Welcome to Next Gen sound studies! In the month of November, you will be treated to the future. . . today! In this series, we will share excellent work from undergraduates, along with the pedagogy that inspired them. You’ll read voice biographies, check out blog assignments, listen to podcasts, and read detailed histories that will inspire and invigorate. Bet. –JS
Today’s post comes from Binghamton University junior David Lee, former student in SO! Editor-in-Chief J. Stoever’s English 380W “How We Listen,” an introductory, upper-division sound studies course at Binghamton University, with a typical enrollment of 45 students. This assignment asked students to
write one researched, multimedia blog post on our class WordPress in the style of Sounding Out! on a sound studies topic of interest to you (approximately 1500 words). Your post should involve an issue involving power and social identity, use our in-class readings as a springboard and quotes and analyzes at least 2 in the post, relate our course topic at hand to a contemporary event, conversation, or issue and includes evidence of research of that topic (3-5 quotations/links to credible online sources), include audio, visual, and/or audio-visual elements as a key part of your analysis (this can include recordings, still photos, you tube clips, videos, etc.) and follow SO!’s submission guidelines on form, style, tone, and content: (https://soundstudiesblog.com/to-blog-2/).
For the full assignment sheet, click How We Listen_Final Blog Assignment For the grading rubric, click Blog Assignment Grading Rubric (1). For the full Fall 2018 syllabus, click english-380w_how-we-listen_fall-2018
Mukbang is the newest wave in trends for ASMR; it is an online audiovisual broadcast in which the host enjoys his/her food while interacting with the audience. Adopted from Korea, Mukbang’s literal translation is a portmanteau—it is a combination of two Korean words: “mukja” (let’s eat) and “bangsong” (broadcast). The first time I watched these eating broadcasts was in 2018, before major surgery. Prior to the surgery, I could not eat for twenty-four hours. It came to the point where I was so hungry that I would chew up the meat and spit it out and I would make a mental list of foods that I wanted to eat after the surgery. In an effort to satisfy my hunger, I watched a lot of videos on the Tasty network and stumbled upon Mukbangs. I had heard of the term prior to that day but had never watched the videos myself. The experience could be expressed as an oxymoron: sweet torture. I remember salivating uncontrollably but at the same time watching someone eat began to ease my own stomach.
In recent years Mukbang has blown up on streaming sites like Youtube, and has been met with a subsequent huge audience growth. Mukbang was most notably referenced in the company’s Youtube Rewind 2018 video:
Interestingly, Mukbangs have only been considered ASMR once they were adopted by American content creators. According to journalist Matthew Sedacca, viewers explain that they experience what they call a “braingasm”, described as a tingling sensation down one’s spine from the sounds of cooking and eating. The sizzling sounds of the broth or the slurping sounds of noodles are what is said to relax the listeners. In Touch the Sound, Evelyn Glennie communicates that to hear is to also touch. Likewise, the viewers experience a sensation of touch from the audio and visual elements that the video stimulates. The sounds of food that many associate with tingling, pleasant sensation can also provide viewers with a sense of comfort and reassurance.
In today’s busy society, it is hard to have a formal meal with our family and friends, so oftentimes we are found eating alone. Watching Mukbangs can mitigate the feeling of loneliness through the presence of what Steve Connor calls the vocalic body, so while we are eating alone, the presence of another is real and felt. According to Connor, “[t]he principle of the vocalic body is simple. Voices are produced by bodies: but can also themselves produce bodies. The vocalic body is the idea—which can take the form of dream, fantasy, ideal, theological doctrine, or hallucination—of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice” (35). The voice in these videos takes the form of a body sitting next to us, eating and talking to us.
Simply put, viewers are watching another individual enjoy his/her meal, but Mukbangs have a greater social implication. The rise in popularity of Mukbangs coincide with the rapid technological advancements occurring in society and the shift in entertainment focus on streamable content. Eating is a routine and everyday experience, so Mukbangs portray a vital aspect of life where viewers can passively watch while experiencing the sensory feeling that sound evokes. When the host visually and audibly enjoys his/her meal the viewers can feel the presence of a body ,which accounts for the chills down one’s spine characteristic of ASMR videos. As this phenomenon demonstrates, sound can lessen feelings of loneliness by bringing the audience a sense of human comfort.
