967 turned into 1968. For me, as with so many others my age, that space of 12 months was a lifetime. So picture this: It's less than two months after my 18th birthday, and I show up at college with maybe 20 or so albums under my arm. Cash, Dylan and Morrison, joined by Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, John Lee Hooker, Barry McGuire, Jimi Hendrix, and a smattering of "Greatest Hits" collections—the Drifters, Coasters, and Animals. A couple records I'd picked up at a flea market in Spain in 1966: a 45rpm with a Spanish rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound"; the other a flimsy EP by a singer named Antoine—just 'Antoine'—billed as sort of a Frenchified Bob Dylan, though I had no idea what the hell he was singing about (I happened to see him again on French TV in 2004—he was still just 'Antoine', he looked like an old Tiny Tim, and I was still just as clueless as to what he was talking about). There were a few other albums in my little collection, which I'd probably be embarrassed about if I could remember them now (could I possibly have even been so precocious—so ambitious, so audacious—as to bring the young Loretta Lynn, unchaperoned no less, into my dorm room?). Country & western, soul, rock & roll, folk rock and just plain rock, proto-Europop... but nothing vaguely resembling even a distant cousin to jazz, in spite of that eclectic smorgasbord—and in spite of the influence of my Uncle Sam and cousin Steven. What I knew about jazz could probably have fit on one side of an old 45rpm record, with room left over for a dozen Top 40 radio commercials.

In contrast, there was my new roommate's LP collection. Dozens of records—had to be more than a hundred, maybe a couple hundred. Most of them not only musicians I'd never heard of—but whole kinds of music I'd never heard or heard of before.

The records that stood out the most were those black-and-orange, double covers from "Impulse!"—you knew just looking at the packaging that whatever was on the record had to be heavy duty. And clearly, from the frequency that my roommate played them, those "Impulse!" albums were particularly precious to him. John Coltrane. Charles Mingus. Archie Shepp. Oliver Nelson. Who were these guys?

At some point I must have asked him about this strange, new (to me) music because one day, as he was leaving the dorm room, he invited me to spend some time just riffling through the albums to get to know what they were all about. It was more than an invitation—it felt like a necessary rite of passage of some kind. And I was more than happy to partake. So, alone in the room, I sat myself down on the floor in front of his shelf-full of albums, and spent the afternoon pulling one after another of these mysterious, serious, ponderous, wondrous Halloween-colored packets off the shelf and playing them—a few minutes of Coltrane (here was the passion!), a few of Archie Shepp (the energy!); now some Oliver Nelson (the bigness!). And there were others, not just the weighty "Impulse!" label: there were Blue Note, Verve, Prestige, even some more familiar-looking specimens from Columbia and Atlantic. Eric Dolphy, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie. I was falling into an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbithole of jazz, with no bottom to it and few safe places to rest—an unending whirlwind of wailing and whispering trumpets; crying, honking saxophones; dancing, pounding pianos; walloping, galloping drums; rumbling, thundering basses; screaming voices; chaotic (or dangerously close to it, it seemed to me) orchestras...

I loved it. There was no turning back now. I was lost, and never wanted to be found. Wandered off the trail and into the forest, embarking on an adventure that hasn't grown tired in the more than three decades since—nor do I expect it to lose an iota of its excitement for decades to come.

Thinking Mingus

All of which is a long setup for the answer to that simple little question: why do I like Mingus?

Maybe the answer is better related by imagining a scene that might have been played out by the musicians performing Mingus' music. Picture this, as you think about which Mingus LP or CD to listen to next:

Some of the players sit, some stand around on the stage, as if carelessly thrown there by an indifferent chessplayer or puppeteer. The pianist is slouched over the keyboard, his spine slack as he glances off to the side at the drinking audience, sleepily scanning the smoky crowd—maybe he's looking for someone he knows, maybe he's looking for tonight's new lady friend, maybe he's thinking about what he ate for lunch. Hornplayers talk quietly, occasionally punctuating the conversation by swinging a trumpet or a saxophone at the end of an extended arm; the drummer watches the pianist's attention wander, and silently wills him back from all distractions beyond the keyboard.

Then there's the Big Man, himself. Face nearly buried between the broad shoulders hiding behind the bass, he commands the scene if only by the sheer bulk of the instrument that seems to be holding him up. This is Mingus.

