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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 music opens in a minor key, reflecting the dynamic tension of social reality. Mingus makes his way arco, expressively, majestically through the front end of the theme—a brooding examination of civil rights depicted in the senseless segregation by colour. The sadness is immense, like thick grey smoke that hovers gloomily in the sky above us. It is the pieta sung in the idiom of jazz. No bass had ever sounded so elementally sad, capturing the mood of the inhumanity towards a people no different than their white counterparts in society. Mingus was joined in statements of theme and narrative by the explorative piano at the hands of Jaki Byard, the heartfelt cry of Dannie Richmond's cymbals searing through the heat of the theme... and all this is capped by the mournful wail of a people denied as the melody is sung at the lips of Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet and flute. The mood of the music never becomes hugely uplifting because there was no resolution to the social conflict. But in subsequent movements—originally dubbed 'prayers,' by the composer, the music reaches a sort of de'nouement driven by Mingus' abrupt shifts in rhythm and propulsion in the ensemble passages. Like so much music of the era, a resolution is suggested for reflection: in this case, "how they'd better put some wire-cutters in our hands, before someone gives some guns to us."

I would be hesitant to judge Mingus' motives, but I believe that I know intimately that his music suggests only love in the end. This is a kind of child-like imagined love, the kind you experience when so crushed by the weight of hatred thrust upon some of us, we begin to imagine just the opposite. Yes, imagining love! (Mingus' greatest work—one he was not able to perform in his lifetime suggests this: in Epitaph (Columbia, 1990) indicates that there was some sort of resolution to hatred in Mingus' world, but it is tinged by sadness as this did not happen to his world until his time was passed. So tragic that this is suggested by the inevitable perception of an artist examining the progress of our civilization as late as in the '50s and early '60s!

Then in early 1970, we hear, reflected in the deep indigo dish of the sky, a colourful harmolodic excursion of some 200 years of history... a sonic continuum, a single unbroken work in one long movement. Skies of America (Columbia, 1972), was a colossal work from Ornette Coleman's revolutionary pen.

He had spent a night in the open, he said, beneath the starry sky in Montana and had participated in (ironically) sacred Crow Indian rites. Speaking with Richard Williams in 1971, Coleman said these rites inspired Skies. "I feel that everything that has happened in America, from way before the Europeans arrived is still intact as far as the sky is concerned." This sounds like an ominous reminder that the all-seeing eye of God was casting a look upon his creation. As the music suggests, things were still not looking good.

In this concerto grosso Coleman used polytonal harmolodic colour and percussion to depict the vision of turmoil down below. Expressed in slow lines and flatted chords by the orchestra, the sky remains eternal and unmoved, but not untroubled. It opens and closes and returns to the forefront several times during the course of the piece. Down below, musical vignettes describe the lives of the civilization: appearing happy, angry, sorrowing, loving—and above all—active. Coleman's saxophone enters at dawn, a shrill, tortured soulful expression of the plight of "The Artist in America." In a driving, polytonal streaking passage, Coleman the eventfulness of the murderous life under a now blood-red sky. The vision is Whitmanesque in scope, embracing the ambiguities and tensions of modern life. It covers the tragic violence of the Vietnam War, but more importantly suggests the unfinished revolution in Civil Rights—something Mingus and many artists before him were tortured by as well.

It is unfortunate that Civil Rights are still an unfinished business, even today. But now we are grappling also with the impending loss of something even more basic and frightening: The loss of Humanity... The two wars that are being fought thousands of miles away are promoting more hatred under the skies of America than we can ever imagine. In Charlie Haden's Not in Our Name (Verve, 2005) wasting resources, killing thousands and destroying whatever little beauty is left of our global civilization.

Haden declared his purpose, as he so often does, in the manifesto in his notes: "We were hoping sanity and justice would prevail. They lost out to greed, cruelty and injustice. The machine won the election again by hook and by crook: The way it won in 2000.

"We want the world to know, however, that the devastation that this administration is wreaking is not in our name. It's not in the name of many people in this country.


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