charles-mingus

To say that Charles Mingus was an eclectic character would be a significant understatement. His fame as a composer and performer is paralleled only by his reputation as the Angry Man of Jazz: prone to – and battling with – clinical depression throughout several decades, Mingus led a life studded with anecdotes detailing a stern and quick-tempered personality, both on and off the stage. His proverbial fits of temper often entailed a sudden interruption of his gigs, with the composer erupting, without notice, into actual violence toward fellow musicians or, in some cases, against members of the audience. Other occasions, instead, saw him abruptly dismissing his entire band mid-performance, himself included. The complexity and irascibility of Mingus’ character was particularly evident in his relation to the music industry, too: when, due to poor sales of the 1963 masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Impulse! Records refused to increase Mingus’ weekly paycheck, producer Bob Thiele arrived one day at work only to find a knife stabbed in his chair, together with the message “where the fuck is my money? Mingus”. Once in 1959, when Mingus was signed to Columbia Records, he even stormed in the accounting department of the label, brandishing a shotgun and vehemently claiming unpaid royalties.

In any case, attributing Mingus’ controversial behaviour to his declining mental health is probably a stark oversimplification, as much of his attitude is profoundly informed by a proud and uncompromising plea for artistic integrity and even his most excessive outcries against the music industry can be re-evaluated if put in the right context, namely one of tremendous inequality, race segregation and complex identity relations. What appears evident, in any case, based on a close examination of Mingus’ artistic output, his engagement with contemporary musical landscape and tradition, as well as his own biography, are a sense of direction and a feeling of purpose, a passionate – and often desperate – attempt to deploy wider commentaries via an unconventional and ever-evolving aesthetic form. As critic Gary Giddins aptly pointed out in his book Visions of Jazz, Mingus was “the most persistently apocalyptic voice” of this genre. He “was the black-music experience in the United states”. This is because Mingus’ music is inherently political and its “hybridization, its questing after form, its improvisation, competitiveness, impertinence, outrage, intellectualization, joy, emotionalism, bitterness, comedy, parody and frustration” reflect the complexity of a socio-political discourse, which the composer never shied away from, but, instead, confronted with full force, impeccable clarity and a hint of cynicism.

Born on April 22nd, 1922, in Nogales, AZ, Charles Mingus was confronted with the problematic issue of racial characterization ever since his own birth, due to the rather unorthodox character of his descent: his father, in fact, was a former army officer of African and Swedish parentage, while his mother, Harriet, who died when Charles was only a few months old, had Chinese and African-American parents. The juxtaposition of these ancestry traits made it virtually impossible, for Mingus, to identify himself as belonging to any specific group. In his 1971 memoir Beneath the Underdog, he explicitly stated: “I am Charles Mingus. Half-Black man, Yellow man… Half-Yellow… Not even Yellow, not even white enough to pass for nothing but black, and not too light to be called white”. Upon moving to Los Angeles, however, it immediately became clear that Mingus’ life would come to be inseparably associated with the experience of African-American communities. A particularly significant episode, in this sense, took place when Charles was attacked by a group of Mexican kids, who insisted on calling him a “nigger”. While, therefore, the social context of Los Angeles in the 1930s imposed a notion of blackness upon him, Mingus never perceived himself as such, but somehow suspended among a plethora of racial characterizations, ultimately labelling himself an underdog, namely “a kind of mongrel… Not light enough to belong to the almost-white élite and not dark enough to belong with the beautiful elegant blacks. There really was no skin color exactly like his”. Therefore, while growing up in the neighborhood of Watts, he felt “persecuted by the white man and the black man”, consequently deciding to “hang out with the outcasts”, the Japanese, Mexicans, Greeks, Italians and Jews.

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Music, however, represented an excellent form of escapism. Having initially picked the trombone and proved to be an excellent cello player, Mingus moved on to play the bass as a teenager and soon proceeded to build an impressive curriculum. Already in the 1940s, he performed as a regular sideman with Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory and, having moved to New York in 1951, he frequently appeared in bands fronted by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Bud Powell. In 1956, he started his own outfit, an ever-changing ensemble of experimental musicians called The Jazz Workshop, that contributed to the recording of some of Mingus’ most memorable albums, as well as countless live performances. The Workshop’s repertoire exhibits a wide variety of influences, ranging from Duke Ellington to African-American gospel music, from Mexican folk music to Thelonious Monk, from Haitian traditional songs to New Orleans jazz. Yet, just as Mingus’ own profile eludes any clear-cut racial definition, his music cannot be encapsulated by an unambiguous formalization. This equation is proposed by the composer himself in his autobiography, clearly stating that the only plausible characterization is that of musician: “Charles Mingus is a musician, a mongrel musician, who plays beautiful, who plays ugly, who plays lovely, who plays masculine, who plays feminine, who plays music, who plays all sounds: loud, soft, unheard sounds, sounds, sounds, sounds, solid sounds, sounds, sounds… A musician (who) just loves to play with sound”.

