The Mingus Big Band: “So musical a discord, such sweet thunder”
Duke Ellington could sell me anything. When I was growing up in a remote rural part of Australia, before the invention of the internet, whatever I knew of the world was tuned in through a National Transistor radio. Duke Ellington’s music loomed large in that world. He became my encyclopaedia.
Studying Shakespeare’s plays at school had been a chore and then Duke Ellington made the concept of Shakespeare cool for me, and coherent. “Shakespeare is dug by the craziest of cats,” he said when he wrote music around characters from Shakespeare’s plays and performed at the Stratford Music Festival. “Whether it be Shakespeare or jazz, the only thing that counts is the emotional effect on the listener.” The record of his music for the Shakespeare festival takes its title from Hippolyta’s description of Hercules’ barking dogs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Never did I hear
Such gallant chiding; for, besides the graves
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem’d all one mutual cry; I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder
“So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” Shakespeare could have been talking about the music of Charles Mingus. It took me a long time to warm to Charles Mingus’s music. I wanted desperately to like it. His symphonic works and thematically dense long pieces were a natural progression for me from the long-form works by Duke Ellington that I loved unreservedly.
“Mingus revered Duke Ellington, with whom he shared the knack for composing vivid musical portraits of musicians, friends and places – they were, in fact, the most autobiographical of composers – and the determination not to be limited by fads and categories,” wrote the great jazz critic Gary Giddins. “Only Mingus rivalled Ellington’s compositional variety in the jazz tradition, and in the area of longer works, he was in some respects more successful … Mingus was a bassist, pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader, record producer, festival organiser, and autobiographer, and he achieved something of lasting importance in every area.”
But the molten qualities of Mingus’s arrangements, the way his music seemed to have been heated to a great temperature, warping the sound as it moved through the air, made me feel seasick. The arrangements would erupt into slapstick chaos that reminded me of the Marx Brothers, with snatches of standards inserted like punchlines from jokes, voices calling and howling, and then the wild fog of noise would lift leaving the instruments separate, and performing with exquisite clarity. There was a bedrock of heart-lifting and soul-stirring gospel and blues, though, that was ultimately reassuring and kept me coming back to Mingus’s music.
It was seeing the Laughing Clowns perform so often in the early 1980′s that won me over to Mingus’s side. “Get yourself to a performance space. That’s where the music lives,” Alex Ross, the author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century, told an interviewer. The music of the Laughing Clowns is nothing like Charles Mingus’s but it has equivalent foundations, a sexy soul groove underpinning an appetite for unbridled instrumental experimentation.
After falling under the spell of the Laughing Clowns what had seemed strange in Mingus’s music, as if by magic, suddenly seemed like the most radically beautiful sounds I’d ever heard.
Over the years I’ve bought Charles Mingus’s records haphazardly, choosing Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus for its version of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo”, and Pithecanthropus Erectus because palaeontology is a hobby, and the title is a reference to a human ancestor. When I moved to New York in the late 1980′s I was thrilled to find that being on Park Avenue in rush hour was an exact transcription of Pithecantropus Erectus. The noise of traffic honking, people shouting, bits of songs briefly heard from radios, was music worthy of Mingus. Park Avenue seems prehistoric, the skyscrapers loom like dinosaurs and it ends in a sight gag, it seems like you’re going to drive straight into these megabuildings and then the road swerves away and around them. One day I saw the fashion designer Zandra Rhodes walking around there, with her bright pink crest of hair and spangly vibrant plumage looking like a creature exquisitely adapted to this environment.
On his blog, also called The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross writes about warming to music whose charms had previously eluded him by hearing it performed in concert. “It’s not just the special acoustic properties of music sounding in a resonant room but the psychology of being forced to listen to, say, Vaughan Williams’s A Lark Ascending when I’ve really come for Sibelius’s Fourth. Music changes depending on where we hear it, when we hear it, who we are today. A Lark Ascending, which I’ve been ignoring for years, may suddenly snap into focus. Back in the days of Feed magazine, Steven Johnson wanted to organize a discussion on this topic: What’s going on in the brain when you listen to a song that you think you hate now but will fall in love with three years down the line?
When Charles Mingus died in 1979 his wife Sue inherited a colossal pile of scores, a stack of paper weighing fifty pounds, and she created three bands – the 7 piece Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Orchestra – to keep performing his music and elevate his stature as a composer. The bands have a large roster of musicians that move in and out and the bands tour the world. The Mingus Big Band also has a weekly residency at a club in New York.
When I saw the The Mingus Big Band in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House a few weeks ago it was the first time, I think, I’ve ever heard any of Mingus’s music performed and I was thoroughly charmed. I didn’t have any idea who the musicians were. They were introduced but I need to see names written down for them to stick in my mind. My preparation was sketchy, I’d entirely missed crucial works, or heard them without enough context to understand their musical and social importance. And although I’d read illuminating studies of Mingus’s music, I first read Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise and Gary Giddins’s two volumes of jazz criticism before I owned my iPhone. It’s an important point to make. Since I’ve started reading with my iPhone by my side Wikipedia entries have become the equivalent of the liner notes I used to rely on that were printed on Blue Note and Impulse! jazz albums, and I can pause in my reading to preview music in iTunes, maybe even watch videos of performances through YouTube, and find extra pieces of criticism, generally linked to from the composers and performers websites. In the last month, since buying an Apple computer, iTunes has become a scrapbook for me. I make brief notes about the performers and instrumentation in the notes section of the info tab for each song, and cut-and-paste bits of criticism and articles and save them in the lyrics section.
