Tag Archives: Charles Mingus

Something to say

Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements is now out and ready for purchase in both paperback and Kindle ebook editions.

Well, I’m excited, anyway.

Learn how a segregationist governor’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show inspired one of the greatest concept albums of the Seventies!  Savor the result of a collaboration between one of jazz music’s greatest composers and the man behind A Christmas Story! Ponder what the author of the noir thriller The Big Clock has to tell us about the newspaper industry!  See what happened when an anti-war group joined a Memorial Day parade and looked Red State America right in the face! Learn how a generation of underappreciated American writers got screwed out of credit for inspiring one of the biggest film franchises of all time!

Above all, find out why historian Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, says I “wield a straight-razor for a pen.” Find out why Michael Gray, author of acclaimed books about Blind Willie McTell and Bob Dylan, calls me “an exemplary cultural critic.” And take a stroll through the area where politics, culture, and history overlap — and ignite.  

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Blue Monday (African flower edition)

In the early 1960s, Duke Ellington found himself between recording contracts, and decided to capitalize on it by working with some of the young turks who were redefining jazz. His album with John Coltrane produced one sublime track (their beautiful version of “In a Sentimental Mood”) but was undercut by the fact that Coltrane was playing with Ellington’s regular sidemen. There was no such problem when Ellington went into the studio with Charles Mingus and Max Roach,  two iconoclasts who loved Duke’s music but were equally determined to keep him on his toes every minute. (That Mingus had been fired from Ellington’s orchestra, years earlier, after he got into a brawl with Juan Tizol no doubt added a whole layer of subtext.) Not all of the tension was directed at Ellington: at one point, the legendarily combative Mingus grew so angry with Roach that he packed up his bass and headed for the elevator, and only came back after Duke spent some time smoothing his feathers.

The album that resulted, Money Jungle (1962), is a tense, often combative sounding record loaded with remarkable music, but not exactly easy listening. Except, that is, for “Fleurette Africaine,” an Ellington tune that qualifies as virtually spontaneous composition. According to Duke, he prepped Mingus and Roach by describing an image of a flower standing alone in a forest. Mingus closed his eyes and came up with the fluttering bass line that opens the song, and Roach improvised subtle but emphatic accompaniment. The tune’s a wonder, and the performance is a career standout for all three musicians. It’s certainly one of my all-time favorite Ellington compositions.

The simplicity and beauty of the tune seems to attract at least as many musicians as Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” with equally mixed results. I rather like this guitar duo treatment on YouTube:

On the opposite end of the scale is this treatment by Gary Burton and Pat Metheny. Both men have their fans, but this version is way too ornate for my tastes:

This version by the amusingly named Trio De Janeiro hath charms to soothe the savage beast:

But in the end, I prefer the simpler approach, whether from Duke or any other interpreter:

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Dream projects: Spike Lee

The idea here is to pick a work of literature just waiting to be filmed, and pick the filmmaker who should do it. The first pick was David Cronenberg for a Junichiro Tanizaki novella. Today’s pick is . . .

SPIKE LEE: Beneath the Underdog: His World As Composed By Mingus, by Charles Mingus.

“Stormy” is a word frequently used to describe jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979); it also applies to his 1971 stream-of-consciousness memoir, which is literary equivalent to one of his more ambitious compositions. Just as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” alternates swinging passages of hard bop with chaotic free jazz interludes, Beneath the Underdog staggers through long rants and digressions, sometimes alternating passages of brilliant clarity with tedious accounts of sexual exploits and random digressions. As a factual account of a man’s life, Beneath the Underdog is at best dubious, but as a record of the thoughts and preoccupations of one of America’s greatest composers, it’s fascinating.

