The complex harmonies--dissonant in their symmetry. The surprising shifts in rhythm. all contributed to the wondrous narrative of the music. And of course, all this captured exquisitely wrapped in the mercurial character of Mingus.
In the act and art of writingwhether word or music, prose or poetry, a writer is almost completely lost in the creative challenge; the adventure that unfolds as words or notes start to appear on the page or in between the lines and spaces of a score sheetboth of which start off blankis both exciting and terrifying. Perhaps this is why the so-called 'jazz' musician AND the subject of my by-now-infamous manuscriptCharles Mingus considered himself a vessel through which ideas poured in by divine intervention.
The 'music' came from God, so to speak. And he just interpreted it as he heard it, but to perfection, mostly at the bass or piano all his life, until the end whenstricken with non-Hodgkin's Lymphomahe 'noodled' his musical ideas into a tape recorder. Perhaps as a result of this belief, he was a demanding boss, berating his musicians to interpret the music as HE heard it. In performance too, he was known to care little for audiences especially the ones who considered his concerts social events. Mingus often ceased a performance mid-composition, if and when audiences were not giving the music complete and undivided attention and lectured them with an evangelical fervor that belied his gospel roots.
It was no different for me when I packed in my research for my BIG Mingus Bookas I called my work in progress, deciding that like the music of my subject, that was exactly what it would be: A book that would shatter 'the predictable' and challenge the reader to 'hear' Mingus' music and moods; his cry for recognition amid racism; his failures and ultimate triumpheven though most readers would least expect it in a book about musician, who went unrecognized until the very end of his life. So even before writing a page, I entitled this book, The Unfinished ScoreThe Complete Works of Charles Mingus. Of course I knew very well that it would be never really be complete, even after the 15 years it took me to 'complete'. Perhaps 'put to bed' would be a better way to describe bringing something to fruition. You would think...
Now I had to deal with the fact that in Canada, my new home, I had nothing. My only significant published work had been in India, the Mid East, where I created the first English language for Sony Entertainment and in the US.
More precisely, my poetry was first featured in the prestigious pages of the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India, IN 1974. Then came a book published together with two other poets, simply called 3 Poets as an affront to the establishment in Bombayincluding the likes of the Oxford University Press, Cambridge Press and Penguin Booksthen part of a so-called colonial publishing empire and known to thumb their noses at emerging writers, as a colonial publishing industry is wont to do!
We sold 500 copies of our book by direct mail, held our own poetry readings and ended up a fairly successful independent publishing house in its own right. Later my poems found their way into the exotica of the 70s and the 80s: anthologies of 'Indian Writing in English' 'Indo-Portuguese/Indo-Anglian' poetry! How quaint and how revolting these categories were! But I was happy to be published at ant rate.
The University of Michigan at Ann Arbour published one such anthology and the only copy I had was lost to a flood one monsoon in the 1980s. But most of the books were so esoteric that you had to 'Google' to find if they existed or were out of print. I also found Journal of Commonwealth LiteratureIndia (Ed. Narayan, 1979), Modern Indian Poetry (Bruce King, OUP 1987), Literary Cultures in HistoryReconstructions from South Asia (Ed. Sheldon Pollock, Univ. of California Press, 2003) and a website that has translations of my poetry into the Norwegian, of all languages! Flattering? Perhaps, but it would have been better to know which of the poems have been translated. And no one asked for my permission to translate the poetry. Perhaps the translators assumed that I was dead a quarter of a centuryor moreago! Penguin (India) did ask my permission to include a poem of mine in a textbook for a degree course in English, but I have yet to see the book. And that was in 2003! It would have been the last straw that broke the camel's back, but for the fact that I continued to be consumed by my other inheritance: Music.
And so, fade to sepia...
In 1960, I had begun the study of Theory and Pianoforte at Trinity College of Music, London. My aunt, the first and only teacher I ever had, discerned in me a talent worthy of further recognition and so I began formal study of music almost as soon as I could read English with fluency. My family's first language was Portuguese, so understanding the Latin instructions written into the music by its composers was came easily as well. Within a few years, as I progressed quite rapidly, and with excellent grades, I developed a head full of baroque, romantic, classical and modern impressionistic music.