Based on these consideration, it is already possible to identify the pivotal role assigned by Mingus to music in breaking free from racial characterizations and stereotypes and it is from this perspective that his discography ought to be examined. Elaborating a form of artistic expression able to articulate a discourse of this kind, however, would undoubtedly prove to be a particularly challenging goal, given the stereotypically ‘black’ nature of jazz. Economic segregation and racial inequalities in the decades between the wars fuelled politics of dissent among African-American communities, resulting in the articulation of oppositional identities passionately proclaiming the need for social change. According to historian Franz Kofsky, this entailed the quest for “a musical vehicle for expressing black dissatisfaction with the status quo […], a manifesto of rebellious black musicians unwilling to submit to further exploitation”. This inevitably entailed the definition of a new concept of modernity and the consequent establishment of a politically engaged avant-garde. The 1940s and ‘50s, in this sense, paved the way for a radical transformation of jazz aesthetics, particularly in connection with the rise of bebop, a sub-genre characterized by eclectic harmonic variations, articulate syncopation, a fast tempo, swift tonal changes and a large emphasis on improvisation. To quote the words of veteran Bay Area critic Grover Sales, this was “the first genuine avant-garde movement in jazz”. Widely popularized by musicians like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Bud Powell, “bebop represented an attempt to re-conceptualize jazz, snatching it from a white-controlled music industry and artistic landscape, via the emphasis on techniques and styles setting it apart from its European – or white American – counterpart, such as blue notes, swing, improvisation and vocalized timbres. The political struggle for equality, therefore, adopted bebop as a means to grant the black virtuoso musician greater artistic autonomy, adopting a newborn language to champion a timeless black folk tradition.

One of the greatest accomplishment of bebop was to make racial discourse and activism much more overt. Also thanks to the contribution of periodicals like Metronome, debates on injustice and segregation within the music industry penetrated the public sphere with unprecedented force: musicians began openly denouncing cases of segregated performances and refusing to play in blacks-only venues. Charles Mingus, who always positioned himself at the forefront of the struggle for equality promoted by African-Americans, played an active role in bringing forward local initiatives, both in Los Angeles and, after 1951, in New York. At a very young age, in fact, he joined the American Federation of Musicians (Local 767), a segregated union for African-Americans. Founded in 1920, this served as a meeting place, a platform for the exchange of ideas and a rehearsal space for black musicians who were denied membership in its white counterpart, Local 47. Mingus passionately campaigned in favor of the desegregation of the American Federation of Musicians in Los Angeles, which finally took place in 1953.

Charles_Mingus_1976_croppedAt the same time, Mingus, whose life was so deeply characterized by racial ambiguity and perceived himself as a musician even before belonging to any specific ethnic group, could not obviously entirely and wholeheartedly sympathize with the ideology and ideas of the bebop movement and was well aware of the risks of composing music consistently associated with the African-American tradition. He never sided with any self-referential and celebratory exaltation of blackness in jazz: he even came to harshly criticize Louis Armstrong, accusing him of intentionally perpetuating black stereotypes with his music and performances. As a result, he opted for a massive subversion of the aesthetic standards of jazz, ultimately rejecting the very notion of jazz itself. In 1963, for example, he reproached a journalist who had labelled him a “jazz musician”, stating: “don’t call me a jazz musician. To me the word ‘jazz’ means ‘nigger’, discrimination, second-class citizenship, the whole back-of-the-bus bit”. Disentangling musical expression from any unnegotiable ethnic identity was, therefore, a prime goal for the composer and this leitmotif is extremely prominent throughout his career. In 1964 he famously proclaimed “Fuck ‘negro’… Fuck ‘jazz’. I want to be accepted as I want to be accepted as an American now with all of the rights – or forget it and I’ll show Kruschev just how to guide his missiles due South… I can write good music with a beat or without so I want to be called a musician – not a Negro musician or a white musician. I want my rights as the music’s musician. I don’t want my music to sell like hotcakes. I want it to sell like good music – not stopped by a word – jazz”. Just as labelling a person to a race was extremely limiting, Mingus believed that music ought to reflect the complexity of this relationship: “African music belongs in Africa. American music, which is what we play, belongs with the people who have a feeling of freedom and like to play together without discrimination”. It is evident, then, how he did not altogether reject the penetration of political themes, including a racial discourse, in music. Rather, he encouraged it, albeit in a different form, namely one that could account for their multi-faceted intricacies.