I don’t think a direct film adaptation of Beneath the Underdog is possible or even advisable, but the book would be a fine springboard for a biographical Beneath the Underdogfilm about the man. After training up in the Forties with touring groups under Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Kid Ory in the Forties, Mingus emerged as a bandleader in the Fifties, forming a very loose, ever-shifting collection of musicians he called the Jazz Workshop. His career bridged the commercial decline of the big jazz bands and the rise of the boppers, just as his life spanned the overwhelming transformations of the civil rights era.  As Brian Priestley notes in his 1982 critical biography (still the best and most reliable work on the composer), Mingus was part of “the generation which came to maturity during and immediately after World War II, and which was no longer content to adopt either the seeming subservience of a Louis Armstrong or the sophisticated scorn of a Duke Ellington.” His rage over the slights dealt to him as a black man, combined with his readiness to joust with record companies and the music industry at large, often made Mingus a menace to his own career, as when he blew his chance to play in the orchestra of his composing idol, Duke Ellington. The account Mingus gives in Beneath the Underdog is self-serving, but the pain and humiliation of the setback is all there on the page:

This is the hero and this is the band you don’t quit, but this time you’re asked to leave because of an incident with a trombone player and arranger named Juan Tizol. Tizol wants you to play a solo he’s written where bowing is required. You raise the solo an octave, where the bass isn’t too muddy. He doesn’t like that and he comes to the room under the stage where you’re practicing at intermission and comments that you’re like the rest of the niggers in the band, you can’t read. You ask Juan how he’s different from the other niggers and he states that one of the ways that he is different is that HE IS WHITE. So you run his ass upstairs. You leave the rehearsal room and proceed toward the stage with your bass and take your place and at the moment Duke brings down the baton for “A-Train” and the curtain of the Apollo Theatre goes up, a yelling, whooping Tizol rushes out and lunges at you with a bolo knife. The rest you remember mostly from Duke’s own words in his dressing room as he changes after the show.

“Now, Charles,” he says, looking amused, putting Cartier links into the cuffs of his beautiful handmade shirt, “you could have forewarned me — you left me out of the act entirely! At least you could have let me cue in a few chords as you ran through that Nijinsky routine. I congratulate you on your performance, but why didn’t you and Juan inform me about the adagio you planned so that we could score it? I must say I never saw a large man so agile — I never saw anybody make such tremendous leaps! The gambado over the piano carrying your bass was colossal. When you exited after that I thought, ‘That man’s really afraid of Juan’s knife and at the speed he’s going he’s probably home in bed by now.’ But no, back you came through the same door with your bass still intact. For a moment I was hopeful you’d decided to sit down and play bu instead you slashed Juan’s chair in two with a fire axe! Really, Charles, that’s destructive. Everybody knows Juan has a knife but nobody ever took it seriously — he likes to pull it out and show it to people, you understand. So I’m afraid, Charles — I’ve never fired anybody — you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem, I can cope with that, but you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice, Mingus.”

The charming way he says it, it’s like he’s paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign.

There are at least three reasons why Spike Lee should tackle a film about Charles Mingus. Lee’s filmic biography of Malcolm X is one of his best works, Spike Leeand I’d like to see him return to the jazz milieu he explored in Mo Better Blues.  Most of all, Lee would be unflinching about the ways racism distorted Mingus’ life and career. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s biography of Charlie Parker, Bird, which offered viewers some comic relief by devoting lots of screen time to Parker’s 1949 tour with Red Rodney — during which Parker presented Rodney, a white man, as “Albino Red” — Lee’s film would be gutsy enough to keep the racial theme as uncomfortable as possible. And there’s no question that the splendor of the composer’s music guarantees a monster of a soundtrack .

Laugh if you will, but I can picture Ice Cube playing Mingus. The rapper is a better actor than he gets credit for — his multilayered performance as Doughboy is the main reason anyone remembers Boyz N The Hood — and his glowering presence is a close match for Mingus at his most forbidding.

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Blue Monday (Pork Pie Hat edition)

By a curious twist of fate,  saxophonist Lester Young is probably better known for inspiring a classic  tune, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” than for his own music. And the composer of the tune, Charles Mingus, is probably better known for this tribute to Young than for any of his other, more personal works. Such are the workings of fame and fate.

lester-youngOn the other hand, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” — named for Young’s favorite type of chapeau, as seen at left  — is simply one of the greatest tunes in the jazz catalogue, with a melody strong enough to resist the most determined hard bop deconstruction.  The plainest versions available from Mingus himself are on Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, but I couldn’t find any clips. So we turn to  master bassist Dave Holland, up top, chosen because his bare-bones version (a highlight of his 1993 disc One’s All) lets the spare beauty of the melody speak for itself.   

