Pushing a Button Ain’t Playing an Oboe
Enter new theme (4): electronics in music.
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MINGUS: I think it’s time that good musicians get rid of electric instruments, because a good musician can’t play an electric instrument; it plays you. For instance, if you want to bend a note, you’ve got to push a button to bend it. You can’t control the dynamics. You play soft-loud with the bow on a violin, but it all comes out the same volume on the electric machine. You’ve got to have another hand to turn it down soft and low. So it’s not meant for real music, it’s meant for someone who is not sincere about playing how he feels.
INTERVIEWER: You may probably clarify for me one idea I’ve been acquiring by being here, by interviewing other people. Is it really true that jazz is getting a little, uhh, shall I say, is getting into rock and rock is getting into jazz?
MINGUS: I don’t know what musicians you’re talking about—not me. All I know is if you guys are going for electric instruments, I’ve heard nothing better than a Steinway yet, all over the world. I’ve heard nothing better than a violin. Electric music is electric music. If a guy uses this music, then he’s not a serious musician. I mean, they’re not gonna make a better piano, man.
INTERVIEWER: Then wouldn’t you agree with me that electric music today is probably 1972 stuff. I mean the equipment is sophisticated, the gadgets are kind of hard to grasp, you know, wow.
MINGUS: Well, I’m tryin’ to say something! If you want, if a man was free enough, he could take an ordinary symphony with ordinary instruments and be more atonal and farther out or weird or avant-garde with everyday instruments, because of one thing—you can control the dynamics. There’s nothing you can’t write for a full orchestra that electronics are doing [any better].
Electronics are doing the same thing in music as elsewhere: they’re replacing people. Push a button, it sounds like an oboe, but not a good oboe player; another button, sounds like a French horn. The guy who plays this stuff is a nigger because he can’t afford to get a violin player or a French horn or oboe player. He might like to have the oboe—I would— but [he] will go to the commercial extreme because it’s popular to use electric instruments.
And the great men like Charlie Parker and men who played legitimate instruments would laugh at these guys because they’re not in it for the love of music but because they think they’re going to make a lot of money—like Miles Davis did. Miles didn’t even need to make any money; he was already rich, or his daddy was rich, so I’m not even sure if Miles made that much money, I just assume he did in music. But I know he’s an electronic man, and eventually somebody like me is going to make him come back and start playing again, put that bullshit down and play his horn. He’s gonna have to because [otherwise] he’ll be laughed out. Because you can get a little kid to push a button, and with these machines they got now, it’ll sound like they’re right.
Look what happened for seven years in this country. Most of these kids couldn’t read a note or sing in tune. But electronics can make ‘em sound OK: they hit a wrong note and you push a button and it’s in a vibrating machine plus an echo chamber, and it’s [sings] wooo-wooo-wooo-wooo, so you don’t know what note he’s singing. But I want to hear a singer, man, I don’t want to hear nobody bullshitting.
I want to be able to go to a hall with no mikes and hear the guy play his cello like János Starker. If he can’t play it, send him home. Give him a rock-and-roll instrument and let him play. But don’t tell me he’s no musician, don’t put a musician label on him. Say he’s an electric player, find something else to call him.
The guitar players, they have a little bar on the neck of the guitar, so if you want the key of B-flat, they move it to B-flat position; for the key of A, they move it down to A. That way, they only have to learn one key, they can play in the key of C all the time. I was on a TV show with a guy like this and I say, “Do you move the bar on your guitar?”
He says, “Yes,” and I say, “Why do you do it?”
He says, “It makes it easier.”
I say, “Well, why doesn’t Jascha Heifetz do it? Why shouldn’t he play everything in the key of C?”
