Kanye and Mingus: Gifted, Complicated and Proud of It

Charles Mingus and Kanye West represent an extreme form of the complicated-and-proud-of-it black man, within a society that prefers its black men as uncomplicated and untroubling as possible.

See, what he does is, he lives out all his — most people don’t live as full a life as Charles does. He is inhibited about very few things, and he lives out his feelings, he lives out his doubts, he lives out his angers. See, most of us have learned to curb certain things, to control certain things.

And… that’s partly what an artist does anyway. You know, a lot of art is simply really being a loudmouth. Saying everything, spitting it all out, getting out all your feelings, examining them — and eventually certain truths become apparent. You know, most people don’t expose themselves all the time, but that’s how you do find art. You know, it can be at the expense of a lot of people around you when you’re doing this, but this is an artistic need.

– Sue Graham, from a 1972 interview with John Goodman included in Mingus Speaks.

”I never feel like I’m not the underdog. I never felt completely comfortable.”

– Kanye West, as quoted in Kanye West: God & Monster

In other words, ‘Ye is three.

One ‘Ye is relentlessly clever and innovative, possessed of both the desire and the ability to make big statements. Another ‘Ye isn’t satisfied with the bigness of the statements he’s already making, and has come to believe quite firmly that’s he’s capable of doing whatever he wakes up in the morning determined to do; he has previously declared himself a god. Then there’s the ‘Ye that sometimes can’t stay out of his own way, undercutting his brilliance and perception with ill-timed excesses that serve little apparent purpose besides keeping his name in the paper.

Which one is real? They’re all real.

There’s a reason Kanye West’s career to date lends itself to a summary recalling the opening lines of Beneath the Underdog (1971), the autobiography of the jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus. West’s rap acuity is unquestioned, as was Mingus’ on his bass, but the common bonds they share have relatively little to do with music. Both of them were highly restless and creative. Both of them were concerned with control and the means of production. Both of them were prodigious commentators on the state of their industry.

Further, both West and Mingus were anything but meek and mild about all that. They both represent an extreme form of the complicated-and-proud-of-it black man, within a society that prefers its black men as uncomplicated and untroubling as possible. There have been black men not at all shy about daring America to accept them in all their audacious blackness since at least Jack Johnson a century ago, but West and Mingus represent a separate strain within that swaggering lineage: their public lives represent their working out in real time the contradictions and frustrations of being an outspoken black artist, and outspoken black man, in America. Yes, they channel their complications through their art, but they also give voice to them outside their art, and they aren’t particularly concerned with how it sounds.

As West drove the Internet crazy for a couple of weeks this year upon the release of The Life of Pablo, or at least its first public iteration, it would have been helpful to understand that while the whole sh-bang (Is it finished? Who’s on it? What the eff is Tidal?) was outrageous, there was a way to process it without getting caught in the must-respond-to-every-last-tweet-NOW frenzy that burned away hours of life that will never be recovered. We’ve seen a variation of this before. ‘Ye is not the first to not only let his freak flag fly, nor is he the first to be unafraid if it unravels.

After those opening lines of Underdog, Mingus continued, in dialogue after his therapist asked which of the three Minguses he wanted the world to see:

”What do I care what the world sees, I’m only trying to find out how I should feel about myself. I can’t change the fact that they’re all against me — that they don’t want me to be a success.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“Agents and businessmen with big offices who tell me, a black man, that I’m abnormal for thinking we should have our share of the crop we produce…”

In other words:

Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine

So we cook it, cut it, measure it, bag it, sell it

The fiends cop it

Nowadays they can’t tell if that’s that good shit / We ain’t sure man

Put the CD on your tongue yeah, that’s pure man.

– Kanye West, “Crack Music”

* * *

“Prodigious” is as good a word as any to describe Charles Mingus (1922-1979), in several respects: his talent, his legacy, his appetites, his passions, his will. And yet, when it comes to Mingus, even a word that big can seem too small.

Born in Arizona near the Mexican border, and raised in Los Angeles, Mingus took to music quickly. He started out on cello in a youth orchestra, but by his teens, he was making gigs as a bass player in the L.A. jazz scene. He cut his first records as a leader in the mid-‘40s, briefly christening himself “Baron” to follow in the path of “Duke” Ellington, “Count” Basie and Nat “King” Cole. But it was Ellington’s composing and arranging for his big band that was Mingus’ greatest fascination, throughout much of his career.