The mournful Mingus tune has enticed a surprising varity of rock musicians who keep a foot in the jazz world. Jeff Beck, for example:

John McLaughlin, another jazz-rock fusion flashmeister, is also fond of the song:

Joni Mitchell met Mingus in the mid-Seventies, when he contacted her about collaborating on an adaptation of some of T.S. Eliot’s poetry.  poetry. The meeting produced Mingus, released in 1979, one of the more curious items in Mitchell’s catalogue. Here she performs the song with guitarist Pat Metheny:

When Charlie speaks of Lester
You know someone great has gone
The sweetest swinging music man
Had a Porkie Pig hat on
A bright star
In a dark age
When the bandstands had a thousand ways
Of refusing a black man admission
Black musician
In those days they put him in an
Underdog position
Cellars and
chitlins’

When Lester took him a wife
Arm and arm went black and white
And some saw red
And drove them from their hotel bed
Love is never easy
It’s short of the hope we have for happiness
Bright and sweet
Love is never easy street!
Now we are black and white
Embracing out in the lunatic New York night
It’s very unlikely we’ll be driven out of town
Or be hung in a tree
That’s unlikely!

Tonight these crowds
Are happy and loud
Children are up dancing in the streets
In the sticky middle of the night
Summer serenade
Of taxi horns and fun arcades
Where right or wrong
Under neon
Every feeling goes on!
For you and me
The sidewalk is a history book
And a circus
Dangerous clowns
Balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions
They have been handed
Day by day
Generations on down

We came up from the subway
On the music midnight makes
To Charlie’s bass and Lester’s saxophone
In taxi horns and brakes
Now Charlie’s down in Mexico
With the healers
So the sidewalk leads us with music
To two little dancers
Dancing outside a black bar
There’s a sign up on the awning
It says “
Pork Pie Hat Bar”
And there’s black babies dancing
Tonight

And for a taste of Lester Young himself, here’s a clip from the old Jazz Party TV show I blogged about last week:

And finally, here’s Mingus himself leading a portion of a  1975 performance:

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My back pages

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Here is a year-end roundup of this site’s greatest hits to date, selected on the basis of site traffic, commentary and authorial pride.

BRUNO: An appreciation of Jacob Bronowski (above), the philosopher whose work still speaks to me, as clearly and persuasively as ever, decades after my first encounter.

THE BEST SWORDFIGHT MOVIES OF ALL TIME: The hands-down, dead-cert champion click magnet, thanks to a much appreciated link from Kung Fu Cinema that continues to bring in viewers. It was written in installments, so if you want to get the build, start here, go to here and finish up here. Some commenters have noted the prejudice in favor of European-style swordplay, and I admit I know very little about the Asian styles and genres, and my predilection is for realism over fanciful imagery. This leaves out Asian entries like Hero, in which the fight sequences are rapturously beautiful without being (or intending to be) the least bit convincing. I’m always ready to hear arguments to the contrary, however.

A NOVEL DARKLY, A MOVIE DIMLY: Regarding Philip K. Dick and the film adaptation of his finest, most disturbing novel, A Scanner Darkly.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: This brutally witty Burt Lancaster film is one of my favorite movies, and this article about it is one of my favorite posts.

mingus_charles_450pWHAT THE CLOWN KNEW: “The Clown” is a dark little fable about show business that has the same place in Charles Mingus’ huge catalogue that “The Mysterious Stranger” has in Mark Twain’s body of work. Mingus tried to merge words and music throughout his long career; with the help of  radio personality and raconteurJean Shepherd, who at the time was the reigning king of the “night people,” he made the merger work brilliantly.

EMINENCE GRAY: An appreciation of critic and biographer Michael Gray, one of the finest writers on the subject of one of the towering artists of 20th century music.

A POET WHO KEPT HIS WORD: Kenneth Fearing’s poem “Newspaperman” inspires angry and sad thoughts about the death of the newspaper business.

EVEN THE EVIL: What fallen chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer had in common with Icelandic outlaw Grettir Asmundarsen. Maybe that sounds like a stretch, but gimme a little benefit of the doubt on this.

ALL THINGS FILBOID: The genesis of the Bugs Bunny Appreciation Society was an article on the unlikely spot where Termite Terrace overlaps with the work of Hector Hugh Munro, aka Saki.

SUZE ROTOLO, SCENE STEALER: The deranging process of achieving fame, described by someone who was there to see it happen.

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