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“It is not just a question of color anymore”, he once told journalist and critic Nat Hentoff, “it’s getting deeper than that…. People are getting so fragmented… Fewer and fewer people are making a real effort anymore to find exactly who they are and to build on that knowledge. Most people are forced to do things they don’t want most of the time, and so they get to the point where they feel they no longer have any choice about anything important, including who they are. We create our own slavery. But I’m going to keep on getting through and finding out the kind of man I am through my music. That’s the one place I can be free”. Looking, therefore, at the context in which Mingus received his musical education and proceeded to embark on his career, it suddenly appears evident that disaggregating jazz from its traditional techniques and ideology, hence making it able to express the complexity of a discourse going far beyond a binary black-and-white dichotomy, and concerned with wider issues of self and becoming, destiny and freedom, would inevitably entail an aesthetic revolution and the definition of a new form and style, in direct opposition to the reigning bebop aesthetics. While, therefore, the latter encouraged the use of crystalized forms and conventional solutions, Mingus challenged their centrality, systematically opting for the most eclectic solutions: the standardized bebop five-piece, constituted of two brass instrument and a rhythmic section made of piano, bass and drums, was replaced with much larger and unconventional ensembles; the emphasis on standardized phrases and harmonies exchanged for a manic emphasis on individual solos – Mingus liked to think of his music as a free “conversation” among the performers; bebop’s tendency toward a more immediate and simplistic style substituted by an eclectic maximalist approach. Even more importantly, Mingus re-negotiated the ideological exclusivity of jazz, by incorporating elements of European classical music: “my identity is mixed together with Beethoven, Bach and Brahms”, he famously told his wife Sue and always strived to summon “a primitive, mystic, supra-minded communication”, which he heard both in Charlie Parker and “in the late Beethoven quartets and, even more, in Stravinsky”.

At this point, one can legitimately wonder how such a radical stance with regards to the re-definition of the form of artistic expression can be a mirror for the re-elaboration of its political significance. In other words: to what extent does Mingus’ musical revolution mark an equally significant re-thinking of its ideology? A closer look at his discography will undoubtedly help addressing this question. The very first issue to come to terms with is the almost complete absence of lyrics in his compositions: how can purely instrumental music have such a clear political orientation? For Mingus, music did not really require lyrics, and this could draw attention upon the music as it is being performed, exactly what Mingus hoped to achieve as a composer: “We don’t need a vocalist. This band can have an argument with instruments”. The idea of a conversation among the performers, already mentioned above, aptly served as a means to convey a precise narrative and is further enhanced by the fact that a great deal of the Jazz Workshop’s performances was largely made of individual musicians’ improvisations. Yet, despite being partially concealed by his double bass, Mingus nonetheless acted as some sort of conductor, quickly steering the performance in such a way as to enhance the interplay of the various instruments: whenever his band insisted on a particular phrase or groove, he would immediately alter the time signature; whenever they locked on a specific melody, he would proceed to operate a radical change of key; whenever an instrument moved to execute a solo, he would direct another to solo on top of the first, and then another, and another, ultimately juxtaposing them in a layered cacophony of “organized chaos”.

“Music”, Mingus used to say, “is a language of emotions” and these stylistic solutions enrich the compositions with a sense of urgency and of passionate, combative dialogue. Yet, the nature of this dialogue is never a peaceful one. As one of the Workshop’s musicians brilliantly put it, Mingus “liked the sound of a struggle” and it is exactly this notion that his music continuously engaged with. Racial struggle, the musicians’ struggle with the music industry and the government, struggle against political apathy, struggle against the very definition of race are prime leitmotifs in Mingus’ discography. At the same time, the titles of his works usually play a central role in deploying a political narrative and in rendering it explicit: Prayer for Passive Resistance, for example, was written in honor of the 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, which played a crucial role in the history of local desegregation; Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me, instead, is concerned with the threat of nuclear warfare in the context of the Cold War.

