JJ 08/63: Charles Mingus – a critical view of his music

Sixty years ago, A. J. Bishop regarded the metropolitan embrace of folk music manifest in Mingus's work as reactionary and pretentious. First published in Jazz Journal August 1963

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There are few more controversial figures in contemporary jazz than Charlie Mingus. Even people who are highly enthusiastic about his music have re­servations to make about it. “Some of it is banal”, wrote Clive Loveless (Jazz Journal, June ’63). Writing of the album “Mingus Oh Yeah!”, Steve Voce re­marked:—”The one factor which keeps this set from greatness is rubbish, which unfortunately abounds in concentrated but isolated spots” (Jazz Journal, Nov­ember ’62).

Charlie’s preoccupation with ‘root’ music is part of a reactionary movement in contemporary jazz and ‘pop’ music, which both now seek inspiration from the same source:—Negro blues and Church music

Charlie’s most characteristic recent music is illustrative, rather than abstract; and is violently, sometimes incoherently, expressionistic. A great deal has been written about the “emotional involve­ment” of Charlie’s “root” music, as if violent dissonance and harsh colour, often used in conjunction with traditional melodic material, were in themselves in­dicative of profound emotion. This superficial view is, unfortunately, all too common in jazz circles. The eccentricity and violence of Charlie’s music is misleading in another way, because it gives an experimental gloss to music which is usually traditional in form. This marks him off clearly from a real innovator, such as Ornette Coleman, who makes few concessions to the past in his music. Charlie’s preoccupation with “root” music is part of a reactionary movement in contemporary jazz and “pop” music, which both now seek inspiration from the same source:—Negro blues and Church music. This movement is one which vulgarises and makes a sad mock­ery of genuinely spontaneous Negro-American folk-music. I do not doubt Charlie’s sincerity, but we must judge the results, not the intention. It is not surprising to find that there is little difference, in form or spirit, between a piece like Mingus’ Hog Callin’ Blues and the most blatantly commercial Rock ’n’ Roll record.

What is the essence of “Soul Jazz?” The composer takes an “old-time” set of harmonies (the basic blues, Ja-Da, Sister Kate are examples); he extends and alters these harmonies, because the soul jazzman not only wants to sound “rooty” and “earthy”, but he also wants to retain the harmonic sophistication introduced by the modernists; he attempts to disguise this sophistication and pre­serve a feeling of ‘”old-timiness” by using melodically short-winded but highly per­cussive phrases (Moanin’, Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, This Here, etc.). The end product is a slick, groovy tune, such as The Preacher or Jelly Roll.

Jelly Roll represents one of Charlie’s most tasteless excursions into “old-timiness”. This composition, which is supposed to embody the essence of Morton’s music, is utterly egregious. The much discussed satire is unbelievably corny and heavy-handed, and the theme reaches a nadir in banality—a banality which is absent even from Jelly’s more mediocre compositions.

Pussy Cat Dues, which is a pastiche of Dixieland style, is hardly more satisfy­ing. The trombone playing of Jimmy Knepper on this piece is full of the most incongruous stylistic juxtapositions. Kid Ory-like glissandi alternate with melodic phrases inspired by Jack Teagarden and passages of legato quavers reminiscent of J. J. Johnson. The result sounds like a potted history of jazz trombone styles, but whether it all adds up to a satisfyingly integrated solo is a question no one seems to have asked. The clarinet solo, by John Handy, is not remarkable, but it has a stylistic coher­ence and individuality which is com­pletely lacking in the trombone solo.

Too much of Charlie’s music sounds forced, oppressive, and depressing; but for listeners who are prepared to endure it there are occasional rewards. The success of his music is usually in inverse proportion to its complexity. Numbers such as Tensions and Moanin’ start well, with a gradual building up of riffs and counter-riffs, but they are spoiled at the climax by a redundancy of piled-up lines, and by an artificially induced feeling of hyper-tension which borders on hysteria. These passages, although they can be in­tensely rhythmic and even hypnotic when they are well performed, are completely lacking in subtlety, and soon become merely tiresome. The individual timbres of the excellent musicians Charlie uses cancel each other out in these “pyra­midal” ensemble passages, and the result is a welter of undifferentiated sound. The heavy-handed feeling of a great deal of his music stems from his preference for thick, muddy textures, even in con­ventionally scored pieces. A particularly graceless performance of this kind is Gunslinging Bird, a performance which is not helped by the seemingly arbitrary use of 6/8 time.

Cryin’ Blues is magnificent in parts; especially the opening, where Booker Ervin solos over a background in which the thick textures are appropriate, for once. But the wonderful effect achieved in the early bars is immediately cancelled out by moaning diminished chords, which are one of Charlie’s expressive stereo­types. A good example of simplicity paying off is the excellent recording of Boogie Stop Shuffle, a composition in the minor mode based on the blues, which is similar to Duke’s train themes. This piece, with its imaginative, crisply played riffs, good solos and lively drum­ming, has a feeling of movement lacking in the more complex pieces, which usually have a static feeling in spite of their furious activity.

As a bassist, Mingus has few rivals, and his solos have a melodiousness that is usually lacking in those of performers on this instrument

One of Charlie’s better compositions is Open Letter To Duke, which opens with another good solo by Ervin. The textures here are clearer, and Mingus makes a highly intelligent use of contrasts of tempos and rhythms, devices which have been neglected by most jazz composers.

Charlie has introduced a number of outstanding musicians to the wider jazz public, and the solos played by these musicians often form the most interest­ing parts of his records. Among the remarkable musicians who have worked with Mingus are the pianist Horace Parlan, whose playing is permeated, in the most natural way, with blues feeling; and the drummer Dannie Richmond, who is one of the finest and most under-rated percussionists in contemporary jazz. Richmond’s drumming is the main reason for the extraordinary rhythmic success of Mingus’s music. The Parlan-Mingus-Richmond rhythm team is a superb one, and it must be a stimulating experience for any soloist to have their backing. As a bassist, Mingus has few rivals, and his solos have a melodiousness that is usually lacking in those of performers on this instrument.

Mingus is one of many musicians who are searching out new paths for jazz to follow. His own path is not, and has not been, a straight one. He has been de­flected, in his recent music, by an am­bition to present old materials in a new form to which they are not always suited. Charlie’s “root” music is too vulgar to be an artistic success, and too eccentric to be a commercial success, but there is no reason to suppose that his style has assumed a fixed and final form yet. No doubt, in the course of time, he will crystallise a balanced, more emotionally mature, and purer style out of his multi­farious experiments.