Although his first records featured some of his own compositions, it would be a while before he became known as a composer. His first big break was with the Red Norvo Trio, a drummer-less combo that gave Mingus plenty of room to show off his bass skills. Although he wasn’t part of the bebop revolution from day one, he fell in with its architects upon moving to New York City. Along with drummer Max Roach, he formed Debut Records, one of the first artist-owned labels in any genre (the politics of the music business was a theme Mingus sounded on a regular basis). Among the records Debut released was a 1952 concert in Toronto featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Mingus and Roach. It would be the first and only time that all-legend configuration ever performed together.

Mingus was part of the Third Stream Music movement, which sought compositional approaches that merged jazz and classical. He briefly — and I do mean briefly — recorded with his idol Ellington. But he made his breakthrough with a series of inspired albums of his own compositions in the late ‘50s, beginning with Pithecanthropus Erectus for Atlantic in 1956. His earthy, full-bodied approach to playing, and his expectation that the musicians in his bands reject clichés and play the emotions of what Mingus was writing, made for numerous volatile moments on stage and in the studio. It also brought to life several lasting jazz standards: “Better Git It In Your Soul”, “Haitian Fight Song”, the indelible “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, and many more.

His music was “jazz” if that’s where it needed to be filed, but it defied any further categorization. It was neither big-band nor bebop nor Third Stream nor post-bop nor soul jazz nor New Thing, but drew on all those elements, with the whole swirling brew colored by Mingus’ exposure to the joyful noise of Pentacostal worship and love of Ellington. Critic Nat Hentoff, who produced some excellent Mingus albums in the early ‘60s, coined the phrase that best describes it to this day: Mingus music.

The ‘60s were tempestuous years for Mingus, professionally and personally. His first attempt at large-scale jazz was a controversial concert at Town Hall in New York in 1962, but just a few months later, he would record the magisterial suite The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, one of those handful of jazz albums everyone (rightly) says you should know. He would take a smaller group that included fellow Los Angeleno Eric Dolphy throughout Europe, but was devastated when Dolphy, whom he had worked with extensively, died suddenly in 1964. Despite the artistic success, Mingus wasn’t exactly rich, and that exacerbated his inner demons. His eviction from his New York apartment was captured on film, and he spent the late’60s in a deep depression, not making any music.

At the turn of the decade, he slowly made his way back, and by late 1971 was ready to issue yet another masterpiece — or two. He published Beneath the Underdog, his long-awaited autobiography, which was heralded for his frankness on all things Mingus even it if was much longer on his relationships with women than with jazz. In 1972 came Let My Children Hear Music, the orchestral opus (six bassists!) Mingus considered his best work. A new quintet made a pair of well-received records in the mid-‘70s, and he had yet another large-scale triumph with Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, recorded in 1977.

Not long after that, Mingus began to show the onset of ALS, which eventually robbed him of the ability to play his bass. A collaborative project with Joni Mitchell served neither his music nor her career much good, but it was a moot point by then. Mingus passed away in Mexico, as he and his wife were chasing a rumoured miracle cure for his ailment. It seems impossible that a man who lived as much life and made as much music as Mingus did was only 57 when he died.

Krin Gabbard saw that ‘70s Mingus quintet, and says it changed his life. That declaration is the title of the introduction to Better Git It in Your Soul, his new Mingus biography. Gabbard builds on the work of previous Mingus biographers Brian Priestly and Gene Santoro, drawing from archival material, recently published Mingus interviews, and memoirs from various Mingus associates — most importantly, his wife Sue, who was Mingus’ companion for the last years of his life, and helped steer the celebration and preservation of his music after his death.

This isn’t simply a new telling of Mingus’ life story, although Gabbard does an excellent job of that in just under 100 concise and nicely paced pages. Gabbard also takes a deep dive into specific aspects of Mingus’ output. Most notably, he performs forensic work in exploring how Beneath the Underdog came to be. He shows how the book came together over several years, and was slimmed down from the original 870-page manuscript. He details whose names were changed (damn never everyone who wasn’t already a well-known musician), and discusses why the book is so redolent with passages about pimping and sex (Mingus wasn’t a pimp per se, or at least for major stretches of time, but he saw the jazz industry as similarly reductive to its creators).

Gabbard does his best to elevate Underdog into the upper tier of autobiographical writing. Much of it is indeed brilliant, and its opening line — “In other words I am three” — is perhaps the most memorable in all of music’s literature. He proceeds to showcase Mingus, as, in fact, a gifted and prolific writer: he wrote the poem “The Chill of Death” as a teenager, although it never saw the light of day until he recorded it for Let My Children Hear Music. Speaking of, that album’s liner notes were his clearest distillation of his musical philosophy: part autobiography, part music theory lesson, and part manifesto on the importance of knowing one’s stuff (he considered many of the avant-garde/free jazz musicians who emerged in the ‘60s as musical charlatans).

Perhaps someone will work up the nerve someday to write about Mingus’ many female relationships with as much focus as Gabbard gave to his writing (something Mingus didn’t do in his autobiography; one crucial ex-wife is never mentioned). For now, Better Git It in Your Soul, Gabbard takes us everywhere else within Mingus’ world. That world was simultaneously sacred and profane, given to psychological depths and emotional transcendence, and driven by a furious passion — not at all unlike his music.

“Who said mama’s little baby likes shortnin’ bread?”

* * *

The jazz police would swear out a warrant for my arrest were I to suggest Kanye music is on any level the equal of Mingus music. Granted, West too can be both sacred and profane, he can wallow in the lowest lows and get airborne with soaring beats and affirmations, and he brings all of his artistic skill and emotional vulnerability to every note he makes. But that’s where the musical comparisons end — four-minute hip-hop tracks are necessarily different from ten-minute orchestral jazz compositions. I’ll simply posit that if Kanye’s at all fortunate, they’ll be interpreting his music 60 years after the fact like they do Mingus music.

Kanye wasn’t the first to stop a show and speak his mind extemporaneously. Mingus often lectured audiences and his band in the middle of a set.

The actual comparisons begin with their willingness to take on the critical establishment. West’s stance towards the media over the years is readily evident to any of his Twitter followers. His use of social media, which of course wasn’t around when Mingus was, has helped him shape his image, even if how he’s done that have led some to question how tightly wrapped that image is.

He’s even taken the media on in concert. During the 2013 Yeezus tour, West would stop the musical proceedings for a few minutes each night to expound on his thoughts of the moment — beefs with the fashion industry, inspirational messages to his fans, his own greatness, and whatever else. These moments became known, in keeping with the notion of Kanye being more than a little off his rocker, as “rants”. From the 13 December 2013 concert, as transcribed and compiled by Slate in “The Gospel According to Yeezus“:

You know I know sometimes in the media they try to say I got a big ego? They be calling me arrogant and shit. Well tonight I wanna explain to y’all just how arrogant I am. Let me explain just how arrogant I am. I’m so arrogant that I actually think that I can outsmart the media. As much as the media tries to throw as many negative comments as possible or tries to make me look like a lunatic or whatever, I actually think that I’m smart enough to outsmart the media. That’s how arrogant I am. ‘Cause there’s been very few that were able to do that.

But Kanye wasn’t the first to stop a show and speak his mind extemporaneously. Mingus often lectured audiences and his band in the middle of a set. Mingus was also not one to suffer fools with notebooks and press passes. So incensed was he by a review critic John Wilson wrote in the New York Times about a 1972 performance, Mingus responded with a tirade in Changes magazine, which Sue Graham published. He ends his rant with:

I’ve never sold out or tommed out with my music, yet every move I make to better myself so I can survive this system, you fuck with me, comment on me with your opinion as though you are the all-knowing god who won’t accept my music enough to allow me to earn a living by staying away from my music…You drive the new fans away and you drive away the businessmen who must support the music. You stay away from my job and I’ll stay away from yours. Unless one day you end up selling news copy on a street corner in Harlem at 12 A.M.

Back in the day, Kanye was known for weaving in some political consciousness into his lyrics and off-the-cuff comments, most famously with his proclamation “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a live TV benefit in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One can still tease out similarly pointed remarks here and there in his output since then, but his politics nowadays are more likely to be couched in a patina of opulence with attitude, as in the video he and Jay Z made for “Otis”, with them cavorting around with lithe white women and taking a blowtorch to a luxury car:

No less an avatar of actual progressive militancy and strong black manhood than Chuck D ripped them both a new one.

Mingus, on the other hand, would never have been invited to appear on anyone’s TV benefit (although he too cavorted with white women, and alluded to pimping as a similar gesture of disrupting the master’s house with his own accoutrements in Underdog). He wrote the caustic “Fables of Faubus” in 1959, featuring a send-up of former Arkansas governor Orval Faubus and his initial refusal to allow integration of Little Rock schools. Columbia Records, his label at the time, did not permit him to include the lyrics when he recorded the tune for the album Mingus Ah Um, but he got his licks in a year later, recording “Original Faubus Fables” for Candid with lyrics intact:

Mingus deployed humor and a biting wit right up until the very end. Towards the end of “Cumbia & Jazz Fusion”, he breaks into a satire of the minstrelsy ditty “Shortnin’ Bread”. This time around, mama’s little baby loves caviar and truffles, not to mention African diamond mines and integrated schools. “Who said mama’s little baby likes shortnin’ bread?” Mingus asks the ensemble. He answers, “That’s some lie some white man up and said.”

Mingus would likely not be a fan of hip-hop, especially Kanye’s extensive use of sampling. From the Let My Children Hear Music liner notes:

For instance, Schillinger used to say that you could take a sheet of music, turn it upside down-alter you wrote a certain movement-eight or ten bars-copy it upside down, then copy it backwards, from the end of the page back, turn the page over and copy it backwards and upside down. This would give you eighty bars or more of the same mood without working for it. It’s the same as taking a tape recorder melody and splicing it up several thousand different ways. To me that’s not spiritual music. It leaves the feeling and emotion out. It seems to me that it should come from the heart, even though it’s composed.

But he would absolutely be a fan of Kanye’s ambition to make music of the highest order he can concoct. From those same liner notes:

For God’s sake, rid this society of some of the noise so that those who have ears will be able to use them some place listening to good music. When I say good I don’t mean that today’s music is bad because it is loud. I mean the structures have paid no attention to the past history of music. Nothing is simple. It’s as if people came to Manhattan and acted like it was still full of trees and grass and Indians instead of concrete and tall buildings. It’s like a tailor cutting clothes without knowing the design, It’s like living in a vacuum and not paying attention to anything that came before you.

In fact, Kanye’s keen knowledge of black pop is perhaps the least heralded aspect of his oeuvre. He popularized the speeded-up soul sample, and continues to use it from time to time, but not as a crutch or representative of a lack of new ideas. He has found ways to incorporate everyone from Nina Simone to the Ponderosa Twins Plus 1 into his music, and make all it sound like him even as we recognize them (or track down the originals to hear just how adroitly he repurposed them).

What is it, after that somber piano intro, beneath all our toasts to the douchebags and assholes and scumbags, every one of them that we know, propelling the first half of his epic track “Runaway”? Why, nothing less than one of the oldest tools in the rap producer’s kit: a slowed-down sample of Clyde Stubblefield’s immortal “Funky Drummer” break:

If Kanye continues to insist that Pablo is an unfinished work-in-progress (it certainly sounds that way to me, as I don’t feel its individual moments of brilliance ever congeal into as cohesive a set as his previous albums), or wants to parcel out how it’s available, there’s a Mingus equivalent for that too. In the mid-‘60s, Mingus released a few albums that were available only via mail order from Charles Mingus Enterprises (years later, they were released on CD). As Hentoff reported in the liner notes to the 1977 reissue of Mingus Presents Mingus, Mingus told him:

I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.

* **

I feel like there’s so much potential in all of us, and the fact that God has given me the ability to hold this mic right now, and speak on behalf of my crew, on behalf of all y’all that love the music, love the designs, love everything that we’re tryin’ to do. I’m gonna take that responsibility to focus my mind on bringing dope, innovative, fun, amazing, creative ideas to the world. And I also promise y’all — ‘cause this is really my Achilles heel — more patience. ‘Cause everything I’m talkin’ about is definitely gonna come to fruition. I just want it to happen now. And it’s all in God’s plan

– Kanye West, 23 December 2013 concert

…the music on this record is involved with my trying to say what the hell I am here for. And similar ideas. Another one is: let my children hear music — for God’s sake-they have had enough noise.

