This week we find ourselves in the midst of an occasion that I enjoy observing annually. Charles Mingus was more than a great bassist, or even a great jazz musician. He was a man of passionate ideas. He wore his heart out on his sleeve – at times maybe a little too much – but he also had a rare ability to channel his huge reservoir of passion into his music. The result is a musical catalog like no other. His music breathed, a unique sort of breath that balanced purposeful dissonance with natural harmonies. His music was not sterile or calculated – it was frequently improvised on the spot, with little preparation. His music gives testimony to the notion that life is full of its little dissonances, even as we seek harmony within ourselves and others – Mingus had the innate ability to harness that musical dissonance, to make it speak of matters of the soul. So it is only appropriate that we celebrate what would have been Mingus’ 90th birthday on April 22nd.
We started the evening with one such soulful piece, Haitian Fight Song, a great song from The Clown. Recorded in 1957 but released in 1961, this is but one example of how unique Mingus’ compositional style was. As he put it in a letter to DownBeat Magazine:
“I write or play me, the way I feel, through jazz, or whatever Music is, or was, a language of the emotions. If someone has been escaping reality, I don’t expect him to dig my music… My music is alive and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It’s angry, yet it’s real because it knows it’s angry.”
In the liner notes for the Clown, Mingus said this about Haitian Fight Song:
My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and persecution, and how unfair is it. There’s sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling ‘I told them! I hope somebody heard me!'”.
We then heard Eh’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too, from Blues and Roots. Like with Haitian Fight Song, Blues and Roots was an effort to do “a barrage of soul music, churchy, blues, swinging, earthy”. After the album was issued, Mingus assembled his usual cast of players, adding Eric Dolphy, and went out on tour. A live album for this tour was issued, Mingus at Antibes, from which we heard several classically representative cuts, Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting (featuring Dolphy, Ted Curson on trumpet and Booker Ervin on tenor sax (originally recorded for Blues and Roots), Prayer for Passive Resistance, and What Love (a reworking of What is This Thing Called Love?, featuring Curson and Dolphy interplaying – “conversing” brilliantly with Mingus’ bass and with each other). After some consideration, we also heard I Remember April, also from the Antibes album, that features the great Bud Powell sitting in with Mingus’ band for an extended solo, before Mingus launches a set of solos and “conversations” between Curson, Dolphy, and his bass.
We next heard a cut from Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul, from 1963. Mingus stated that he “enjoyed the challenge of playing in 6/8 time faster than anybody had tried before… and I wanted to show that a band can swing as deeply in 6/8 as in the more usual time signatures.” The recording is also notable for being one of Mingus’ earlier experiments with using a larger ensemble, experiments which would go on for much of the ’60s. Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul became one of his better-known songs.
A key aspect of Mingus’ music is his civil rights activism. The roots of that trace all the way to his childhood, when he was denied the opportunity to learn how to read music, or to play symphonic classical music, due to his race (he was of mixed race, his mother being Chinese and English, while his father was of African and Swedish ancestry). A number of his best songs were inspired by civil rights issues: Fables of Faubus was a protest directed at Orval Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas who had been fighting desegregation of the schools in Little Rock, while Freedom is one of the few Mingus songs with an organized vocal part, sung by members of the band in unison). While we were not able to play those two songs (owing mainly to time constraints), we heard another such song, Meditations on Integration, which at times had been given the title “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters” (Mingus was notorious for his ornate titles). This performance is from the April 1964 Paris concert recording that was infamously bootlegged for years until Mingus’ wife Sue formed a record company and issued a high quality recording of the set (bootlegging was a long-time Mingus pet peeve).