Weird Nightmare: An Afternoon Meditation on Charles Mingus

“In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”

– Charles Mingus

Stumbled across this documentary on Youtube today, and it totally absorbed my afternoon.  Weird Nightmare was directed by Ray Davies, formerly of The Kinks, and focuses on Charles Mingus, but more specifically, the man behind so many incendiary, thumping bass lines and orchestrations.  Here’s part one:

One thing that becomes sharply apparent while listening to Mingus is that his music and compositions are at the same time fiendishly individual and completely a product of background.  His body of work is as diverse as the man who wrote them; Mingus had African, Chinese, English and Swedish blood running through his veins.  I would need more space than I reasonably have available in one post, maybe even one book to throughly dissect Mingus’ immense and impressive body of work, so two albums will be focused on today, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and Mingus Plays Piano.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, the bassist and composer’s magnum opus, is as much of a pastiche of varying musical styles as Mingus is a collage of race and identity.  The album is very firmly jazz, but it is arguably just as firmly identified with the 20th century classical works of Stravinsky and Mosolov.  Mingus’ bass parts beautifully reflect and echo the phrasing and voices that rear their heads in his other albums, but the songs are colored with a grander vibe.

“I’m too busy playing. When I’m playing I don’t pay attention to who’s listening. When I was listening I listened to symphony orchestras, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky. You don’t listen to one instrument; you listen to music.”

A striking blend of these musical styles appear on Piano, in which the upright bass and lush orchestra is traded in for a single set of keys.  It’s almost pure classical, and yet it sounds like what a Mingus solo piano should sound like.  Regardless of the style or the delivery method, Mingus’ music is always sharply and unapologetically Minguslike.  Exactly the same phrases that thundered off of the strings of the bass on earlier albums glitter from the keys and are nearly unrecognizable; but they are still pure Mingus.

“They’re singing your praises while stealing your phrases.”

Charles Mingus didn’t always rub people the right way (In 1955, he played a “reunion” show with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach.  When Powell had to be helped off of the stage after making it clearly apparent that he was unable to play or even speak coherently, Mingus antagonized him from his spot next to a microphone.  The show fell apart, and Parker was dead a week later.  In another often repeated story, Mingus, angered at an unresponsive and generally uninterested crowd, said “Issac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit.”) and he certainly was not the most well liked man in jazz, but he is far and away one of the great geniuses of the genre. Mingus uses his music and composing skills to release the man behind the bass, behind the piano, behind the sheet music.   In the liner notes for Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Dr. Edmund Pollock, Ph.D., Mingus’ personal psychoanalyst, sums up the man and the album quite nicely (if not so concisely):

As Nat Hentoff has stated, “Mingus is ingenuous,” ever growing, looking for change and ways to communicate his life experiences, his awareness and feelings of himself and life.  His early and late life sufferings as a person and as a black man were surely enough to cause sour bitterness, hate, distortions and withdrawal.   Yet, Mr. Mingus never has given up.  From every experience such as a conviction for assault or as an inmate of a Bellevue locked ward, Mr. Mingus has learned something and has stated it will not happen again to him.  He is painfully aware of his feelings and he wants desperately to heal them.  He also is cognizant of a power dominated and segregated society’s impact upon the underdog, the underprivileged and the minority.  Inarticulate in words, he is gifted in musical expression which he constantly uses to articulate what he perceives, knows, and feels.

That’s all for today, sugarlumps.  Go watch that whole documentary (there are eight parts in all, and you can find them here) and go listen to all the Mingus you can get your ears on.

One response to “Weird Nightmare: An Afternoon Meditation on Charles Mingus

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