I’m wary of the Genius function, which recommends a list of songs that are somehow related to the song I’ve selected. Algorithms are amazing devices and over time, as their databases are bigger and they have a wider set of patterns to select from, their power to link and relate can be astonishing. But algorithms as we know them have a craven purpose at the moment, finding things to sell us, they’re tuned to the way markets tag and group merchandise for sale. When Alex Ross won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant last year for his contributions to music criticism I had visions of him putting the “genius” into the genius playlist. (He’s already created an iTunes playlist for The Rest Is Noise, which the record companies prevent him from publishing outside the sales territory of the United States.) I could imagine selecting a piece of music, Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, that is one of his favourite pieces of music, and seeing what he’d link and relate it to, with a journal function added to the info tab, so I could keep a record of his notes for the pieces of music if I decided to buy them.
In concert the Mingus Big Band artfully walked two tightropes, between educating the novices and taking the experience deeper for those who already deeply appreciate Mingus’s music, and between celebrating the music as and when Charles Mingus wrote it and bringing to it new life that he could never have anticipated. It was a stupendous, magnificently alive performance. It was like being dumped back on Park Avenue amongst the wild life of New York. It was loud but not ear splitting and the band had the easy, goofy theatrics of a rock and roll band. One of the guys from the horn section wore a pirates bandanna and slunk around the stage like a Looney Tunes panther.
The Mingus Ah Um album is fifty years old. The concert opened with “The Fables of Faubus”, written for that album in 1957, as a protest against the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who sent in the National Guard to prevent the racial integration of the Little Rock High School. The social message is carried through the music with Confederate tunes from the Civil war era briefly floated through the arrangement. After the concert I bought a version of “The Fables of Faubus” that has lyrics: “Boo to nasty fascists”, “Boo to the Klan”. The last time we were in Australia it was not a great time, the bassist and bandleader said, George W Bush was still President, but now it’s a new world with President Obama in charge.
The portraits that most tangibly bring alive their subjects to me are Alexander Calder’s wire sculptures. In his coiled portrayal of Josephine Baker I can hear the jazz, the swooningly smooth glide and sensual elegance of Duke Ellington’s music. In the Mingus Big Band’s performance of “Open Letter To Duke” that whole world opened up. The staging of the concert was subtle and worked grandly to effect. Lights traced snowflake patterns and watery waves on the floor, the curtains behind the band lit up with intense jewel colours and during the Ellington tribute soft light fell like gold dust onto the shoulders of the band.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was Charles Mingus’s tribute to Lester Young who’d died just before the recording of Mingus Ah Um. On the website of the late bass player, Jaco Pastorious, it says that not long before his death Mingus had initially approached Joni Mitchell to create a project based around T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. That project never eventuated but she recorded an album of adaptations of Mingus’s own music with Jaco Pastorious, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Mingus died before hearing it. Within the Mingus Big Band’s performance of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” Joni Mitchell’s lyrics for the music were sung. The effect was phenomenal. Joni Mitchell hadn’t taken an exact tracing of Mingus’s music, she’d extracted an essence. So when her lyrics were overlaid on Mingus’s music, it was possible to hear both separately, and gain a sense of what Mingus had heard in her songs and what she’d heard in his music. I read an interview with Wayne Shorter about his recordings with Joni Mitchell. He described her presenting the project to him as a painter might, with vivid, verbal imagery.
Now that I’m listening for it, I’m hearing Mingus’s music in other places. Elvis Costello was invited by Sue Mingus to write lyrics for some of Mingus’s music and has recorded a version of “Hora Decubitus” with the Metropole Jazz Orkest, and there’s a tribute to Charles Mingus on a recent album by Cuban bassist, Orlando “Caichato” Lopez (who died in February of this year).
“During his lifetime, Charles was seen as a virtuoso bassist, a colourful figure on the bandstand, a larger than life personality,” Sue Mingus told All About Jazz in 2004. “But back then, musicians did not play his music in the way they played the music of Duke (Ellington) or (Thelonious) Monk. There was this perception among many critics and musicians as well that Charles’ music was just too difficult. But whenever you have a person who creates music of great originality, it takes time for people to become accustomed to that sound. Add the fact that Charles’ music is so personal, and touches many styles, and there were a lot of factors that made it difficult to have his compositions recognised back then. So it just takes time. Now people can see his music is accessible just because of its astonishing variety. There’s certainly everything in the music, from blues, bebop, classical, Indian, Latin. It’s got the energy of rock and the complexities of classical and jazz, and it’s all combined in this wonderful, accessible melting pot.”