Jazz 59

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz record in history.

Pay special attention to the spaciousness in the sound, and the minimalist approach to the solos.

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um.

Pay special attention to the virtuosity of the solos and to Mingus’s compositional and arranging genius.

Ornette Coleman: playlist of all the tracks on The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Pay special attention to the balance between absolute freedom and “controlled chaos.”

Ornette Coleman’s style would come to be called “free jazz.” Some critics linked his sound with the struggle for civil rights. Nevertheless, as one critic put it:

The free jazz movement sprang from musical sources, not social forces. . .were there free jazz players who made music to express anger over civil rights struggles? Yes. . . Did [all of them] abandon [traditional jazz] chord changes because of the civil rights-related anger? No. The free-form approach came first. Were there avant-garde musicians who protested via music without abandoning preset chord changes? Yes. Charles Mingus was one (for instance, “Original Fables of Faubus,” with lyrics about Orville Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas.

Nevertheless, pianist Mal Waldron, who played with Mingus

was . . . eager to embrace the new freedoms [of free jazz]. As [Waldron] saw it, they went hand in hand with being a black musician in the era of civil rights. The bar lines in a song were, he recalled, like “going to jail for us.” “We were talking about freedom, and getting out of jails…. So everyone wanted to escape from that.”

Beneath the Underdog

Trigger/content warning: disturbing video imagery, offensive language.

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When I was working on my doctorate and teaching a writing class for music majors, I wanted to assign my students a passage from the great jazz bass player, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus’s 1971 memoir, Beneath the Underdog. The fiftieth anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High was coming up, and I wanted to talk about Mingus’s famous tune “Fables of Faubus,” from his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um. “Fables of Faubus” is an anti-tribute to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who had sent the state National Guard to Little Rock to prevent nine black students from entering the school (Louis Armstrong had called Faubus, in the press, an “uneducated plow boy”).

“Fables of Faubus” begins with a snide, insinuating riff, a sonic reference to Faubus’s destructive bigotry, which nevertheless manages to portray him as weak and ineffective, a cartoon villain. Mingus had written lyrics for the song, but his record label, Columbia, would not let him include them on the recording, so the tune was first recorded as an instrumental number. A year later, however, Mingus re-released the song, with lyrics, on a smaller label as “Original Faubus Fables.”

Note the mocking, satirical call-and-response between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond, and the wild, swirling trumpet and saxophone solos (Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy, respectively) in between verses, creating an eerie and malignant atmosphere.

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us!

[Chorus]
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie
Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools
Then he’s a fool!

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (With your Jim Crow plan)

[Chorus]
Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond
Bilbo, Thomas, Faubus, Russel, Rockefeller, Byrd, Eisenhower
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate

In my writing class, it was hard to find an appropriate passage from Beneath the Underdog to read in class. The book, though it’s written with tremendous energy, is almost indescribably obscene. It’s full of exaggerations and outright lies about Mingus’s sex life, such as his claim that he pimped his wives and girlfriends. As one critic writes:

The book is . . . written in faux-difficult stream of consciousness – many chapters consist of only dialogue between Mingus and musicians, Mingus and pimps, Mingus and psychiatrists or Mingus and women. Who are almost constantly referred to as “bitches.” And ALL (except his stepmother, who he extensively verbally abuses) fuck him.

And this is the reason why the book is awful. Mingus can write BEAUTIFULLY about jazz: about the energy, the freneticism of live performance, about the thrill of composition, the joy of musical development, the excitement of learning, creativity, a shared language of artistic expression… But his autobiography is not about jazz. His musical career seems almost incidental, referred to occasionally . . . The reader learns nothing interesting or new about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie whoever, other than the fact that they KNEW CHARLES MINGUS. Because this is not a book about jazz. This is a book about the continual, priapic, misogynistic and possibly fictional sex life of the author.

In fact, the only passage in Beneath the Underdog where Mingus bothers to give his music serious mention is near the end of the book, in a scene where he’s just been released from Bellevue and is playing a club date. Mingus uses the foil of a British interviewer coming over to his table between sets, while he’s flirting with the woman who will become his third or fourth wife, to expound for a page or so on his musical philosophy:

“Do excuse me, Mr. Mingus, I can see you’re awfully busy, but may I ask a question or two for my paper? For instance, what do you feel about jazz?”

