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What is Jazz?

Shawn McGrew By

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Some say jazz keeps one foot planted in tradition while the other seeks new footwear, or maybe a warm bath and some talcum. If that's true then Charles Mingus must surely be a case in point.

Mingus, a socially conscious musician and bandleader, wasn't content to repeat Jimmy Blanton's advances or rest on his laurels after making a name for himself. As evidence, listen to Pithecanthropus Erectus in general and "A Foggy Day" in particular which hints at what Ornette Coleman would develop a few years later. But did Mingus' invention look backward to tradition? Of course it did! Perhaps it's easier to illustrate with a facet of Mingus' genius that didn't revolve around music.

The truly creative mind is not content to assay a single segment of life's bounty. No, genius takes many forms and so Charles Mingus developed and marketed a genuinely beneficial novelty, the "Cat-alog" toilet training kit. With a surprisingly simple device coupled with printed instructions, common cats could be trained to squat like common humans over common porcelain cheese wheel-like donickers (toilets). I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking; "Sure that was creative. Yes, that is a significant leap over kitty litter, but how is it related to tradition?" Well, in a number of ways. The Cat-alog didn't arrive from a vacuum; no, it was built upon old-fashioned cat box/litter techniques that came before. More than this, Mingus was undoubtedly aware of Louis Armstrong's wondrous scat singing...

Webster's online dictionary tells us the origin of "scat" is unknown. While this may be so, it's difficult to ignore the likelihood of scat being a foreshortened form of "scatology," or having to do with excrement. Nor could it have been beyond Mingus' grasp that scat is, linguistically speaking anyway, "cat" with an "s."

Now I ask you, does this not describe the essence of creativity? And does this not also define the soul of jazz?

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