Mukbangs are also helpful to those who have restrictions in their diet. For someone who may be deadly allergic to shellfish, he/she can imagine that experience by watching another person enjoy the dish. While it is not the same as twisting off the claws of a lobster and eating the meat, watching and listening to another person do just that allows the viewer to be a part of that experience. Moreover, a deadly food allergy may keep someone from sharing a communal meal with friends; the sounds of a Mukbang video could recreate that experience. Lastly, and no less important, Mukbangs act in opposition to the unrealistic beauty standards of society; while society’s expectations push us to always keep our figure, a Mukbanger’s response is to eat senselessly. Therefore, Mukbangs embody our fantasies; we live vicariously through the broadcaster.
Mukbangs have introduced a new format for cooking shows. Rather than emphasizing cheesy background music and eccentric hosts on cable tv, Mukbangs strip all these effects away, so that viewers can truly appreciate the essence of cooking in the kitchen: it’s not just about what the dish tastes like in the end, but also the auditory experience. On cooking shows, a lot of the focus ends up on what the plate looks like, or what steps go in what order—it is a visual experience, in general. When it comes to Mukbangs, people watching the videos get to enjoy the relaxing sounds of cooking, and the focus is not on copying the recipe: Sedacca states, “with ASMR it becomes more about the sound than the taste.” The alternate format promotes cooking to a larger audience instead of gearing towards stay-at-home moms. Mukbang cooking videos tend to be more of a minimalist everyday perspective rather than displaying cooking as a luxurious commodity. Mukbangs show us that it is no longer about becoming the cook, but appreciating the cooking being done, and the sound adds to the intimacy of the event. With Mukbangs it is as if your mom were cooking in the kitchen.
In doing so, Mukbangs can also advocate for cultural awareness, as viewers are exposed to different foods that the host enjoys. By seeing a host they trust enjoy foreign food, it encourages the viewer to possibly try that food or visit that country in the future. A popular example of this would be when kpop idol Hwasa from group Mamamoo went on a South Korean tv show called I Live Alone and ate gopchang (cattle intestines) at a nearby restaurant. After the video went viral, the Korean BBQ restaurant industry exploded within a day, so much so, that the dish was reportedly sold out in all of Seoul, Korea.
As for me, nowadays I watch Mukbangs when I miss home. Now that I am away at college, many of my meals consist of dining hall food. Where I go to school, Korean restaurants are scarce and do not taste the same as home. There is something about a well-cooked Korean meal that Korean restaurants at school cannot replicate. So, when I am away at college, I often watch Korean Mukbangs to tap into the comfort of home, through sound and images.
Mukbang watchers have an array of audience members; people watch it to lose weight, for ASMR, or simply when they are eating alone. Mukbangs challenge social norms; although it may be rude to slurp spaghetti noodles in public, Mukbang is evidence that some people enjoy those exact sounds. Likewise, as more people begin to live individualistic lives, the eating broadcasts make up for this difference in human interaction. For those trying to lose weight, Mukbangs offer the option of seeing someone “eat their feelings” without you yourself having to overindulge or feel guilt.
More importantly, Mukbang is a relevant example that listening can be a tactile experience: through vibrations and also from sensations through the body. It challenges the listening audience to be present and appreciate the essence of food, and cooking as a sustaining artform. The aforementioned is especially true for cooking shows where the audience listens for the calming sounds that come with cooking instead of listening to what seems like a sales pitch to best copy the recipe. Mukbang makes cooking and, consequently, eating into healing activities instead of something that is reserved solely for those who have the time. Mukbangs are making a social difference by promoting Korean culture, spreading cultural awareness through food, and helping to lessen the feeling of loneliness. While Mukbangs were previously seen as fetishized or weird they are now challenging our preconceived notions on how, what, and with who we should enjoy food.
Featured image: “Korean Food – Korean Kimchi and BBQ Cooking Meat (Creative Commons)” by Flickr user Sous Chef, CC BY 2.0
David Lee is a Korean American Junior at Binghamton University studying Finance and Marketing. In his free time he likes to read, work out, or watch TV. He is an avid fan of Game of Thrones, Rick and Morty, and Got7.
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Toward A Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton–Jennifer Stoever
Die Jim Crow (DJC) is the first US record label dedicated to recording formerly and currently incarcerated musicians. The mission of DJC is to provide formerly and currently incarcerated musicians a high-quality platform for their voices to be heard. DJC sprang from Executive Director Fury Young’s communications with currently incarcerated individuals by letter and was originally slated to be a single concept album, inspired by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The project quickly grew into much more than that.
