Mingus the Composer
With the release of Blues & Politics, the Mingus Big Band brings us some of the most intriguing of Mingus’ work. The band was established in the early 1990s to workshop and perform Charles Mingus’ compositions through rotating personnel. Sue Mingus, the band’s artistic director, writes that the strengths of the band lie in its “extraordinary flexibility . . . The awareness that anything can happen is what defines the band.” The album features eight compositions, all articulating Mingus’ basic belief in the blues and vernacular black musical sounds as a way to express his musical ideas. The title even plays off one of the albums Mingus recorded for Atlantic in the late fifties and early sixties, Blues & Roots. Mingus composed and recorded the music for that album on a challenge from his producer Nesuhi Ertegun. Ertegun, after hearing Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song”, wanted Mingus to record a “soul” album to prove that Mingus could still swing. Mingus expanded the concept of the blues in his compositions, believing that the blues “can do more than just swing.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of Charles Mingus’ (1922-1979) body of work is the way he connects titles to his compositions. According to Mingus, “titles should speak from time to time to issues that ought to be of concern.” From the threat of nuclear attack to prison riots and school desegregation, Mingus’ music reflected his awareness and concern about the social world in which he found himself. Mingus considered himself a protest cat, his goal was to be “always doing revolutionary things, things that would alert people, so they would stop being so subservient.” Politics weren’t all that concerned him however. Romance, musicians, lovers, revolution and city living were some of the other subjects of his compositions. When writing about people he knew or admired, Mingus always stressed that the music should be recognized as an exploration of how he felt and what he thought about those individuals, rather than mere representations of them. Also interesting were his attempts to invest new meaning into songs as he himself changed musically and personally over time—in this way “Self-Portrait” becomes “Portrait” becomes “Old Portrait”. The idea that as he changed his music, he ought to personally change was one he stressed throughout his career, especially in talking to critics who seemed unable to grasp the concept.
Mingus’ song titles are also fascinating because they are so suggestive—how does the Haitian revolution or the rise and decline of man (“Pithecanthropus Erectus”) sound? The titles make you think and pay attention to the music as it is played—this is what Mingus desired most as a performer. Throughout his career he sought a conscientious audience working with him to bring meaning to the music. Reprinted within the liner notes of Blues & Politics is Mingus’ untitled prose poem about pledging allegiance to the American flag as well as the lyrics to “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”, “Don’t Let It Happen Here”, and “Freedom”. These pieces reflect Mingus’ concern with justice for all Americans across racial lines. Though Mingus was always critical of racial essentialism, he was conscious of what it meant to live one’s life as a black male artist in a racially stratified country with little respect for the role of the artist. Some of this tension is addressed in his “Meditations on Integration Parts I & II”, once recorded on his famous comeback album, Mingus at Monterey. A master of the bass, Mingus brilliantly displayed his bowing technique throughout the composition. In the middle of the recording is a wonderful conversation with childhood friend Buddy Collette on flute, with Jacki Byard accompanying them on piano. “Meditations on Integration” illustrates another of Mingus’ precepts about jazz—that it must be a conversation between musicians.
Of the sessions that produced the Mingus Big Band’s Blues & Politics album, arranger and composer Sy Johnson, a longtime colleague of Mingus’, observed that “The spirit of Charles is sneaking back for a visit.” It didn’t hurt that through the use of technology, Mingus’ voice and bass are present. He is spliced onto “It Was a Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama” and “Freedom” and is accompanied by his son Eric, who continues the narration on “Freedom” and “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”. The music recorded by the Big Band comes mainly from the most prolific period of Mingus’ careerthe late ‘50s to the mid-‘60s and then the early to mid-‘70s. During this time Mingus recorded with a variety of major and independent labels with big and small bands. In fact, the 1972 Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert was another reemergence for Mingus who had spent the latter half of the sixties semi-retired from the music scene.
For saxophonist Lester Young, Mingus composed one of his most recognizable tunes, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”. When Young died in 1959, Mingus was performing in New York at the Half Note Club. Hearing of his death, Mingus and his band played a spontaneous blues. “I knew the guys would never do that again. I went home and wrote a blues the way I thought they were playing, with different types of chord changes—not just the regular blues—and it became part of the book.” Mingus recorded the song on three albums for three labels—Colulmbia, Impulse, and Atlantic—and the Big Band performs it regularly. Mingus wrote pieces for other musicians—Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Oscar Pettiford, Thelonius Monk, Bunk Johnson, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, Dizzy Gillespie. “Little Royal Suite”, also featured on Blues & Politics, was written for trumpeter Roy Eldridge and first performed during a 1972 concert at Lincoln Center’ Philharmonic Hall in 1971. Mingus’ infinite love for musicians and his desire to celebrate their individual sounds and personalities is touchingly revealed in the way he once explained “I’m not trying to play the way they write, I just write my interpretation of my feeling for them and their feeling for me.”
One of the best ways to understand what Mingus was trying to achieve as a musician is to read his liner notes. In fact, those written for his 1971 Columbia release, Let My Children Hear Music, are meant to answer the question he posed for himself and wondered about throughout his whole career, “What is a Jazz Composer?” “I marvel at composition. I admire anyone who can come up with something original. But not originality alone, because there can be originality in stupidity, with no musical description of any emotion or any beauty the man has seen, or any kind of life he has lived.” Blues & Politics is fundamentally about friendships, heroes, and American life. Both seasoned musicians and young lions perform in the Mingus Big Band and its their efforts to bring the immediacy of Mingus’ music to life that reveal what makes him such a compelling composer. Mingus was at once a composer who constructed beautiful sound images to record the life he lived and saw and he was also a teacher who used his compositions to give musicians the freedom to figure out what they thought about his ideas and to express it. For in the end jazz, for Mingus, was about wrestling with oneself and creating music which was experiential, which had feeling, and which was compositionally sound. “It seems to me that it should come from the heart, even though it’s composed.”