Mingus and His Message

Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus

The works of Charles Mingus are perhaps more unique than any other jazz musician or composer. His works are not only unique within the jazz world, but just in his discography it’s difficult to pin down two albums that are similar. Part of this comes from the fact that he would alter his sound significantly and often such as on the 1960 album “Blues & Roots.” One of the defining elements of Mingus’ work is also what can unify and separate his albums: storytelling. Mingus’ music almost always has a very defined and specific story or concept behind it, but that story is always changing. Two definitive Mingus albums 1957’s The Clown and 1964’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady have similar ambitions in that Mingus has a distinct concept behind each song, and often spoke about them in his extensive liner notes. The albums differ in many ways though, and The Clown lays ideas that would later be pushed to an extreme on Black Saint: Mingus’ masterpiece in ’64.

The opening track on The Clown, “Haitian Fight Song,” is one of Mingus’ greatest achievements as a bass player. It is bookended with two very complex bass solos from Mingus without any backing musicians. He explained in his liner notes that the solo is one that he can’t play unless he’s deeply concentrated on prejudice and persecution. The solo ends on one fast strong bass line that is then passed over to the saxophone and repeated until it is slowed down and the song comes to a close. His playing is equal parts soulful and complex here, and the saxophone and trombone playing are so strong that the complete absence of trumpet is not a problem. It sounds stripped down and is one of the pieces from the album Mingus’ used to show critics and other musicians that he could indeed swing while staying musically ambitious.

“Fight Song,” in contrast to his later album however, is no preparation for the whirlwind of dissonance, layered melodies, and expansive instrumentation found in just the first track of Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The section immediately features a deep dissonance coming from the tuba, an instrument rarely used in jazz at the time; the instrument choice immediately shows Mingus’ orchestral ambitions he stated he had with Black Saint that go all the way back to Duke Ellington. The section, like the entire album, is incredibly dense and features multiple layers of instruments working with and against each other. It is the sort of record that you notice new things every time; a time change, a short piano melody buried under explosive brass. Mingus’ band will often build extreme tension over several minutes only to have it abruptly and effortlessly fall into a lighter swinging section, such as on the great release that comes through “Track C”. This technique is made even more noticeable if you look at the album as one extended song cycle because regardless of track distinctions Mingus weaves musical motifs through the course of the album.

Black Saint's famous album cover

One of the key differences found between these albums is that The Clown has a different concept on each track, while Black Saint is one conceptual piece. The title track of the Clown is one of Mingus’ most famous storytelling moments. The track features Jean Sheppard whose most famous storytelling moment is the film, “A Christmas Story,” improvising a story Mingus originated about the death of a clown. Mingus’ explained that the story of a clown that lives only to make people laugh finds that people laugh the most when he suffers. In his original story it finally built up to the Clown shooting himself to the roar and applause of the crowd, but Sheppard takes it in a more ambiguous direction that Mingus said he preferred. The lengthy track features an improvisation where circus-y sounding solos are taken at breaks between Sheppard’s spoken parts, and then when Sheppard tells the story the band improvises textural sounds that help paint the picture. It achieves something very unique in Mingus’ work, the story is more direct than any other due to Sheppard, but the shift between the direct solos and the underlying textural sections provide imagery that pushes it beyond a spoken word piece. The death of the clown is never stated outright, but the climactic build of the music with Sheppard’s frantic voice at the end expresses it brilliantly.

Mingus' Clown

The storytelling on Black Saint is never as explicitly laid out as The Clown and doesn’t seem like it is intended to be. Moods are implied through the subtitles of the tracks, and Mingus himself was reluctant to discuss how he felt about the music and famously had his psychologist review it in the original liner notes. So what can be said about the music? Compared to the earlier albums this record is trying to create one massive connected statement, particularly in the B-side of the record where he does away with track distinctions and puts all the sections into one 18 minute track, a choice made later the exact same year by Coltrane on A Love Supreme. The B-side has sections of deeply dissonant furious sounding music and joyous sections that again evoke Ellington-era big bands. On a few occasions all the instruments stop and reveal a flamenco style acoustic guitar solo. The final minute of the album is a re-establishment of the melodies played in the first minute. It’s an ending his psychologist said sounded unfinished, but filled with hope. All of these moments point to the fact that Mingus was no longer concerned with telling an explicitly defined story; here he is confident in the music speaking for itself.

I listen to the orchestral, dense Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and hear all of the suffering, joy, beauty, and anger Mingus and his band release while knowing that it was recorded in the same year as Coltrane’s deeply spiritual A Love Supreme; it feels not just an achievement for these musicians but for jazz as a whole. Black Saint made me think of Buddy Bolden more than anything, who is cited as a catalyst for jazz all the way back in 1906 before he went into a mental hospital for the rest of his life as the result of a violent tendencies and a nervous breakdown. More than half a century later we have Mingus, a man cited as being brutal, violent, and pretty fucking crazy, also locked up in a mental hospital. A man who, in the liner notes of this album, said he was not half as crazy as the world leaders in charge. This album captured the history of the blues and roots from Bolden’s time and looked forward with the ambition of a genius. In the words of Mingus –

“Crazy? They’d never get out of the observation ward of Bellevue. I did. So, listen how. Play this record.”

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~ by cheesedog22 on June 13, 2011.

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