For me, death to Jim Crow means a death to stereotypes, to misconceptions of the ‘Other.’ There is no Other. The term ‘Jim Crow’ comes from a song which satirizes a slave. I see much parallel to the way our society views those incarcerated: that they are ‘lesser than;’ merely criminals. We are changing this narrative through music. – Fury Young
DJC records, produces, and releases music written and performed by formerly and currently incarcerated individuals. Prison staff and others working inside, such as volunteers or other program facilitators, refer incarcerated collaborators to DJC. Executive Director Young and Deputy Director BL Shirelle correspond by mail or digitally with these individuals to help prepare their musical contributions for in-prison recording sessions. Young, Shirelle, and other producers identify promising Project Managers inside each facility who help guide the music creation and recording process.
Music is recorded in prisons, homes of the formerly incarcerated, and Brooklyn studio revolutionsound, produced in the same studio, and then widely released through digital and physical channels. We currently have ongoing programming at 2 prisons in South Carolina and have recorded at a total of 5 prisons since 2015, 3 of which we are seeking to regain access to because of prison administration changes.
Our Board of Directors comprises 40% formerly and currently incarcerated individuals, ensuring that Die Jim Crow is steered by those who have direct lived experience with the issues informing our work. Deputy Director Shirelle is a formerly incarcerated musician acting as co-Label Manager with Young, bringing her unique set of experiences and talents to Die Jim Crow.
Over the past several years, Young has formed solid relationships built on trust with a number of formerly and currently incarcerated artists and has learned how to navigate the challenging process of gaining access to prisons to work with incarcerated individuals. As Fury told SO!’s Managing Editor Liana Silva,
Gaining access is tough. It can take months, even years to navigate through to the right people and get an Okay. Once you’re in, you’re in. But then you need to deal with censorship from the top brass and navigating through that. There are all types of unforeseen challenges that pop up when you least expect them to — but it really comes from above. In terms of recording on the inside, besides the typical band shit like “this guy’s ego is getting in the way” or “this guy won’t play with the band,” the making music part is the fun part.
Earlier this year–March 2019–Young took a trip to Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, the experience inspired a big shift In Die Jim Crow toward founding the non-profit label. The journey began in New Orleans with a home recording of Albert Woodfox, who lent his voice to music for the first time. Mr. Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana, the longest of any solitary prisoner in US history. Fury also recorded a video interview with Albert about his experiences with music while inside.
From NOLA, Fury picked up co-producer and engineer Doc (aka Dr. Israel) in Mississippi–who has been part of the DJC team since 2015– where they spent two days recording four rappers at a juvenile prison — Central Mississippi CF Youthful Offender Unit. They spent the next 10 days in South Carolina recording a total of 22 artists at a men’s and a women’s prison: Allendale CI and Camille Griffin Graham CI. When they got home, Fury noted at a Board of Directors meeting: “This is becoming a record label.” He had already discussed it with Shirelle and senior advisor Maxwell Melvins, both DJC artists and board members, and the consensus was clear. A similar reaction was palpable at the board meeting. Stefanie Lindeman, a non-profit veteran and board member, brought up, “OK, we need to put together a three year strategic plan immediately.” And from there, Die Jim Crow Records was born.
And what will Die Jim Crow records sound like? Fury told SO! that
There’s a lot of hip hop and soul. Most of our artists are black and that is the music many of them grew up on. But as we transition into a record label and open up to new projects, we’re becoming more of a melting pot. All types of influences go into the stew. Right now we’re working on a straight hip hop EP at a women’s prison in South Carolina — kinda like a Lauren HIll/Rapsody vibe, and then a project called The Masses at a men’s SC prison — which has a full band and several emcees. They’re sorta like The Roots meets Wu Tang in a southern prison. But in other states we’ve recorded plenty of rock and even Native American chants. If you listen to the EP, you’ll get a sense of the sundry sounds.
Young has already recorded and released a high-quality EP with these musicians and recorded a significant library of unreleased music.
Over the next few years, DJC will continue to grow through re-releasing and repackaging existing content, cultivation of current and new artists, and development of new projects, as well as live shows, events, and tours. DJC will release 1 EP and 1 mixtape per year. The first release will be the Die Jim Crow LP, accompanied by a book and feature film documentary in 2022. By November 2020, DJC will release The Masses EP. On May 1, 2020, DJC will re-release the Die Jim Crow EP, release the “First Impressions” single and video from the EP, and begin the “Single of the Month” initiative, putting out both prerecorded songs and new works.