I mean, are you goin’ to kill the fact that people can play in B-natural and A-natural? That’s what Madison Avenue is trying to do, man. [Pause]
I don’t believe in everything about classical music. I don’t believe in stiff classical singers. I think there should be more folk voices in it. A lot of things could be changed, improved on, and people are doing that, like Henry Brant.8 He did an opera, with classical singers, but he also had a hot-dog man—and other people who would just be singing what they felt, really. [Sings:] “Hot dogs!” you know? “Peanuts!” you know? [Laughs.] That’s the way the old Italian operas were, and weren’t they kind of for real? [Imitates basso voice singing:] “Would you buy my popcorn?”
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They took a break after some talk about Northern Italians, blond Italians, Sicilians, and pizza men. But Mingus wanted to get to one of his favorite points, about jazz tradition, styles, and “progress.” He understood that art moves by fits and starts, that there is rarely a straight line of influence or stylistic development. At the same time, if an artist couldn’t understand and incorporate tradition, he’d never be a creator. And if he couldn’t master the fundamentals of music, he’d end up being a fraud.
All the previous themes were coming to a recapitulation.
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MINGUS: See, this thing you call jazz: if Lloyd Reese, Eric Dolphy’s teacher, my teacher, had become famous, Dizzy Gillespie would have never made it—because Lloyd played like Dizzy back in 1928. So I’m trying to say that even though Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and those guys came along, here was another guy who knew a little more, had a different kind of education in music where he could have been playing atonal then: Lloyd knew Schoenberg, Beethoven, Bach, he’d studied that. He’d be playing those kinds of solos, and guys would say, “He’s out of tune.” Therefore people have to come in line, follow the next guy, step by step, “OK, that’s progress.”
Charlie Parker was the most modern thing, but actually I should have come before him because I had a whole new thing that had the weight and had to do with waltzes and religious music—a period of my music was like that. Then Bird should have come in, but instead they completely ignored me and I had to go play Bird’s music. Which I’m glad I did—I learned a lot from that—but it’s not honest because it makes kids come up and think [jazz has] gotta fit to this form right here.
Now it’s gone to the other extreme: each guy’s gotta be different, and now this is where they all full of shit. If you’re a musician today, man, you shouldn’t be playing like Louis Armstrong. If you’re a trumpet player, you should be playing like Dizzy, Roy, Cat Anderson, Maynard Ferguson, all them guys or you ain’t no trumpet player. If you play bass, you play like Mingus, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, all them bass players or you ain’t no bass player. You should be able to play like Art Tatum first or quit. I was a piano player and I quit cause I couldn’t do Art Tatum. I knew I couldn’t make it.
It’s like when you go to Juilliard, they give you all the things composers have done, and they say “study it.” After four-five years of you studying, one day they say, “Now, let me see you write something that’s good.” And you’re going to think, because you know damn well that teacher knows when you’re lying and stealing from over here or over there. You’ve got to throw all that out of your mind and compose something. And only the person himself knows, and most of the other guys quit if they know they can’t cut the guys in the past.
But America gave us a new thing, it’s called avant-garde, which nobody has ever explained, for Negroes. Some of these guys, you know [does flutter-tongue trill and a squook-squawk] as long as it sounds undescribable [they think it’s music]. It’s not music, because in the olden days a guy had to play his solo back. I met one of these guys and said, “Can you play this off the record?”
“Of course not, man, I don’t want to.”
I said, “What if I wrote it down, could you play it?”
He said, “You couldn’t write it.” That’s bullshit. I can write it but he can’t play it ‘cause he doesn’t know what he played.
And I’m tired of these people fooling our people. Because if you’re going to be a physician or a finished artist in anything, like a surgeon, then you got to be able to retrace your steps and do it anytime you want to go forward, be more advanced. And if I’m a surgeon, am I going to cut you open “by heart,” just freeform it, you know?
We’re on an island and you say, “Look, man, use a book.”
“No, I don’t need no book, I’ll just ad lib it.”
“Well, look, Mingus, we’re out here by ourselves, it’s dangerous, and I don’t want you to make no mistakes, so just look in the book.”
