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Highly Opinionated

The Skies Above Us... The Decay Down Below: From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

By Published: March 27, 2008
The Cold War changed civilization, as we know it, forever. The production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction gave us a new and final sensed of mortality—almost like eating forbidden fruit in real life! And this has made us a much more violent society, with a greater propensity to kill. Dr. Thomas' life must have changed forever. But he was much more concerned with us: He put himself in the shoes of a teenager of the time—one of us baby-boomers—and felt certain that we would feel the same sense of horror... "I would know for sure that the whole world was coming unhinged," he concludes. In many ways the reaction of the rap of The Last Poets and Chuck D and Public Enemy was a reaction to the world coming unhinged. (Racism was the precipitating factor). I would be remiss if I did not say that I do not condone the often-expressed demeaning of the woman and the gratuitous sexual and other violence, expressed by rap and hip-hop artists, although I can understand where The Last Poets, Chuck D, and even Tupac was 'coming from.'

I felt the world coming unhinged in the '60s too. The music was saying 'love.' Everything else was saying just the opposite! Woodstock was a case in point. So were the events at Newport. As a student of ancient civilizations, I believed that human history was a record of crime, bloodshed and wars of incredible ferocity. The normal state of man and woman was alienation. People were alienated from each other: There was hatred, lying, injustice, oppression, and open or covert hostility, not to mention ignorance and sheer folly. War after war has drenched the earth in blood and now, our propensity for violence was threatening the very future of the planet.

That feeling of discomfort was sometimes so palpable that I felt my head ready to explode! How could a species whose compassion had enabled it to create definite cures for so many diseases, for instance, and come so close to destroying itself with anger and hatred? Where would I go now, to seek a better understanding of this human conundrum? The psychoanalysts could only explain the phenomenon after the fact. So inevitably I turned to the work of great artists of yesterday, today and tomorrow—all the poets of their individual instruments. Their poems sonic booms from lips or fingertips... But there is a greater significance of their art... and that is the holding up of the mirror to life itself. And in we see the decadence of civilization as seen in Cavafy's poem and Mahler's symphonic poem, the 9th. I remember hearing Charles Mingus' Meditations on Integration for the first time. Something I have never got over, even until today, is that the music touched me in the depths, where no other music had ever reached before.

The long, brooding composition arose out of a newspaper article that Eric Dolphy had read and told Mingus about. According to Mr. Mingus, residential zoning of some kind had become a phenomenon in the South, where they were separating people ..."the blacks and whites... by barbed wire... and how they'd better put some wire-cutters in our hands before someone gave some guns to us..."

One must remember that this was the late '50s... in April 1964, at the Town Hall, New York City... Also Mr. Mingus was reflecting the unfinished business of Civil Rights, shortly before Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and (the) Soledad Brother(s)... and although Mingus was being far more generous than the Panthers would be some years later, the unmitigated sadness of his sentiment was eminently vivid in the music, reflected in the mirror that showed a image of a society shattered by senseless hatred.


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