Very often, though, the titles of Mingus’ compositions are extremely cryptic, but their ambiguity is unmistakably symptomatic of the complexity of the composer’s politics. A prime example of this intuition is represented by the 1956 record Pithecanthropus Erectus, in which the themes of progress, development of mankind, as well as racial themes are intertwined. In the liner notes of the album, the author explained: “It depicts musically my conception of the modern counterpart of the first man to stand erect – how proud he was, considering himself the first to ascend from all fours, pounding his chest and preaching his superiority over all the mammals still in a prone position. Overcome with self-esteem, he goes out to rule the world, if not the universe, but both his own failure to realize the inevitable emancipation of those he sought to enslave, and his greed in attempting to stand on a false security, deny him not only the right of being a man, but finally destroy him completely”. This is clearly a political allegory of domination in American society. The eponymous first track begins with the various instruments, most notably piano, brass and saxophone, chasing one another and symbolizing competing voices within society. The piece, then, slowly builds up, with a lengthy middle section consisting of several individual, often overlapping, solos. As the volume, tempo and intensity of the track keep growing, one is struck by how the individual voices begin working in concert and rise up with a polyphonic sense of cooperation. Yet, the brief last movement of the track is a chaotic and cacophonous section, with screeching saxophones, syncopated drumming and abrasive piano lines, perfectly exemplifying how the juxtaposition of the individual voices quickly descends into a struggle, if not full revolution.

Pithecanthropus Erectus is not an explicitly political track, but, given the context of Mingus’ political beliefs and artistic ideals, together with the inclusion of unmistakably political liner notes in the record cover, it is impossible not to draw a parallel with the ongoing struggles for justice and equality of the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, the record seems to describe a narrative that goes well beyond the boundaries of a purely racial discourse and account, instead, for a notion of struggle cutting across ethnic divisions: it is, therefore, a cynic illustration of the double-edged nature of progress, a dart of criticism directed against all forms of perceived supremacy in equal measures, may this be racial, socio-economic, cultural, or technological. This is apparently very consistent with Mingus’ own ideology, as it clearly moves away from the self-referential character and the unconditionally proud exaltation of blackness championed by bebop jazz: the revolution taking place in the last moments of Pithecanthropus Erectus is not exclusively a black one, but that of the mongrels, the underdogs and of all less fortunate elements of society and, as such, it will be chaotic, disorganized, noisy, abrasive and cacophonous.

A similar perspective is articulated in the record that follows Pithecanthropus, the 1957 masterpiece The Clown, which, to paraphrase the composer, represents an allegory describing how “the mass appetite for kitsch threatened to crush the singular spirit of the creative artist”. Again, it is possible to see how that of struggle remains the central notion of Mingus’ compositions, acquiring, at the same time, a universal significance that goes beyond the coordinates of racial segregation and activism. The first track, for instance, Haitian Fight Song, characterized by a regular rhythmic section, with various solos emerging from a chaotic polyphony, follows a structure similar to Pithecanthropus Erectus’, gradually building tension and finally culminating in conflicting, revolutionary chaos. The track, as the title implies, is concerned with the revolution taking place in Haiti in the 1790s; yet, it was written in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King’s mobilization of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. Consequently, Mingus often stated that Haitian Fight Song may easily be renamed Afro-American Fight Song, or simply Fight Song, highlighting how notions of injustice, struggle, uprising and, consequently, revolution have a grander meaning and cannot possibly restricted to one instance or group only.

In 1964, Mingus put together the finest ensemble he ever performed with, including Dannie Richmond on drums, Clifford Jordan on saxophone, Johnny Coles on trumpet, Jaki Byard on piano and, more notably, legendary multi-reedist Eric Dolphy, flew across the Atlantic and toured in Europe, where he frequently executed one of his most political and engaging compositions, the much under-appreciated Meditations on Integration, Parts I & II, often referred to as Meditations on Inner Peace. This piece engages extensively with topics of diversity, segregation, social exclusion and, obviously, passionate struggle, and widely relies upon different instrumental combinations: the first section opens with a haunting interplay of bass and Dolphy’s flute, clearly drawing attention Mingus’ taste for European classical music, followed by a lengthy piano solo, later enriched by the addition of bass; subsequently, another piano section precedes a trio with flute and, again, bass, before the entire piece swiftly erupts with force, as the brass section comes in. As usual, the emphasis on individual and overlapping solos makes the various instruments compete for the listener’s attention, symbolizing the struggle immanent to all layers of society. The sense of urgency and disorder coming to the fore in the last section of the piece, then, acts as a signifier for the frenzy inevitably brought about by the lack of social, economic and political integration. While it was composed in the context of African-American activism, Meditations’ meaning is universal and not exclusively tied to any specific racial dichotomy. Recalling the 1964 tour, Mingus claimed: “Anyone could play Meditations on that day in this time of ours when everyone is fighting everyone else all over the world. Man, woman, religious sects, people in general, colors. I felt like I was praying for God. Well, it’s time that people get together and try to fight their way through to love with something that warms them and brings them together”.

