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 fearsthose mistaken expectations againthat 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 Mingusthe 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 doingand 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 lostand 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 dictionaryalong with Dixieland and swing, stride and bebop, maybe we should add Mingus.
Mingus. The name alone sounds almost ominous. And his facelike 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 musiciansand eventually, the camera man shooting the moviespend 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 couldthere 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 didand continue speaking out without losing his train of thought.