Johan Sebastian Bach, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt, and the modernistsAntonin Dvorak, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky...Their names echoed like epiphanies in my head in my waking moments. I studied, performed, lived and breathed their music. I dreamed of performing in the concert halls of Londonlike the Royal Albert Hall, where my aunt, the great pianist Olga Crean, had become the first coloured woman to play solo in concert in the 40s. Until, that is, my late father introduced me to the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong via a vinyl copy of 'Paris Blues'.
I was seduced by the tone and texture of what I heard. I begged my father for more and he obliged surreptitiously! Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and a few others became staple diet. I was drawn to the bass and drum conversationsthe pedal point and ostinato statements. Walter Page's walking bass lines for Basie and Jimmy Blanton's majestic harmonics with early 40s Ellingtonia...
Then my fatherthe creative engineer that he wasgave me the ultimate gift that any boy obsessed with an instrument could have: he built me a double bass! I returned the compliment, attempting to imitate the licks of Jimmy Blanton and Wellman Braud well into the nightwhen I was not playing Beethoven and Mozart! I knew that something in me was changing. I was being drawn to the blues of jazz like an irresistible heartache. Not long after I heard Bird and Dizzy; Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk...I was taken to a concert featuring the Ellington band of the 60s. I heard Satchmo and wished that I could have jumped on stage to hold onto his horn as he wiped the beads of sweat off his brow between songs...My mind was made up. This was now my music. And so I committedaccording to my teachers at the conservatoirethe ultimate blasphemy by abandoning my classical studies and began to study jazz harmony and composition.
By this time I was twelve years old. My fingers were becoming strong and moving faster.
I was also a practising poet who dreamed a changing dream. One day I woke up a disciple of Keats, the next day an acolyte of Dante, Villon and Shakespeare...Yeats, William Carlos Williamsfinally Pound. I was precocious; even started a magazine with two other poets when establishment journals refused to publish my always-experimental work. To support myself, I took up work as a proofreader in an advertising agency. I paid my way through University, finally acquiring a Bachelor's Degree in World History, and because I was disillusioned with history as documented in text books, changed my major for my Master's degree from History to the Romance Languages, acquiring that degree finally in the Classics. Two years later (as I mentioned at the very beginning of this article) I published my first collection of poems.
Still...I had no idea of what was coming down the turnpike!
One day, just past the New Year of '74, I walked into a second hand record store. There I found a record that was to change my life yet again, this time, seemingly forever. This record was 'The Town Hall Concert' by Charles Mingus (with Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Clifford Jordan and Dannie Richmond...) The vinyl issue was the one on which Mingus performedto my mindhis magnum opus: 'Meditations on Integration'.
It was this work that set me on a decades-long voyage of discovery of Charles Mingus: the man, his music and ultimately his life.
In his introduction to the performance, Mingus explained to his Town Hall audience, that he was inspired to write the piece by something that Eric Dolphy had told him...about how 'they were separating people down South...the blacks and whites...with barbed wire...and how they had better put some wire-cutters in our hands, before somebody gives some guns to us...'
And then he launchedwith some of the most exquisitely expressive arco bass playing, into his brooding composition about the deep-rooted racism under the skies of America. Byard joined him in the introduction on piano, his alter ego Dannie Richmond sizzling on his various cymbals and the great Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.
The complex harmoniesdissonant in their symmetry...The surprising shifts in rhythm...all contributed to the wondrous narrative of the music. And of course, all this captured exquisitely wrapped in the mercurial character of Mingus. Elementally sad and then joyful with but a moment's notice...then empathetic, with suffering greater than his own...explosive anger at Man's inability to recognize the individuality and separateness of every human being. But above all, what came through at every turn was Mingus' immense and limitless ability to love; and in that love, to forgive all trespasses against his race. Yes, I heard this the (as now) all in that ten minutes or so of music, by one of America's greatest musicians and composersCharles Mingus. So I decided to pursue study of the man, His music and his life as it unfolded from a myriad sources.
Mingus was different. It is true he evolved from the great Duke Ellington, but he leapt much further as a man and as a musician.
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