Thoughts of Mingus

I recently discovered the work of Charles Mingus. It is the closest thing to a spiritual revelation I have ever experienced. I have been completely absorbed into his life, his music. I stopped writing for days, as if my whole mental, spiritual, cultural and body system should be re-set. I tell you my very bones are not the same.
Mingus, Mingus, Mingus. It is 5.26 am and I woke up hearing ‘Self-portrait in three colours’ in my head. Not that I actually heard it, but my soul was humming it and it woke my conscious ME up. 

Mingus looked for Life. Mingus breathed and performed and arranged uncompromisingly Life. Mingus was hungry for Life, hungry in a way that most people ignore. His music bursts with Life, you can hear it shouting from the top of the sax’s lungs, in his own voice joining the instruments  – electric. He used to sing his own arrangements on top of the brass section, the double-bass, the drums. ‘I know what I know, I know what I know.’ He transformed himself into an instrument, he was THE instrument, and all the voices he composed for others were all the voices, all the spirits, all the colours, the rhythms, the languages, the histories which crammed his brain and veins, and which made him, in spite of what might appear as fragmentation and incoherence, totally unique. One.
And after all this is what we are as human beings. We are made of so many different and, most of the time, contrasting elements, and maybe we will one day find peace when we will learn to accept them and conjugate them. All the verbs and desinences of our spirit. All the shades of our being, past and present and future.
And this is what reality is, too. We have learnt to give names and be precise, selective, analytic. Our brains follow the shapes of barriers, limits. We are told this is this, that is that, and don’t let them mix. This gives an illusion of control. Perhaps of freedom, for those who identify control with freedom.
But all is paradox on our side of existence. And to deny the paradox is a paradox in itself. Nothing in this world can exist, be perceived, without its opposite. But I guess it will take mankind a long time before we learn to accept reality in its unity. Before we learn to see all the opposites as a fundamental part of each other.

Mingus knew this. Mingus felt this in every bit of his soul’s body. In his infinite spirit which reached the moon only to be violently dragged down to reality’s gutter, that same reality which he dismembered in order to re-member, which he destroyed in order to re-build, which he shred to pieces in order to make it whole. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

Mingus poured it out from his fingers which ran at the speed of light, caressing, slapping, making his bass shout and whisper, transforming an instrument on which agility is reduced in a dark clarinet, a black flute. Mingus’ bass sang as the sparrow tweets.

Mingus made sure every instrument shone, conveying the Light from the very centre of his being to the outside world, painting a complex and at times dissonant rainbow (‘Tensions’, from Blues & Roots is a good example), a constellation of sounds and concepts, theories. The miracle of Life.

Mingus proved that we own a million voices, and how could it be otherwise when we become aware of all the dominations, invasions, exchanges, journeys, influences human have gone through and received. We hide ourselves behind the illusion of one and only cultural and national identity, but that is the very contrary of what our blood is made of. We are all part of each other, we carry each other in our bodies, how can we be so hypocritical? We are ONE. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

It is recounted by one of Mingus’ friends that the masterpiece Blues & Roots was born out of the urgent need for Mingus to re-discover his origins. He had been often accused of not being ‘black’ enough: his skin wasn’t black enough (he had English, Chinese and Swedish heritage), his music wasn’t black enough (he often drew inspiration from the works of European composers). Mingus had started the process of removing barriers and burning maps before he was born. In order to prove his blackness, he immersed himself into the blues. With a Mingus twist, of course.

Here is a passage from the liner notes of the album, written by Mingus himself:

‘My music is as varied as my feelings are, or the world is, and one composition or one kind of composition expresses only part or the total world of my music. In the notes for another album, I go into more detail as to why my pieces are so different from one another and ·don’t have one specific, unalleviated mood, sound or style. At a concert or night club I call tunes in an order that I feel is right for the particular situation and what I’m trying to say in that situation. Each composition builds from the previous one, and the succession of compositions creates the statement I’m trying to make at that moment. The greatness of jazz is that it is an art of the moment. It is so particularly through improvisation, but also, in my music, through the successive relation of one composition to another.

This record is unusual – it presents only one part of my musical world, the blues.

A year ago, Nesuhi Ertegun suggested that I record an entire blues album in the style of Haitian Fight Song (in Atlantic LP 1260), because some people, particularly critics, were saying I didn’t swing enough. He wanted to give them a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy. I thought it over. I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I’ve grown up and I like to do things other than just swing. But blues can do more than just swing. So I agreed.’

The notes, which I have selected, end with an iconically Migus phrase:

‘We played down to earth and together, and I think this music has a tremendous amount of life and emotion.’

The quest for roots and origins is an interesting one. Once again, the paradox is vivid in the very roots of the word ‘original’.
Original means something completely new, but also something in its primary state. In this word, the time barriers are completely knocked down, and past, present and future appear solidly connected to one another. I take it that in order to be original, and therefore progress into the future’s direction, we must go back to our past and the sources. In this way, the concepts of forward and backward melt into one another, their differences are annihilated, and reality can only be perceived as an infinite cycle.

My personal quest as a human being and a musician has much inspiration to draw from Mingus. Let me humbly say that I had a glimpse of all I have talked about five years ago, and I have been working hard, pushing my brain to the very extreme of discipline and learning, in order to express it. I can slowly feel it becoming real, acquiring shapes and angles, corners, latitudes. It is real.
My encounter with Mingus cannot be a casual one. One more spirit to carry me forward in my path. Much of my composition approach is similar to his, and that is why I am letting his music penetrate every pore of my skin.

My head bursts with projects and ideas. It is Life I follow. It is Life I am after, and let those who dare walk beside me on the way. Life, Life, Life, no less.

I want to leave you with Nat Hentoff’s beautiful thoughts of Mingus and his thirst to be alive:

‘[…] Mingus had more life – or rather, lives – than anyone I knew. In his apartment, I would listen to new compositions of his – string quartets – that were as bursting with life and individuality as his jazz works.

I saw him while he was afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was in a wheelchair and couldn’t speak, but his eyes spoke as he hummed some new music into a tape recorder. He died, still looking for life, in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1979.

As this album [Blues & Roots] powerfully affirms, Mingus’ music will remain alive so long as there is life in the world.’

Much love to all of you who read,
J

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