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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