Charles Mingus Explains in His Grammy-Winning Essay “What is a Jazz Composer?”

I remember the first time I heard Charles Mingus. My senior year of high school, a friend who, at the time, was studying electric bass at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, introduced me by putting on 1956’s Pithecanthropus Erectus and saying “you have to hear this.” I knew jazz in a passing way—some Ellington, some Miles Davis… not enough to make many distinctions. But I knew right away Mingus was something special. His compositions were so cool, so dynamic and angular and thoughtful, with the push-pull of his measured double bass against the occasional cacophony of piano and sax. Entranced, I sought out more, and discovered favorites like the bluesy “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”—live at Montreux in 1975 above—from Mingus’s 1959 watershed Mingus Ah Um, a record that shared the spotlight with other instant classics that year, including Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. (On that note, don’t miss the documentary, 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz.)

Mingus stood among giants, and was a giant himself. But oddly enough, while all of the artists on this list won, often multiple, Grammy awards, Mingus received no nods from the Recording Academy for any of his several dozen original albums. The snubs—if that’s what they were—may have been due to his famously irascible personality, or to the fact that Mingus eluded classification. As his friend Nat Hentoff wrote of him in 1999, jazz critics could not “find a category, a convenient term, to describe him.” Mingus himself told Hentoff, “I am trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.” But while the bassist’s musical compositions were ignored, he did receive one nomination, in 1971, for another kind of writing—the liner notes to his 1971 album Let My Children Hear Music, a record he called “the best album I have ever made” (hear it in full below). Mingus’s liner-notes essay—a lost art these days—is titled “What is a Jazz Composer?,” and it’s an insightful exploration of the artist’s own history and compositional technique.

Eloquent, but loose, Mingus’s prose wanders from personal anecdotes to philosophical ruminations. On the role  of jazz soloists as composers, he writes,

Each jazz musician when he takes a horn in his hand- trumpet, bass, saxophone, drums-whatever instrument he plays—each soloist, that is, when he begins to ad lib on a given composition with a title and improvise a new creative melody, this man is taking the place of a composer.

Later, however, Mingus seems skeptical of this idea: “each jazz musician is supposed to be a composer. Whether he is or not, I don’t know.” Although Mingus struggled as a child to read music—and faced racial barriers to a classical career—he trained first on the cello and incorporated many elements of classical music, as well as gospel and big band, into his compositions. When the bop era of improvisation came along, Mingus rolled with it, but found himself looking critically at the new wave represented by, for example, Ornette Coleman’s showy solos. The essay, even so many years after the bop revolution, reflects his ambivalence. He writes:

Today, things are at the other extreme. Everything is supposed to be invented, the guys never repeat anything at all and probably couldn’t. They don’t even write down their own tunes, they just make them up as they sit on the bandstand. It’s all right, I don’t question it. I know and hear what they are doing. But the validity remains to be seen—what comes, what is left, after you hear the melody and after you hear the solo. Unless you just want to hear the feeling, as they say.

Mingus was an oddity in the post-bop world; he generally eschewed the soloist approach. Instead, he seems to see himself operating in a classical, or at least more formal, tradition, drawing as much from Stravinsky as from Ellington. As one writer puts it, his music was “schizophrenic in that it both harked back to the New Orleans roots of jazz and looked forward to progressive chamber jazz and ‘third stream’ jazz. His compositions ranged wildly in mood and dynamics, from puntillistic counterpoint to massive Wagner-ian explosions.” In his liner notes, he laments the limited instrumentation of jazz, which he finds “stifling.” Mingus makes it clear that as a composer, he strives for highbrow respectability, while also stressing that he thinks the virtuosity of jazz has pushed all forms forward, including classical. Bequeathing his album to his successors, his musical “children,” Mingus urges future jazz composers to expand their range into symphonic territory:

I think it is time our children were raised to think they can play bassoon, oboe, English horn, French horn, lull percussion, violin, cello. The results would be-well the Philharmonic would not be the only answer for us then. If we so-called jazz musicians who are the composers, the spontaneous composers, started including these instruments in our music, it would open everything up, it would get rid of prejudice because the musicianship would be so high in caliber that the symphony couldn’t refuse us.

Some of Mingus’s contemporaries found his classical aspirations cold and offputting. For example, Mingus describes in an interview how Fats Navarro—who said he “always played with hate”—chided the bassist by saying, “Mingus, you just played the theory. you didn’t tell me how you felt. You didn’t say, ‘Hello, Fats, I love you.’ You didn’t play nothing beautiful” (an observation Mingus says “woke him up”).

The liner notes essay is replete with other reminisces of Mingus’s musical coming-of-age, from his love for Debussy, Stravinsky, and Strauss, to his tutelage under “master musician” Lloyd Reese. You can read the whole thing here at the official Mingus site, which features more of his writing, such as “An Open Letter to Miles Davis,” originally published in Down Beat Magazine in 1955.

Related Content:

1959: The Year that Changed Jazz

How to Potty Train Your Cat: A Handy Manual by Charles Mingus

Rare Miles Davis Live Recordings Capture the Jazz Musician at the Height of His Powers

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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