“Man, just listen, it’s all there.”

“. . . They’d like to know what you think in England, just a few words?”

“Well . . . I can tell you how I feel tonight anyway. Up to now, I don’t think nobody has given nothing important since Bird [Charlie Parker] died except his contemporaries who were overlooked at the time — [Thelonius] Monk, Max [Roach], [Sonny] Rollins, Bud [Powell], others, maybe even me. Bird was playing then what they’re calling avant-garde today — putting major sevenths with minor sevenths, playing a fourth away from the key . . . All this free-form business isn’t new . . . I was doing it and Duke [Ellington] before me and Jelly Roll [Morton] before that. . . 

There was once a word used — swing. Swing went to one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. But I use the term ‘rotary perception.’ If you get a mental picture of the beat existing with a circle you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome . . . That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat — each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space . . . the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed . . . the pulse is inside you . . . It’s called strolling.”

The interviewer goes on to ask Mingus whether he thinks Englishmen can play jazz. Mingus responds:

If you’re talking about technique, musicianship, I guess the British can be as good as anybody else. But what do they need to play jazz for? It’s the American Negro’s tradition, it’s his music. White people don’t have a right to play it, it’s colored folk music. . . white society has its own traditions, let ’em leave ours to us. You had your Shakespeare and Marx and Freud and Einstein and Jesus Christ and Guy Lombardo but we came up with jazz, and don’t forget it, and all the pop music in the world today is from that primary cause.

In 1966, the filmmaker Thomas Reichmann followed Mingus and his five-year-old daughter through their daily lives as they were about to be evicted from their New York apartment. The film, Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, intersperses Mingus’s free-form soliloquizing with the scenes of the stress of his domestic situation and shots of live performance.

Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968 from BPows on Vimeo.

Was Mingus a victim of his own genius? Or of the internalization of racism? Did jazz devour its young?

The image Mingus chose for the record cover of Mingus Ah Um is a painting by Japanese-American artist S. Neil Fujita, who, like Mingus, was both a victim and survivor of racism as an internee during World War II. I like to think of his painting as expressive of Mingus’s ideas about rotary perception.

Mood Indigo

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In addition to improvisation, virtuosity, freedom in melodic phrasing, propulsive rhythm, and harmonic complexity, one of the defining characteristic of jazz is the way the standard jazz ensembles — the particular mix of instruments — sound together. This sound is called timbre. The distinctive timbre of early jazz comes from the use of brass instruments like the trumpet, cornet, and trombone. The rhythm was laid down either by an upright bass or by a tuba. The Dixieland ensembles also included clarinet, drums, piano, and banjo or mandolin.

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In the 1920s and 1930s, musically-literate jazz musicians put bands together and wrote out arrangements for them — a separate piece of sheet music, or “part,” for every instrumental section.  These arrangements were made to mimic the sound of Dixieland improvisation, but they were in fact written out.

In this way, composers and bandleaders like Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington created the “big band” sound. Ellington, a classically-trained pianist and composer, was especially interested in the different timbres/sounds he could get from various instrumental sections. For instance, the opening of “Mood Indigo” — a piece that Ellington claims he wrote in 15 minutes while waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner — features Ellington on piano, followed by a muted trumpet-trombone-saxophone trio and then a clarinet solo, all of which lend different sounds to the piece. Ellington flips the standard practice of instrumental arranging by having the trombone — an instrument with a very low timbre — play high in its register, and the clarinet play in the lowest part of its register.

Notice also that, while the orchestra is playing written-out parts, the clarinetist (Barney Bigard) takes a semi-improvised solo against the muted but lush and complex sonic background. This would become a hallmark of the big band sound.

What do you think the overall atmosphere of the piece is? What did Ellington mean by “Mood Indigo,” and how does he use instruments to convey that?

Lyricist Irving Mills later added lyrics, and the song became a jazz standard.

Bass player Charles Mingus’s arrangement. How is it different from Ellington’s?

Ella Fitzgerald sings it as a contemplative ballad:

Nina Simone plays and sings it as a gospel-inspired up-tempo: