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.

“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:

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