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Mingus Speaks

John Goodman By

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Mingus on the Avant-Garde and Tradition

Here's Charles Mingus talking about two of his favorite subjects, the avant-garde pretenders and the need for jazz players to understand the traditions of their music. The excerpt is from my book Mingus Speaks (2013, University of California Press). —John F Goodman

Mingus: Everybody's got ego and everybody who lives in a human body thinks they're better than another guy. Even if a guy's considered to be a nigger in the South and the white man says he's better, if the guy's on his own and creating, he says, "Man, I'm better than that guy." I got a tenor player (I won't call his name) wanted to be in my band a long time, and he can't play. But when the people see him, he's moving like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane at the same time and, man, they clap, and he ain't played shit. And so I know that he feels, "Hey look, Mingus, I moved the people, you saw that. Why don't you hire me?"

I try to explain, "Well, I don't move no people like that, man, that's not what I'm here to do. I guess I could kick my leg up too, spin my bass," and he don't believe me so I do it, do the Dixieland, spin the bass and they clap. I mean that's showmanship, but this is supposed to be art. I mean the only time they Uncle Tom in classical is when they bow, you know those classic bows, the way they had, man? Especially the women, opera singers, that crazy bow [curtsy] when they get down to their knees? They had some class.

You know, anybody can bullshit, excuse my expression, and most avant-garde people are bullshitting. But Charlie Parker didn't bullshit. He played beautiful music within those structured chords. He was a composer, man, that was a composer. It's like Bach. Bach is still the most difficult music written, fugues and all. Stravinsky is nice, but Bach is how buildings got taller. It's how we got to the moon, through Bach, through that kind of mind that made that music up. That's the most progressive mind. It didn't take primitive minds or religious minds to build buildings. They tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof. (They also led us to sell goof.)

...One thing I'd like to clear up a little more in case I haven't is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. The movements—like you remember Moten Swing? Count Basie swing is another swing. And Jimmie Lunceford had another swing. Remember Jimmy's band? The two-four rock [demonstrates]. Well, man, there should be a school set up where all those styles and movements are exposed to the students, and they find their medium, what is closest to them, and come out with that. I don't mean copy that, I mean they should be able to copy it and then find themselves, as most composers do in classical music. Find which one they like and that's where they are, through direction.

You think about it, man, even the guys in jungles, they weren't just born as a baby and picked up a drum. Their daddy taught them how to play drums, to send messages and all that. "Somebody's talking something." They heard it and loved it, went and fooled with it for a while, and daddy would say, "Well, here's how you do that, son."

They didn't just say, "I'm Jesus born here, hand me a drum, baby; lay a flute on me, run me a clarinet next; now I'm gonna play a little bass. Where's Jascha Heifitz' violin? I'll play that for you, better than him. When we get through, hand me Isaac Stern's." Yeah, that's where the guys are today: "Give me a violin and I'll play it for you. Jascha played it, I'll play it too."

And intelligent people still listen to this crap, man. I don't want to be fooled anymore: I know when I'm out of tune, and I've done it intentionally and watch critics applaud. And that's when avant-garde has gone too far. "Let's see, here's a B-flat seventh. I'll change the chord from a B-flat major seventh, I've got an A-natural in B-flat; I'm gonna play a B-natural." And I'll get applause for it. Well, on the major seventh chord, that's the wrong note. Now if the chord was not a major seventh and was a B-flat cluster, and if the chord is a row, then I can play all the notes. But [not on] a major seventh. I can play wrong notes in a chord if I want to sound wrong and have a clown band like—what's that guy had a clown band? Shoots guns and all that?—Spike Jones. If you want to say Spike Jones is avant-garde, then we got some avant-garde guys playing, some Spike Joneses.

Goodman: Only he made music.

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