Saturday, August 05, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 039 Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah-Um

I studied jazz with David Baker. That’s roughly like saying “I studied violin with Joseph Gingold” (actually, I didn’t—but I bought him Fritos), or “I studied Indian music with Hariprasad Chaurasia” (I did—but only for a year), or “I studied medieval music with Tom Binkley” (I did—but fortunately never had to accept a grade from him). I have been blessed with a few poor and mostly fantastic, superhuman, brilliant, genius teachers: the above is only a short list. So there’s some braggadocio involved. But, really, my place in that roster is not due to my own merit, but rather to the generosity and the wealth of positive energy those teachers put out in the world, for thousands of students over many decades. I was just the latest and least in a long line—but I am honored and proud to be part of those lineages.

The first time I heard David Baker play was on cello in his 21st Century Bebop Band: terrible band name, but typically a fantastic roster of rotating players drawn from his most senior students. Dave had started playing cello after his jaw was broken in a car wreck (and, neglected by the racist subhuman pigs staffing the KKK-dominated hospitals of Martinsville, Indiana, his embouchure never recovered). When his cello chops were up, David was a fantastic improviser—and he was always a magnificent composer and teacher. I’d encountered him, though, several years before that, through the series of teaching methods he authored and put out on his own small press. And, of course, through the playing, teaching, and materials of the people who played and studied with him, a list that began with Wes Montgomery, continued through Eric Dolphy and Michael Brecker (RIP), and included my contemporaries Ralph Bowen (Rutgers), Derrick Gardner (Basie), Brent Wallarab (librarian for the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra), and Tom Walsh (best of the contemporary classical saxophonists). I am honored to have been included among them.

I studied with Dave for three years, everything from bebop styles to jazz history to pedagogy to arranging to, most notably, composition. In pretty much all situations he was indefatigable, regularly carrying a quadruple teaching load and never allowed to retire, as IU repeatedly offered him more money to keep him on. As I write, he’s 75 and still going strong. I don’t play jazz anymore (one of the things Dave taught us was to play the music brilliantly, or not to play it at all), but David Baker’s part of every lesson I teach—I still use his pedagogical methods in teaching blues and Irish trad.

Dave also introduced me to Mingus’s music. Oh, I had heard it, but I first had the chance to play Mingus’s tunes in Dave’s big band, a fantastic opportunity to learn not only the mainstream repertoire of the swing era but also Dave’s great expanded compositions, blending bebop and advanced 20th-century serial techniques—they were a blast to play. Dave had us play some tunes as head arrangements, the way the Basie band put them together, he had us experiment with free improvisation, and he also had us play Mingus. This disc captures some of my favorite Mingus repertoire.

There are a lot of things I love about Mingus’s music: the way he managed to reconcile the virtuosic pickiness of bebop with the balls and joy of blues and gospel grooves; his insistence (like Ellington) that music could be “street” and “art” at the same time; his political outspokenness and his brilliant ability to use music to make political statements; his prototypical sense that jazz music could become a powerful tool of black identity; his skills (and temper) as a bandleader, providing some of the best and most challenging improvisational settings that soloists like Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, Jackie McLean, and Jimmy Knepper (who lost some teeth to a Mingus punch) ever experienced—and I’d give a month of my life, maybe more, to have heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk with the Jazz Workshop; his interest in extended compositions, freer forms, and collective improvisation, all of which prefigure both the free jazz of the 1960s and the jazz collectives of the 1970s; his titanic bass playing (as Dave said “the worst thing that ever happened to jazz bass was the invention of the pickup”—Mingus played on telephone cables and his acoustic sound could fill a room), which had driven the astonishing Bird/Diz playing on 1953’s Live at Massey Hall; and, most overwhelmingly, the sheer heart and beauty of his compositions.

There are a bunch of great and a few not-so-great Mingus albums (I’m particularly partial to Mingus Mingus Mingus etc, because it features one of the first and still one of my favorite charts to play—the volcanic II B.S.), but Mingus Ah-Um is a great place to start, as it collects some of the best-known compositions and some of his most characteristic writing.

There’s Ducally-rich color (Self-Portrait in Three Colors and Open Letter to Duke); a tribute to Parker (Bird Calls), Jelly Roll Morton (Jelly Roll), and Lester Young (the masterpiece Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, one of the greatest blues ever written—and it’s not a blues); fantastic and brutally-effective political satire (the open-form Fables of Faubus, whose lyrics, mocking anti-integrationist Arkansas governor Orville Faubus, were scrubbed from the record before the initial release), and a personal favorite: Better Git It In Your Soul, an intentional and very effective evocation of jazz’s gospel roots, complete with shouting preacher (Mingus’s bass as superhuman lead voice), call-and-response choral vocals, and the rhythmic grooves that have driven black music in this country since the 17th century.

Mingus had a very rocky personal life—feuding with critics, fighting (sometimes physically) with his sidemen, battling depression and substance abuse, at one point in the ‘60s being physically evicted from his apartment for indigency, but the music, when he could tear it out of himself, was always personal, emotional, and beautiful. Mingus couldn’t quite do what Ellington did—that is, preserve the hard-won veneer of sophistication in the most demeaning of circumstances. On the contrary: when Mingus was suffering, he let the world know it, but his music is all the more powerful for that.

I look at what the Italian-suited Young Lions of Jazz (now pretty old in the tooth) have wrought, turning the ultimate street music into an academic discipline, and while I celebrate the music’s survival, I weep for what we’ve lost—what Mingus never forget: that it was people’s music first. This music is as rich as Duke Ellington’s—and it has the courage to reach beyond Ellington, while never neglecting the earliest pre-jazz roots of the music, and to point toward the music of the future.

1 comment:

Dharmonia said...

Interesting title, Mingus Ah-Um. It's either a literal spelling of the North Indian pronunciation of OM (AUM), or it's a play on the Sanskrit phrase Om-Ah-Hum which is uttered at certain places in Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practices -- in which case Mingus is the OM.