Mingus referred to the performances of Meditations on Integration taking place during the 1964 tours as the highest point of his career, as they perfectly embodied his ideals, both musically and ideologically. Painfully grounded in the context of racial discrimination and the struggle for equality, the composer deployed notions of identity and development as narrative tools to pave the way for revolution and collective empowerment, regardless of any particular racial or socio-economic characterization. In this sense, his ideal of revolution acquires a much more poignant meaning. After all, he considered himself a “revolutionary” and confessed that his goal was “to be always doing revolutionary things, things that would alert people, so that they would stop being so subservient”. This ought to start by acquiring a political consciousness: of oneself, of others and of society at large. The revolution Mingus is passionately calling for, therefore, is not only one against injustice, inequality and segregation, but also one against political apathy and disengagement, which he sees functioning as a harrowing echo chamber for inequality and injustice. In the 1966 track Don’t Let it Happen Here, Mingus reads the words of the German pastor theologian Martin Niemöller, who vehemently accused German intellectuals of failing to effectively contrast the rise of Nazi ideology. Over a sorrowful carpet of piano, brass, saxophone and bass, Mingus tells: “One day they came and they took the Communists, and I said nothing because I was not a Communist / Then one day they came and they took the people of the Jewish faith, and I said nothing because I was not a Jew / Then one day they took the unionists, and I said nothing because I was not a unionist / They burned the Catholic churches one day, and I said nothing because I was born a Protestant / Then one day they came and they took me, and I could say nothing because I was as guilty as they were / I was as guilty of genocide as those who killed eighteen million people along with me / Yes, I was as guilty of genocide as those who killed the other people with me / And I say the only way we can avoid this is to look and speak out now / And don’t let it happen here”. Plotted against Mingus’ ‘musical activism’, Niemöller’s words transcend the context of the Nazi genocide and acquire a much broader resonance, ultimately embodying an all-inclusive call for justice and awareness: that the evils of history are a matter of collective concern, that responsibilities invest all groups in equal measure and that no one is exempt from a moral duty not to “let it happen here”.

A formidable bassist, composer, performer, and bandleader, Charles Mingus was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1977 and died in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca on January 5th, 1979. His music, a powerful exploration of the emotional language of jazz, still remains synonymous with great innovation on several levels. His stylistic modernization also reflects a sense of political commitment, which, while remaining fully anchored in the contexts and scenarios informing and fuelling the social commentaries advanced by jazz musicians, amplifies themes and topics, assigning them a much broader breadth. Mingus was very well aware of – and engaged systematically with – issues of racial segregation, inequality, division, discrimination, injustice and oppression, but remained nonetheless fully aware of the risks of elaborating a musical genre too closely associated with the vicissitudes of African-American communities. This is because limiting racial issues, he believed, to a bipolar black-versus-white dichotomy, was extremely limiting. As his own biography demonstrates, he perceived the notion of race to be remarkably multi-faceted, to such an extent that the association with a specific group was extremely problematic and certainly not immediate. In response to the context of bebop, he sought to elaborate a style able to express the complexity of these dynamics, adopting an unpredictable, intricate and maximalist language: a language of struggle, love, passions and revolution cutting across racial, economic, political and cultural divisions. A language too beautiful and complex to be merely jazz.

© Alessandro De Arcangelis, 2016

Further reading:

Mingus, C. (1971) Beneath the Underdog. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Giddins, G. (1998) Visions of Jazz: the First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Hentoff, N. (1978) Jazz Is. New York: Limelight Editions

Jenkins, T. (2006) I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers

Kofsky, F. (1998) Black Music, White Business: Illuminating the History and Political Economy of Jazz. London: Pathfinder Books

Santoro, G. (1994) Myself when I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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