“I can’t read, man, I don’t read no music, but I’m going to cut you open and take out your appendix ‘cause it’s bursting.”
Well, you’re gonna hope that, since I’m the only guy there, I will look in the book. Don’t take me for no avant-garde, ready-born doctor. Don’t let nobody fool me and tell me that they’re avant-garde, don’t need to study—and make the black kids think they don’t need to learn how to read to play flute, oboe, French horn, and all the instruments.
Let these people know that there gonna be openings in all symphonies everywhere in the world for them and that jazz is just one little stupid language hanging out there as a sign of unfair employment. Jazz means “nigger”: if you can’t get a job in a symphony you can get a little job over here where you get a lot of write-ups and no money. But you’ll never get in the symphony. Maybe in all America we’ll hire one of you guys for the Philharmonic, one for the Jersey Symphony. We’ll let these two be a sign that we found two good ones.
Now we know goddamn well that we got a cello player better than any you all got—what’s his name? Kermit Moore—he’s better than János Starker, man, warmer, plays more in tune, I couldn’t believe him. You’ll hear him in my string quartet.
Yet the white man can go on forever saying, “Well, we’ve got Jascha Heifitz…” Sure, but we may get one of them if you free the kids, I mean little babies, let them come up and think there’s a place for them. Wouldn’t you feel good to think that someday we’d have another Jascha Heifitz, regardless of what color he was? It don’t have to be Isaac Stern or Yehudi Menhuin. They don’t always have to be Jews, right? It’s kind of weird they all Jews [laughs].
I’m trying to say let’s find out what jazz is. Jazz is, or was, a very powerful force before seven years ago to a certain group of white people. They hid the sales of the records, they didn’t let you know how many they were selling, they gave the guys a lot of write-ups, very little money. First place, second place in the polls—when you took third place, you didn’t work no more. White or black, Red Norvo, all the guys, once you’re voted out of first place, you’re in trouble, from Lionel Hampton to all the rest of them.
SUE: He just sent all his medals back [from the polls he had won].
MINGUS: I don’t want none of them damn polls. I know what kind of bass player I am. I auditioned with the San Francisco Philharmonic in 1939 and I was the best one except for one guy, his name was Phil Karp and he got the job. But they hired three bass players and I was better than the other two, and the conductor told me they just couldn’t do it. So I know where I’m at.
And I’ve been waiting till the day when I get a chance to write classical, pure, serious music that came out of all the musics. For a guy to go study Africa—fuck Africa, man. Now here’s the guy I’ll study with: I want to know how those guys do this [beats a complex rhythm] and send a message in Haiti. You go to Western Union and you live in the mountains like Katherine Dunham, when you get a wire it don’t come on no piece of paper. In the mountains it comes to you on the drums. And they bring it to you by mouth. Now, those guys, when you get to that, I’d like to study that. ‘Cause some guys in America think they can do that—one is dead, Eric Dolphy.
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Now the coda. After an hour of turning the INTERVIEWER:’s mostly general questions inside out, Mingus changed key again and offered up an analysis of the jazz audience, bending the question to his own purposes.
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INTERVIEWER: One last question, what is the American audience like towards jazz… nowadays?
MINGUS: Well, each town is different. Let’s put it like this: I’ll try to tell you the best towns in America. For Charlie Parker’s music, the bebop period, when we went to Philadelphia, I couldn’t believe how people loved Bird. And they listened like you could hear a pin drop. Bird played there ten to twenty times a year when he was popular. I’ve always had the same following and I recognize the same faces in New York. At the Half Note Club, the Five Spot, and the Vanguard for the last thirty years, I recognize the faces, can call a lot of the names. Some get married, bring new husbands, new wives, but they still come back.
Now what are they like? My audience is very, very hip, and some of the young hippies are starting to dig me, I don’t know why. Maybe because some singer called my name on a record—do you know that guy, Sue? Right, Donovan. I think it did me a lot of good. I was in San Francisco when it first came out and I used to walk by this college, and kids would say, “There goes Mingus,” you know, and before the [Donovan] record came out nobody’d say anything.