– Charles Mingus, Let My Children Hear Music liner notes

Kanye often seems to be more preoccupied with his sizzle than his steak. His ready-fire-aim approach to public commenting can get tiresome rather quickly. It all somehow works, at least as long as he peels off blistering beats and verses like “No More Parties in L.A.”, giving us cover to dismiss his egocentric ravings as mere tweetable amusements.

But we can’t separate Kanye into neat little files, to stream whenever we choose. All of it — the music, the industry, the commentator, the pop provacateur, the clickbait it all generates — is part of who he is and what we know of him, and it’s all linked together for better or for worse. We will get his every word, whether or not anyone’s actually hanging on it.

He has fully seen to that, bless his ambitious heart. He has dared the world to accept him, his art, his opinions about whatever, and the myriad contradictions posed in examining all that, as one flawed and glittering package, an ongoing hot Kanye mess. He’s not the first black pop star to be caught up in the glare of the sideshow, but he has shown incredible glee and resolve in fully embracing and exploiting the moment. At times, it seems he thrives on that edge.

So too did Mingus. He could have gone down in history and folklore as simply a miraculous bass player. But there was more to the story, and he lived every last iota of it, bless his ambitious heart.

It was harder for Mingus to be unapologetically black and complicated in his day than it is for Kanye now. Black performers nowadays don’t have to worry about Jim Crow as much as they used to. While we may crack wise about Kanye being crazy, for Mingus that was not a joke: he spent time in mental institutions on at least two separate occasions (once when he only wanted to get some decent sleep and Bellevue kept him longer than overnight). Eviction is the last thing Kanye will likely ever face.

It’s that sense of gravitas, the sense of more serious things being more urgently at stake for Mingus than for Kanye (not to mention the differing levels of gravitas between hip-hop and jazz), that’s the biggest difference between them. The former is treated as a serious artist who lived large well before hip-hop gave a name to the practice. The latter is treated as a serious artist whose manner of living large seems to undercut the seriousness of his art.

But Mingus lived and Kanye lives large — if not financially in Mingus’ case, then certainly in just about every other respect. The most important respect is their approach to their art. They are both masters of their form, both as performers and conceptualists. They both situate themselves within a cultural continuum, and desire to extend it. Their creative drives are both inexorably combined with their personal desires to matter beyond their moments, even if those desires at times overshadow their art. Yet for both, it’s their music that draws us into the rest of their stories, and lasts above all that. If they weren’t incredible at their craft, we would never care about anything else they did.

If you want to understand just what it is about Kanye that makes people scratch their heads and then tell half of Facebook why they did that, set aside the sideshow and consider him as a black artist first. Then look back through that honor roll until you get to Charles Mingus. And ask yourself if you could imagine either of them being any other way. Then count up how many other black artists have balanced art, money, race, power, and the simple business of living life year in, year out, without a net, and kept it together long enough to make masterpieces. Who will survive in America, indeed.

* * *

For every bit that Mingus may offer clues to decoding the method behind Kanye’s madness, the inverse may be true, and more necessary.

Mingus played some of the most unruly, incisive and glorious music 20th Century America knew — and compared to Kanye’s dozens of Grammy nominations (never mind what he thinks about who should or shouldn’t have won anything), Mingus received the grand sum total of one. That was for writing the liner notes to Let My Children Hear Music, not for the actual music of that or any other recording he made.

In a just world, Mingus would have gotten to enjoy his roses while he was still here. At least Gabbard’s splendid work serves as a timely road map to understanding and enjoying Mingus’ music and words. Kanye may personify for these times the archetype of the unapologetically black and complicated artist, but he didn’t invent it.

Then again, Kanye holds one trump (or “Trump”) card. Mingus may have been as irrepressible and badass as any jazz musician who ever roamed the earth, but as far as we know, he never announced a bid for the White House:

RATING 8 / 10