22 April 2011

Mingus Dynasty

"How would you characterize the kind of music you play now?"

"There once was a word used--swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that's very restrictive. But I use the term 'rotary perception.' If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle you're more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three of four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That's like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat--each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle but the original feeling for the beat isn't changed. If one in the group loses confidence, somebody hits the beat again. The pulse is inside you. When you're playing with musicians who think this way you can do anything. Anybody can stop and let the others go on. It's called strolling. In the old days when we got arrogant players on the stand we'd do that--just stop playing and a bad musician would be thrown.
"What about British jazz? Have we got the feeling?"

"If you're talking about the technique, musicianship, I guess the British can be as good as anybody else. But what do they need to play jazz for? It's the American Negro's tradition, it's his music. White people don't have a right to play it, it's colored folk music. When I was learning bass with Rheinschagen he was teaching me to play classical music. He said I was close but I'd never really get it. So I took some Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson records to my next lesson and asked him if he thought those artists had got it. He said they were Negroes trying to sing music that was foreign to them. Solid, so white society has its own traditions, let 'em leave ours to us. You had your Shakespeare and Marx and Freud and Einstein and Jesus Christ and Guy Lombardo but we came up with jazz, don't forget it, and all the pop music in the world today is from that primary cause."
"I'll never make much money and I'll always suffer 'cause I shoot off my mouth about agents and crooks..."

-from Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog, His World as Composed By Mingus, 350-352.
Mingus was not simply making music, he was creating a canon of American art music. But it wasn't simply American music, it was a reflection of his identity as a light-skinned black man in a racially segregated country where he felt alienated from both white and black people (hence the title of his memoir, Beneath the Underdog). As such, he drams from so many traditions (blues, gospel, classical, various Latin folk musics), but brings it all together into a style that is completely jazz but also a departure from it. Like his hero, Duke Ellington, Mingus saw himself as creating a high art form that was self-consciously African American. Of all Duke's children, he has gone the farthest in fulfilling Duke's aim, "the development of an authentic Negro music."1

1Eric Porter, What is this Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists, 1.

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