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.

Booker T. vs. W.E.B.

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(W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington)

I subscribe to the Poem-A-Day email offered for free by the Academy of American Poets. It’s nice to wake up to a poem before you start dealing with your to-do lists and putting out the various fires of everyday life.

During the week, the Academy sends out a recently-written poem every day, often written by poets who are members of  historically-marginalized groups. On the weekends, however, they dig into their archives and offer poems from around the turn of the twentieth century. This was the poem for today (first published in 1909) by Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., pictured below:

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Dr. Booker T. Washington to the National Negro Business League

Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
   For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
   With all good things but dying.”

The world’s ago, and we’re agog
   To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
   However slight the winning.

What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
   What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric 
   Can match one of potatoes.

Ye orators of point and pith,
   Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
   Ere it is forced to feed you.

A little gold won’t mar our grace,
   A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place 
   When money clinks its story.

Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave,

believed that it was economic independence and the ability to show themselves as productive members of society that would eventually lead blacks to true equality, and that they should for the time being set aside any demands for civil rights. These ideas formed the essence of a speech he delivered to a mixed-race audience at the Cotton State and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. There and elsewhere, his ideas were readily accepted by both blacks who believed in the practical rationality of his approach, and whites who were more than happy to defer any real discussion of social and political equality for blacks to a later date. It was, however, referred to pejoratively as the “Atlanta Compromise” by its critics. And among them was W.E.B. Du Bois. . . .

Do you think the poet, Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr., agrees with Washington, or challenges him?

On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois, an excerpt from whose 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk you have read, believed that the struggle for equal opportunity and civil rights came first.

At the time [the turn of the twentieth century]. the Washington/Du Bois dispute polarized African American leaders into two wings–the ‘conservative’ supporters of Washington and his ‘radical’ critics. The Du Bois philosophy of agitation and protest for civil rights flowed directly into the Civil Rights movement which began to develop in the 1950’s and exploded in the 1960’s. Booker T. today is associated, perhaps unfairly, with the self-help/colorblind/Republican/Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell wing of the black community and its leaders. The Nation of Islam and Maulana Karenga’s Afrocentrism derive too from this strand out of Booker T.’s philosophy. However, the latter advocated withdrawal from the mainstream in the name of economic advancement.

In a grossly simplistic terms, it can be said that Booker T. Washington’s argument was for separatism, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s was for full integration and participation in the mainstream of American society.

Read the blog post “Race, Class, Art, and Consumption” and tell me what you think. Do you think the Carters  are advancing the Du Bois or the Washington model?

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