Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton


Charles Mingus, 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival                                                      ©Ray Avery/CTSIMAGES

What was in the American air that third week of September 1964? Strangeness abounded. The nearly 900 page final report of the Warren Commission’s investigation of the Kennedy assassination was handed to Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Charles Mingus became a star. Americans soon pored over photo sequences that gruesomely supported the final report’s conclusions about what happened in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, all but a year before; soon, there was talk about a “magic bullet,” a “grassy knoll,” shadowy conspiracy, dark foreign powers, and a state-within-a-state. Ordinary photographs by ordinary citizens were subject to a version of Dalí’s “paranoid-critical” method that turned a bush into a man with a gun, a raised umbrella into a sardonic reminder of appeasement or a steampunk murder weapon firing “flechettes.” Identity became unfixed and ambiguous. Who was Oswald? And what was Oswald? My American friends at school, navy kids in the main, insisted that JFK was not dead but was being cared for behind heavy security on a nearby Scottish island. We spoke of Avalon even before Arthur Schlesinger made a cliché out of Camelot. The king had gone under the hill, waiting for the moment of return.

At almost exactly the same moment, and himself no stranger to guns, Mingus was being hailed as a major American artist, a composer of the front rank. His Monterey performance of September 20 1964 was a critical smash. Its program grafted together well-known but rarely so well understood Ellington themes with original material that had evolved over the previous months, on tour and in workshop rehearsals. The augmented Monterey band was build round the armature of the most compelling small group in jazz, one that had suffered its own multiple loss during its European tour that spring; first frail Johnny Coles to a perforated ulcer; then Eric Dolphy’s death, less than 90 days before Monterey. The group that followed, with Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson, was if anything more confidently attuned to Mingus’s emerging vision (My Favorite Quintet?), even if it lacked the anecdotal glamour and tragic aura of its predecessor.

There was something strange, though, about the chorus of approval for the Monterey performance, and for Mingus himself. In an essay that accompanies a new Mosaic box of Mingus’s 1964 and 1965 performances, the composer’s widow Sue describes the media response to Monterey. Time magazine, almost painfully hip to jazz after putting Thelonious Monk on the cover in February, hailed Mingus as the greatest composer in the music, but the San Francisco Examiner, which couldn’t even claim him as a home-town boy, likened Mingus to Debussy and his bowing of the bass to cellist Pablo Casals. Is this merely hyperbole, or a curious brand of cultural cringe? Why is a great American artist being defined in European terms? Why does Europe loom so large at this moment? A new Jamesian trope seems to be in operation. The evolution of Mingus’s new music largely took place across the Atlantic and on the road, one of the most comprehensively documented jazz tours of the period. It began straight after the Town Hall date of April 4 1964. There are tapes from Amsterdam, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Bremen, Paris, Liège (though I’ve never knowingly heard it), Bologna (likewise), Wuppertal, and Stuttgart, then a journey home and a hiatus before the live Jazz Workshop recording released as Right Now with the latest palimpsest on “Meditation (For [sic] A Pair of Wire Cutters).” There is probably no more extraordinary sequence in the whole jazz discography than what leads up to the Monterey performance.

This was, of course, the year of the “British invasion.” The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits stormed the American pop charts. London and Liverpool were cool. There were other signs, too, that cultural momentum had swung back towards the Old World. The holding corporation of Old America was falling stock. Whether this was the psychic outcome of Kennedy’s assassination and the multiple doubts it evoked or whether it represented some restoration of European cultural confidence after its post-war, post-austerity slump, or some combination of the two, is now impossible to judge but hard to miss. This, remember, was also the year Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood set about redefining that most American of art forms with the first of the “spaghetti” Westerns, A Fistful of Dollars. The gunslinging outsider was a role Mingus made his own, arguably already had by 1964. The notion of a world fought over between bad men and worse men was in the air. Barry Goldwater told Americans – or at least he told Republicans – that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” but lost to Lyndon Johnson’s hastily branded notion of the Great Society, a phrase apparently coined by speechwriter Richard N. Goodwin who gave up politics after another Kennedy assassination and who later, and with no evident sense of irony, titled a book Promises to Keep.

It was a year when well-intentioned progressivism rope-walked over the abyss of Vietnam, a year globally of post-colonial liberations, hardening arteries in the Soviet bloc, and a common desire, in East and West, to be rid of the bounds of Earth and gravity and move outward to the moon, planets and stars. When John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme in December 1964, the NASA probe Mariner 4 was nudging out into the solar system. It began sending back the first television pictures of Mars just as Mingus prepared for his second consecutive Monterey appearance. At one level, this is mere coincidence and chronological overlap, the kind of cobbled-together Zeitgeist facilitated by the internet: “on this day in 1964 ...” Is it too much to read any, let alone all, of these American jitters in the music he was making at the time? There has rarely lacked a consensus for the view that Mingus was more than usually responsive to current events and political issues. A survey of his composition book alone would suggest so.

The evolution of music contained in the new Mosaic box of largely unreleased performances from 1964 and 1965 suggests that he may well have benefited creatively from being away from America for a time. Europe was quickly to re-acquire its old viperish reputation with the news of Eric Dolphy’s death, innocence snatched and struck down, but it was during that prolonged tour (whose dynamics were repeated to some degree a decade later) that Mingus at last found a way to make the architectonics of his music come “off the page.” What happens to “Meditations on Integration” over the course of the summer isn’t simply a matter of finessing a title. It is about the creation of a body of music not by orthodox “composition” but in the existential thralls of actual performance and with an orchestra that was sustaining actual casualties. No one will have overlooked that while this was the year Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize, it was also the year Jean-Paul Sartre declined the prize for literature. Sartre told a group of us in 1977 that he admired Mingus very much but was disappointingly unable to name a favorite record or theme.