The Big Man takes a long, slow breath—as if exhausted just at the thought of what he is about to embark upon, or tired of bringing the same sermon yet again to a crowd of people who just won't listen—and without looking up or making a sound, somehow he cues the musicians to snap to and remember why they are here.

The players begin. The pace is slow at first, as if the curtain is still rising on a play already in progress or as if the band is still approaching from a block away. The musicians sound hesitant; they know the song but seem not quite sure where it's going to go—this time. Maybe they're just a bit apprehensive of where it might take them, but they're ready for the ride anyway. What've they got to lose? They know that wherever the Big Man takes them, it's bound to be a hell of a ride.

The musicians soon shed their hesitancy, and one-by-one they begin to fall into a pattern together. But still holding it somewhat in check, like a puppy on a short leash. They know they're being set up, that Mingus is the one pulling them along; they are the puppy; they're the puppets who are fully aware of their strings. They follow his direction, but won't take their eyes off him just yet. And the music follows.

Then, without warning, puppet strings and leashes are suddenly dropped. You expect to hear the hollow clatter of puppets falling to the wooden stage in complete disarray, or the frenzied clatter of startled puppy claws on the floor—but instead, you look around through the noise and see that each one of the players is standing on his own. The puppets are all in complete control. Impossible, but there it is. And they're swinging! This is Mingus.

The initial shock is really just a result of the listener's own mistaken expectations. Sometimes there is a very definite pattern barely hiding beneath the surface of what some might consider "noise", or "chaos". The players aren't the ones being set up—they were in on the joke right from the start. They play the straight man; the audience takes the fall guy's role. And Mingus is engineering the whole scene, choreographing every move—from the arrangement of the musicians on the stage to the arrangement of the notes they play, even to the emotions and reactions of the audience itself.

The next step is for the individuals to step out, each soloing in turn, or weaving several solos into and around each other; it's their time to show that each of them is as much a part of that act as any of the others. It's as if each solo is saying, "Listen, man—this is what I can do. Ain't nobody around can do it better! But if you think this is good, let me step aside now so you can see what my buddy over there can do. Take it, brother!"

Finally—and I always thought this was the Mingus master-stroke—after several rhythmic and melodic elements have been laid out by soloists and pairings of instruments, he melds and weaves them together into a cohesive body of group-solo. "Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul" is a perfect example (especially the version on MingusMingusMingusMingusMingus). "Pithecanthropus Erectus" too—give it a chance, let it take you. One by one, the horn lines in "Pithecanthropus" combine into an intricately entwined chorus that speaks with so many concurrent voices that I once tried listening just to count the instrumental voices—and lost count every time. Maybe there's fewer than half a dozen voices in the mix, but somehow, when a Mingus-led group plays, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its parts. Greater even than the product of its parts. This is Mingus.

Another stroke of the Big Man's genius is the visuals rolled into the music. But his music does more than just paint a picture—it's the script for a movie. A movie bigger than any cinema screen. It's proof of the complete control he could wield even in the midst of the most frenetic improvisation. That might sound self-contradictory, but check out how he makes "Foggy Day in London" his own. Listen to it with your eyes closed. Picture the little jazz-man walking alone through the streets of a crowded city, hands stuffed inside the pockets of a rumpled trenchcoat, surrounded by people in a hurry, car horns blasting, sirens, running feet, high heels clicking past, snarled traffic jams alternating with speeding cars, stop-and-go noise, stop-and-go, stop-and-go. And through it all, here's our little jazz-man bopping his way along, oblivious to the whole city frenzy. Nothing is going to break the pace he's set for himself—a pace totally apart from the scene around him.

Then go back to "Pithecanthropus" and this time follow the progress of the ape-protagonist (the London jazz-man's ancestor?). It's easy to imagine the whole scope of human evolution being told in "Pithecanthropus", complete with its starts and stops, failures and dead ends, triumphs and redirections. Every stage punctuated by the same theme of violent upheaval on the verge of chaos, but each time coalescing triumphantly onto a whole new level. It's a story with the promise of something transcendent, accompanied by the ever-present threat of total annihilation. This is Mingus.

With "Pithecanthropus"—as with his "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" and its sudden flamenco guitar interruptions and Spanish horn riffs (representing, as he said, the Spanish Inquisition)—the questions seem to be: Does mankind learn anything in the transition from one stage to the other? Or will we keep pushing things to their limit until the time comes that we do it one time too many, and the whole thing falls into real chaos? Must we endure total annihilation before reaching some kind of redemption?