American audiences are not like Europe. But I tell you what is better than Europe is Georgia, Tennessee, the South—they are just now waking up to jazz. They got jazz in by television. And the places where Martin Luther King picketed, they’ve changed, the integration is there. It’s not overdone, the people sound like me, they’re for real, they try to be serious about it, listen like it was classical music, same way I listened when I first went to Europe. It was a hell of a feeling to go to the South and have that happen, man. ‘Cause when I went to the South [in the late 1940s] with Lionel Hampton, man, there was just noise, dancin’, jumpin’ around and drunkards. I couldn’t believe [the change], man.
So I haven’t been to Europe in quite a little while, but the audiences there have always been the same as—what’s the closest thing to classical? Sarah Vaughan when she was first making it? They used to give her a lot of respect, just like a classical singer. They’d treat her just like Marian Anderson or Duke Ellington in the ‘40s and ‘50s. When you went to his concerts some people wore tuxedos. They knew it was a pure music.
Bird never got that. Bird always got the balling crowd, people high on something, very hip, swinging, hustlers and pimps. Which is nothing wrong, just saying what he had. And from all races. In Philadelphia he mainly had the black hustlers and pimps. As far as people accepting—the last crowd I had in Philly was a pretty good crowd, pretty good audience, because I recently had a concert there with the big band. I guess there were some of Charlie Parker’s people there too, because I’ve been there with him so much. I guess they remembered him and especially because I recorded with him too, ‘cause there’s a mixture of audience there, plus the hippies are starting to show too. The clean little kids with the Levis. I can tell you how they look, but how they feel—they don’t feel together yet. I feel this is an assorted crowd, they’re searching for something. It’s not like it used to be.
Like when you went to see Count Basie you saw a Count Basie crowd. You go to see Duke, you saw a Duke crowd. The two didn’t meet, man. The people who dug Basie did not dig Duke. If you had put jazz together like George Wein does now, you wouldn’t have made it. You would have had one section booing the other. I can’t prove this, but I’m pretty perceptive about feeling out audiences and things.
For instance, I’ve always had the knowledge about how to please an audience, which I don’t do. Anytime I’m uptight, I got a thing I do with an audience which I guarantee will get applause for one of the guys in the band. Not what I do physically but do musically. But I don’t like to do it. I call a solo and stop everything behind the soloist, leave him play by himself, and then when the rhythm section does come back in, the people always go crazy. What are the reasons, I don’t know, but that’s the way you do it.
To answer your question better, I’m glad there is a European audience. I’m trying to think where the best in Europe was for me—France, and Italy, and Germany—all very close. In Italy we were near Rome. Do you think in Europe it’s always the same audience that goes to hear [someone]?
INTERVIEWER: No, I wouldn’t say so. They actually are not so prone, like here, to be a one-man audience. Maybe probably a two- or three-man audience.
MINGUS: I haven’t checked this, but there’s a club in Boston, and after I closed there, I went back and didn’t see anyone I saw when I was there earlier. It was a whole different kind of people that came to see that next group. Plus, that was a good sign because they were known there, and it was packed. So whatever you call jazz is coming back, evidently, in this country.
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If you read the interviews and books in which jazz players talk candidly— like Arthur Taylor’s great compendium Notes and Tones (Da Capo, 1993)— many if not most support views like Mingus’s, in particular about the necessity of education and training in jazz. Other musicians have been willing to broach the phoniness of the New Thing, the false call of Africa, the need for black people and their culture to reunite. But few have come down as emphatically as Mingus did about these things. You know, there’s a strong “don’t criticize your brother” injunction among jazz people.
Despite that last remark about the club in Boston, I think he saw traditional jazz culture (and the audience) disappearing and wanted to save it.