Die Jim Crow is currently engaged in a Kickstarter campaign for their project through 8 pm tonight, Monday 28, 2019– click here to donate to launch the label and/or read (and hear) more about the project!
Featured Image: Some of the artists Die Jim Crow has worked with in GA, OH, IN, CO, PA, CA, NY, NJ, MD, KS, AL, TX, and LA. (L-R each row): Johnnie Lindsey, Leon Benson, Malcolm Morris, Maxwell Melvins, Michael Austin, Dexter Nurse, Valerie Seeley, Spoon Jackson, Tameca Cole, Michael Tenneson, Mark Springer, Obadyah Ben-Yisrayl, Cedric “Versatile” Johnson, Lee Lee, Anthony “Big Ant” McKinney, Ezette Edouard, Pastor Anna Smith, BL Shirelle, Carl Dukes, Norman Whiteside, Sedrick Franklin, Charles “C-Will” Williams, Apostle Heloise
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In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series–featuring myself (Earl Brooks), Brittnay Proctor, Jessica Teague, and Nichole Rustin-Paschal— re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. The final installment of this series presents Nichole Rustin-Paschal and her gripping reflection on jazz, death, and mourning. Her opening line requires no introduction: “There was a time when I believed that Mingus was haunting me.” You can catch up with the full series by clicking here.–Guest Editor Earl Brooks
There was a time when I believed that Mingus was haunting me. In the small college town where I was then living, I would occasionally see a man with Mingus’s profile, wearing a black hat, leather vest, and sunglasses, in a wheelchair out and about. He was always alone. Mingus had spent the last year of his life increasingly dependent on a wheelchair as the ALS stripped him of his motility. There is a joyous photo of him in his wheelchair, hair in a riot of curls, mouth open in uproarious laughter with Joni Mitchell embracing him from behind, her face aglow with an open-mouthed smile. I can imagine the sound, caught perhaps during a break as they were collaborating on Mingus, his last effort and the album Mitchell said killed her career. Yes, God Must Be a Boogie Man, sending me messages to write and write some more through the sight of this man looking so much like Mingus. Never did I see him with anyone, he was always a solitary figure traveling the main streets. I do not know if he was real.
Listen to Mingus, and you can eavesdrop on his 53rd birthday party (though he thought he was actually 54), his end of life plan (to be buried in India), and his Midas touch, through sound clips from events and interviews happening years earlier, interspersed among the songs. In his quick, low rumbling of voice Mingus proclaimed that he “was lucky, man. Blessed by God.” Mingus was released after his death, the sounds of celebration, funerary plans, and gratitude leading to the final performance, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.
Mitchell’s lyrics tell both the story of Mingus’s elegy for Lester Young and his own efforts to ward off death among the healers in Cuernavaca, Mexico. It is a story about the black musician as underdog, first reviled, then celebrated with dancing in the street. It is a story about the threat of interracial love and the promise of children. “Love is never easy street,” Mitchell writes, but still, we dance, make music, hope.
The only other time I have felt the dead come to me was some years later while I was rushing through Penn Station to catch my train. The sight of a man sitting cross-legged by one of the columns, surrounded by his belongings, nearly stopped me in my tracks. Surely, that couldn’t be my father, looking at me so calmly and certainly in the crush of Penn Station? A Hoodoo Hollerin’ Ghost he was not, but he was a haint sent to calm me, I’m sure of it. My father had died not too long before. I saw him there and he saw me. Every time I hear Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” cliche as it may seem, I think of him, the Mayor of Bum’s Square in Harlem.
Lithe and tall, brown-skinned and handsome, my father loved music and to dance, he dreamed of Egypt and having a son, loved his three daughters and shared his wisdom with them, found a soul mate to get clean with. In a frame by my desk I keep two pictures of us; in both we mirror each other’s expressions. In the first, I may be three and he twenty-two. We are both serious. In the second, he is about the age I am now and we are sitting side by side, smiling, at my baby brother’s first birthday party. They shared a birthday month. I had already given my father is own gift, Francis Paudras’s biography of Bud Powell, his favorite jazz musician. It was the last gift I gave him.
It strikes me that with both these haunting, despite their love of music, I felt closest to them through sightings of them–the clarity with which I could imagine them in settings so seemingly out of character–Mingus in Western Mass., my father south of 125th St.–resonated with me more than any particular piece of music that I could associate with them. For each, death came with physical decline and, for two vibrantly garrulous people, the loss of speech. Each had a way of speaking in tones that were intimate and confiding, even as they reveled in having an audience. For language and voice to fail as they came closer to death, must have been as unbearable for them as it was for we who loved them, and hoped to hear them utter our names, say they loved us, one last time. Buddy Collette speaks of seeing Mingus in his final days and the difficulty of looking at his eyes, which were expressive of pain, despair, and longing. He felt Mingus was imploring him to do something, but he did not know what. Helplessness. My father spent his last weeks in the hospital and with each visit, I could see him turn inward, chasing down memories only he could see. For both, a yearning for a golden age, time past; for we who remain, their absence remolding the shape of things to come.
How do artists teach us to mourn? We are accustomed to thinking about the Second Line, a New Orleans tradition, celebrating the passing on of a loved one. Mourning is public and communal, dancers and musicians moving together to escort the dead to their rest. We think of elegies penned by close friends of other artists, such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “I Remember Clifford,” Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly,” Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat”—the pain becoming a standard, its changes reimagined, its melody a constant. How do hauntings give color to the music and the memories?
The death that looms so heavily over jazz of the postwar era is that of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s in 1955. Shortly after his death, graffiti was seen remarking “Bird Lives.” Parker’s death hit Mingus, like so many others, quite hard. In the liner notes to the album Reincarnation of a Lovebird, Mingus explained how the composition originated. “I wouldn’t say I started out to write a piece about Bird. I knew it was a mournful thing when I was writing it. Suddenly, I realized, it was Bird.”
It is these moments of éclat that make me love Mingus even more. The movement between the conscious and the unconscious, the openness to revelations of the spirit.
In some ways this piece isn’t like him. It’s built on long lines and most of his pieces were short lines. But it’s my feeling about Bird. I felt like crying when I wrote it. If everybody could play it the way I felt it. The altoist (Curtis Porter) did, finally.
Here we see again, Mingus’s insistence that no matter the ostensible subject of the composition, it is he himself, his own feelings that determine his satisfaction with what he has written. Satisfaction, gradually given, with its performance by others, is another story.
Bird, recalls Mingus,
encouraged me about my writing. He never mentioned whether he thought my bass playing was good or bad, but he always thought I was a good writer. In California, in the mid-40s he heard a poem-with-music I’d written, “The Chill of Death.” He heard it in the studio, they never released it. He said that was the sort of thing I should keep on doing, and that I shouldn’t be discouraged.
For Mingus, to mourn Bird was to recognize his life as “a new beginning in jazz not a suspended ending for everyone else to go on copying from.” Jean-Michel Basquiat, born years after Bird’s death, felt haunted by him as well, I think. He memorialized Bird on canvas, recognizing him as a king, Charles the First, a god, an angel, done in by society. To make a visual record of Bird meant that he still lived among us, resurrected in sound; listen, Basquiat implores us to Cherokee.
Long before he died in 1979, Charles Mingus imagined meeting death in his 1939 poem “The Chill of Death.” Mingus depicts Death as a beautiful woman. Like a spurned lover, Death clutches at his hands and throws her arms around him, but he resists, not yet ready to succumb to her fatal embrace. She warns that he will not cheat her this time. Mingus put “The Chill of Death” to music on his Let My Children Hear Music (1974), heard by the public at last, and a debt he still had to pay. Soon, but not yet.
The figure of Death loomed over Mingus throughout his life. He begins Beneath the Underdog with his near death and resurrection as a toddler and ends it with the death of Fats Navarro. The cover of Hal Wilner’s 1992 tribute album, Weird Nightmare, depicts a young child facing down a bull in a ghostly field. It recalls that constant flux Mingus expressed between the conscious and unconscious, his fears and his strengths. The hardback cover of Beneath the Underdog features a picture of Mingus, a Taurus, as a child and one can imagine that the knock-kneed child whom we see from the back confronting the bull is one and the same. Mingus mourned by celebrating the deaths of other musicians in his compositions like the aforementioned “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” for Lester Young and “So Long Eric” for Eric Dolphy.
He bemoaned the fate of musicians who did not receive accolades during their lifetimes and worried that the same fate would meet him. He understood his body as mortal but his music as evidence of his soul’s immortality. And here we are, celebrating his music, reflecting on the sounds he produced about the world he lived and loved in. Mingus was blessed, man. Mingus lives!