Or maybe he's telling us that it's only our own fears—those mistaken expectations again—that make us think that one of these days we really will sail our ships right off the edge of the world. Through it all, there's Mingus—the Big Man dancing along the world's edge with his music, leaping around at the very boundaries and peering down into the blackness every now and then, to look back up and report to us not only what he's seen there, but that he (and we) haven't fallen in. At least, not yet.

This is Mingus

It takes a lot of energy to assimilate a man like Mingus, or his music (if the two can be separated). Just as he does with individual pieces, he carries the listener along until you think you know what he's doing—and then he pulls the rug out from under you. Or he starts by throwing you over the edge into the abyss, and you fall and fall until you think all is lost—and suddenly there he is, waiting for you by the side of the road, with an outstretched hand and a smile.

I've tried many times to write down my thoughts on Mingus, and each time I've had a whole different impression, a whole different outlook and take on him. About the only common, consistent thought is that the more I listen to his music, the more I discover and the more I like it. Liner notes on his albums tell us that he invented no new musical forms, but I think there should be a new entry in the jazz dictionary—along with Dixieland and swing, stride and bebop, maybe we should add Mingus.

Mingus.

Mingus. The name alone sounds almost ominous. And his face—like an unsmiling Buddha. Like Buddha, he's seen things few people ever see; unlike Buddha though, his vision never gave him any peace.

His life as a Black American jazz musician was filled with the frustrations and outright oppression that have been visited upon nearly all of Black America ever since they were first seen as "Other", brought to America as slaves and considered soulless animals at best, and as beasts of burden and scapegoats at worst. But Mingus couldn't just roll with the punches and accept it as "the way things are around here". Nor would he give up. "Escape" and "complacency" were two words you wouldn't find in his vocabulary. It would be hard, if not impossible, to picture Charles Mingus nodding away in a drug haze among the wasted musicians in Jack Gelbar's play, "The Connection" (a sort of bebop "Waiting for Godot", where a group of musicians—and eventually, the camera man shooting the movie—spend most of each scene rationalizing their need to shoot heroin as they wait for the unnamed connection to show up with a fresh batch of dope). Sure, he had more than his share of personal demons, but he was definitely a force of nature that wouldn't be stopped.

Mingus fought back in every way that he could—there was no division, no wall between his vision and his voice, his struggle and his music. He called himself a "crazy nigger", because only a crazy man would have the chutzpa to keep getting back up after every savage beat-down for as many years as he did—and continue speaking out without losing his train of thought.

There are so many sides to Mingus. The same man responsible for "Haitian Fight Song" (eventually renamed "Afro-American Fight Song" to make it all the more topical), "Fables of Faubus" and "Meditations on Integration", was also the composer of lyrical, moving love ballads, like "Celia", "I X Love", and of celebrations of childhood, like "Hora Decubitis". His songs of love aren't necessarily bitter or cynical. This "crazy nigger" saw no contradiction between being tough guy and tender lover, firebrand and clown. This "angry young man" was not afraid to be gentle and quietly sensitive. Sure, there are any number of people, whether musicians or otherwise, who can be eloquent in their anger; and even more whose talents lie primarily in the composition of love ballads. But there are precious few who can stand with one foot planted firmly at each extreme. There is no middle ground for these geniuses. They expend the energy of any six giants every time they create or re-create a piece of music. This is Mingus.

And this is Mingus: the Big Man who blew up the world several times in "Pithecanthropus" and "Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atom Bomb on Me"; who waged war with "Afro-American Fight Song" and preached a "Prayer for Passive Resistance"; who told us to "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" and then invited us to "Eat That Chicken". A man who could be fiercely proud of the tears in his eyes when he spoke of love, real love, passion between real people—not a Flower-Power kind of shallow, empty love. An angry man, and a proud man, who could cry with no shame at all and laugh with every fiber of his soul. Maybe the anger in his music is for those people who are afraid to cry, who are afraid to say "love". It's all there, in his music. This is Mingus.

Like so few others, he will never be gone from our world. I would like to think that Harry Haller, Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, would have readily counted Mingus among the "Immortals", along with Beethoven and Mozart.

This is Mingus. And this is why I love Mingus.

Any more questions?

Photo Credit
In order of appearance: Lee Tanner, Hans Kumpf, Karlheinz Klüter, and Phocus Agency

Painting by John Froehlich



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