Thinking Mingus

Bill Siegel By

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I fell into an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbithole of jazz, with no bottom to it and few safe places to rest. There was to be no turning back. I loved it.
"But jazz is decadent bourgeois music," I was told, for that is what the Soviet press had hammered into Russian heads. "It's my music," I said, "and I wouldn't give up jazz for a world revolution."
~ Langston Hughes

"No matter what LeRoi Jones says to the contrary, the essence of this music, this 'way of making music', is not simply protest. Its essence is something far more elemental: an elan vital, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy as breathtaking as that of any true art, that may be felt even in the saddest of blues. Its effect is cathartic... But of course, when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled—slavers, czars, fuhrers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum—then creative energy becomes a protest... That's the way it is...Totalitarian ideologists don't like real life (other people's) because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that, too, evades control—if controlled and legislated, it perishes. But before it perishes—or when it finds refuge in some kind of samizdat underground—art, willy-nilly, becomes protest. Popular art, like jazz, becomes mass protest."
~ Josef Skvorecky, "Red Music" (from the introduction to his novella, The Bass Saxopohone)

(Dedicated to Eric P. and Joe P.)

Not too long ago, a big question was posed to me, in just a few words: Why do I like Mingus so much? It was asked by the teenaged, bass-playing, skateboarding son of the man most responsible for introducing me, almost four decades ago, to the music of Charles Mingus—in fact, to all things good in jazz. I dreaded trying to come up with an answer; at the same time, I couldn't resist the challenge.

Well, why do I like Mingus? I suppose I could talk about his music's energy, its passion—its sheer bigness. But that's not it. Rap has lots of energy and passion, but it's been around for more than 20 years, and it long ago starting sounding redundant to me. Opera certainly has plenty of bigness, but I can't say that any of it moves me very much either.

No, there's something else in Mingus, something more elemental, something that caught me within moments of hearing him for the first time—something that hasn't let go since, that still feels every bit as new, and yet as familiar as it did when I first heard it more than a third of a century ago, early in my freshman year at college.

But I should start before then, when the ground was prepared for the eventual sowing of the jazz seed. It may be a bit of a truism, almost a cliche, to say that Charles Mingus is a complex, many-layered subject, but when I think of Mingus I think of the twisting, bumpy road I took to my fascination with his music.


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