The Many Moods of Charles Mingus

Steven J. Chandler


Jazz is at the periphery of modern tastes. Yet, it may be one of the few musical genres truly representative of the human condition, ranging the spectrum of emotions and capable of reaching spiritual depth. There’s certainly a humbler side to jazz which, like other types of music, can be more diversion than art. But it’s most powerful as a platform for personal exploration. The greatest jazz albums are expository forces, musical confessions whose notes, chords and rhythms extend directly from human sensation and feeling.


John Coltrane, for example, told of his religious awakening through his four-part suite A Love Supreme in 1965. Two years earlier, Charles Mingus released The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady, a masterful composition in six movements (or dances) which he described in the liner notes as his “living epitaph from birth ‘til the day I first heard of Bird (Charlie Parker) and Diz (Dizzy Gillespie).” Of all jazz composers, Charles Mingus understood best the capacity for jazz music to delve into the mind and spirit of the musician. The study of his work is part musical aesthetics and part psychological analysis. That said, it’s not surprising that the second half of the liner notes for The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady was written by Mingus’s psychiatrist, Edmund Pollock, Ph.D. 


As an instrumentalist, Mingus’s legend was secured through the technical and improvisational skills he displayed as a bassist. He’s one of the greatest rhythm players in the history of jazz, his prodigy evidenced early on as he toured with Louis Armstrong at the age of 21. His renown as a composer in light of his proficiency as a musician points to the originality and imagination of his compositions. Supplementing his work are anecdotes of his fiery temperament, mental instability and a political outspokenness that often alienated him from mainstream jazz audiences; the latter is exemplified in the 1963 album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus that consisted of the song Freedom, a spoken-word poem set to music in which he wrote the line “Freedom for your Daddy, freedom for your Momma, freedom for your brothers and sisters, but no freedom for me.” Racial oppression is a prevailing theme in the preponderance of Mingus’s work. He suggests, however, that his music may be richer as a result of his struggles. In the liner notes for his 1971 album Let My Children Hear Music, Mingus writes, “Had I been born in a different country or had I been born white, I am sure I would have expressed my ideas long ago. Maybe they wouldn't have been as good because when people are born free-I can't imagine it, but I've got a feeling that if it's so easy for you, the struggle and the initiative are not as strong as they are for a person who has to struggle and therefore has more to say.”


Mingus voluntarily checked himself into the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital in the late 1950’s for symptoms of mental disorder. The experience is memorialized throughout his ensuing work, particularly The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady, the album following his release. The six-part movement speaks in contradictions. The juxtaposition of opposing forces points to The Black saint & The Sinner Lady’s tumultuousness as well as its genius. There are moment of both clarity and insanity, rigorous composition and inspired improvisation. The movements are doubly named, bearing both a formal title as well as a more poetic description.


“Track B-Duet Solo Dancers” and “Mode F-Group and Solo Dance,” for example, are subtitled, “Hearts’ Beat and Shades in Physical Embraces” and “Of Love, Pain, and Passioned (sic) Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved, ‘til It’s Freedom Day,” respectively. “Track A-Solo Dancer,” the album’s opening movement, begins tentatively, slinks forward like a curious cat before mews and howls of ecstasy and agony are let loose. There’s a gospel element throughout the composition, the spiritual underpinning of a discourse between “The Black Saint,” who is presumably Mingus, and the mythical “Sinner Lady,” his temptress. Tempos are never constant and there are variations of melodic lines throughout, pulling the listener in various directions simultaneously, always teetering the line between anticipation and climax. Not quite sexuality, there’s a dangerous sensuality pervading the entirety of Mingus’ most heralded work.


The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady marked a moment of transcending vision that would ultimately come to define jazz and its propensity for surpassing its presumed limits. Composed in orchestral form, the album is in many ways more closely related to classical music than jazz. It also has roots in gospel and the blues and is composed in a form that Mingus termed neither classical nor jazz, but “ethnic folk-dance music.” The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady is self-divulgence. The composition is a center of gravity to which the furor of his emotions are tethered.


In his autobiography Beneath The Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, the composer writes, “there’s all kinds of emotion to play in music, but the one I’m trying to play is very difficult. It’s the truth of what I am. It’s not difficult to play the mechanics of it, but it’s difficult because I’m changing all the time.” The changing nature of Mingus and its musical implications are further described by Dr. Pollock, who writes, “It must be emphasized that Mr. Mingus is not yet complete. He is still in a process of change and personal development. Hopefully the integration in society will keep pace with his. One must continue to expect more surprises from him.”


Mingus continues to surprise jazz listeners despite his passing. Found among his papers following his death in 1979 was a symphonic work entitled Epitaph, a 4,235 measure-long piece that was conducted by Gunther Schuller in 1989. Schuller described the work as “among the most important, prophetic, creative statements in the history of jazz.” It was another haunting moment of musical genius in Mingus’s three-decade long career. The symphony is peppered with notes of anger, betrayal, love and hope, leaving you with what is likely the most accurate portrait of Mingus: a man of countless moods.


One cannot just listen to the music of Charles Mingus. You must meet him halfway, venture the human landscape which he sets forth in valleys of beauty and brutality, in volcanic lava flows that pour directly from his heart. The cadence of his music is much more than simply a means of keeping time. It’s his own rhythmic throbbing, his heart’s iridescent trembling, or as Mingus describes it in his autobiography, “…evidence of my soul’s will to live beyond my sperm’s grave, my metathesis or eternal soul’s new encasement.”


Author Bio:

Steven J. Chandler is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


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Tom Marcello (Wikipedia Commons)
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