Eastwood isn’t an entirely irrelevant name – or Man With No Name – in this context. The only previously released sections of the September 18 1965 Monterey performance was a single tune on a compilation Clint curated on his Malpaso label and one released by Sue Mingus, who’d met Charles the year before, shortly after Dolphy’s death, on her East Coasting imprint. In the interim, after fractious discussions with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, Mingus seems to have settled on starting another imprint of his own, Charles Mingus Enterprises, to succeed the boldly overstretched Debut of the previous decade. The second Monterey performance was as ill-starred as others among Charles’s most cherished appearances. Saxophonist John Handy apparently over-ran. The crowd got restive and many went home. Mingus threw out the set-list and much of the intended material wasn’t performed until the Royce Hall concert in Los Angeles on Christmas Day. Hence the release of a record with the gnomic title Music Written for Monterey, Not Heard . . . Played In Its Entirety at UCLA (which Sue refers to as “... not played, performed at UCLA” in her essay).

All this is well-trodden material. The re-discovery of the Monterey 1965 tapes, with Mingus talking his musicians through new charts, defiantly Workshopping his material (or “rehearsing at the public’s expense,” to quote an old cynic’s definition of jazz), the restitution of a substantial portion of “Parkeriana,” his meditation on bop, from the pre-tour Town Hall concert back in April: these all count as distinct and substantive recoveries in a process of archaeology that has been under way since Mingus’s death. His entire discographical career now seems to reverse the norm, where official releases are posthumously “augmented” by rehearsal material, alternates and snatched live moments. With Mingus, the “official” discography now seems like a torso, the fragmentary survival of something much grander and probably unsuspected at the time, which is now emerging only slowly through releases like this and through the tireless work of Sue and the Mingus Big Band.

The performance of Epitaph set the epoch, not just for Mingus studies, but for modern jazz as a whole. It foregrounded jazz composition in a striking new way. It dealt a further blow to the notion of jazz as an essentially ephemeral form, but also to the notion of a jazz as a readily commoditized form. Unfortunately for Mingus, the great set-piece public events of his life – one would have to include the 1962 Town Hall imbroglio as well as the 1965 Monterey appearance – were stalked by bad luck, compounded by Charles’s own complex temperament, in which vulnerability, perhaps some gullibility or at best naivety were at least as present as the familiar, casually assigned labels: “volcanic,” “turbulent” and the like – we’ve all done it. Instead of the albums being salient moments, finished and fully achieved, they more and more seem like broken segments of something much larger.

This is not to propose an absurd revisionism like the second debunking of Shakespeare in the structuralist 1980s when grown-up academics announced that King Lear was no good, and Thomas Dekker’s romp The Shoemaker’s Holiday a far superior work. Mingus’s great albums – Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Presents – are precisely that, and by any standard, but almost alarmingly their greatness increasingly resides in what we now understand to have lain beneath and behind, which is the work of a surpassingly gifted composer. This is a logic that can be applied to almost any jazz artist: X’s albums are fine in their way, but you should have heard him in rehearsal, or that night in June 1956 at the Romper Room; and you should have read some of the compositions his widow burned after the funeral.

The difference with Mingus is that there is no such easy transvaluation to be made, no privileging of moments that weren’t caught on tape; his widow, far from destroying the MSS, has steadily brought them forward, nurtured them and given them full expression. The life-time discography retains its monolithic importance and is the route for most new listeners. Sue Mingus told me that Charles had regarded Mingus Dynasty as an album of equal or greater importance to Ah Um, which was recorded six months earlier, but that the label and then, dutifully, the critics had decided that the May 1959 recording was the iconic one, perhaps because of “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat.” Charles tipped his hat to an ancestor and honored shade, but it offers only a limited and not always typical view. Sue, on almost every session in his career, including those recovered for the Mosaic box, made him even more of a giant by broadening our view of him.

What he saw from that vantage is what remains at issue. For me, increasingly, and with a further jump of realization having listened to the Mosaic materials, is that Mingus’s achievement was to take jazz beyond the Newtonian dimensions of its origins and first half-century. At the moment America and Russia were vying for a new frontier, at the moment pop music was being taken over by wound-up folk forms and the Beatles’ strange hybrid of rock and roll and Lancashire music-hall, at the moment, if you wish, that what it meant to be American was under scrutiny as not since 1776 or perhaps 1865, and certainly not in recent memory since 1917, Mingus was transforming a uniquely American art-form. That he was cursed with so cross-grained a cultural legacy and a personality that was both turbulent and volcanic made it difficult to hear what he was about. One cannot blame the record industry, or white promoters, or the therapist who contributed a liner note to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, or even the critics for not fully understanding Mingus’s nature and the level of his achievement “at the time.”

The problem that jazz routinely faces is the fetishism of the immediate. If you really “had to be there,” if it really only works “in the moment,” then comprehension is in those proportions inevitably limited. Haydn, Beethoven, Bartók, Stockhausen only began to make complete sense when the last note was written; Stockhausen is an excellent point of comparison, in that the personality and the legacy are so complex it will take time, and some careful excavation of the site, to reveal the full dimensions and grandeur of the work, even if some of its elements seem preposterous. The rediscovery of Mingus – a phrase that will irritate anyone who has been an admirer for years, and is intended to do so – is like the rediscovery of Machu Picchu, which was announced to the world by Hiram Bingham in 1911. I stand by this analogy as well because when I met Mingus in France in Italy in 1974, he was poring over an old National Geographic special on the Peruvian site, and with obvious fascination. He is jazz’s “old peak” and its most elusive sacred site. It has taken a century to scratch the surface of Machu Picchu. I sense that at last, and thanks to projects like the Mosaic box, we’re moving faster and more confidently with Mingus.

Brian Morton©2012

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