Nichole Rustin-Paschal earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University and a J.D. from the University of Virginia. She is an Assistant Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. Nichole is working on a new book project exploring how artists use the law as their medium and how law frames art. Her book, The Kind of Man I Am: Jazzmasculinity and the World of Charles Mingus Jr. (Wesleyan 2017) is a gendered cultural history of jazz in the postwar period. She draws on archival records, published memoirs, and previously conducted interviews to explore how Mingus’s ideas about music, racial identity, and masculinity—as well as those of other individuals in his circle, like Celia Mingus, Hazel Scott, and Joni Mitchell—challenged jazz itself as a model of freedom, inclusion, creativity, and emotional expressivity. Nichole is co-editor of Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies(Duke 2008), the first anthology of work in jazz and gender studies. She is co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies (Routledge 2019), an anthology of cross-disciplinary and transnational studies in jazz. In addition, her work has been published in Critical Sociology, JazzDebates/JazzDebatten, Radical History Review, Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, and the Modernist Impulse, William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, South Atlantic Quarterly,and Organizing Black America.She has taught at Kansas City Academy, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Williams College, and New York University. In addition to her writing and teaching, Nichole is an advocate for the underserved in her education, First Amendment, and privacy law practice.
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In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the third piece of this series, Jessica Teague grapples with Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” Her analysis reveals one of Mingus’s most critical questions: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself? You can catch up with the full series by clicking here. –Guest Editor Earl Brooks
When jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus first set out to write his memoirs in the mid-1950s he told his wife Judy that he “wanted a chance to write about the true jazz scene that has made our masters millions and taken the most famed to their penniless graves as the only escape from the invisible chains on black jazz as an art” (Santoro 175). By the time Beneath the Underdog saw publication nearly two decades later in 1971, it was considerably slimmed down from the 800+ page manuscript Mingus had produced. Financially strained and evicted from his downtown loft, Mingus hoped that the book would be a best seller and offer economic freedom from the music industry.
But as many have noted, Beneath the Underdog is not your typical jazz autobiography (see Krin Gabbard, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, Gene Santoro, and Daniel Stein). Here, Mingus rejects standard notions of the self declaring in the first sentence of his book: “In other words, I am three.” By writing in a mode that wavers between the lurid world of popular pulp-heroes and psychological high-modernism, Mingus’s autobiography (like his music) treads a slender line between clowning and critique.
In one of the most infamous scenes from Beneath the Underdog, Mingus hyperbolically describes having intercourse with twenty-three prostitutes over the course of one night in Tijuana, Mexico. The incident follows the breakup of his marriage with his first wife Barbara and his affair with Nesa Morgan, the wife of a club owner. Recounting his superhuman exploits in the language of the comic book, Mingus turns what might have been a display of his sexual prowess into a clowning circus act, complete with zany sound effects and an off-kilter sense of rhythm. It’s a scene that simultaneously reinforces the stereotype of the African American male’s hypersexuality and deflates it with comedy:
“No! Me, sir!”
“You like fooke?”
“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty!”
“Two dollars, sir!”
(Beneath the Underdog 176-177)
There is a certain ambiguity to the poolside scene. Mingus the narrator is notably absent and the action proceeds without any visual clues—he gives the reader only fragments of dialogue that alternate between the prostitutes selling their wares and the side conversation between Mingus and his friend Hickey, who comments upon his sexual performance. What is more, the onomatopoetic sound effects employed are demonstrably silly and absurd. There are no moans or sighs of ecstasy here—each act is punctuated by a “BLAM! BLAM!” (178). Sex is transactional and performative for Mingus, but not pleasurable.
The pulpy, comic book quality of the Tijuana scene makes Mingus a superhuman like a character from The Fantastic Four, but it also makes him into a two-dimensional cartoon. This undercutting of the self and the performative body characterizes Mingus’s concept of the fractured self of the black jazz musician—a theme he takes up in his music as well as his writing (e.g. “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” from Mingus Ah Um). Interestingly, Mingus’s affinity for comics would surface again and in 1966 he collaborated with African American illustrator Gene Bilbrew to create a comic strip-style advertisement for the Charles Mingus Record Club that appeared in the Village Voice.
Biographers have argued that Mingus included these likely fictionalized sex scenes as a way to sell more books and evade the exploitative economics of the music industry. However, the comic book sound effects that render Mingus’s sexuality humorously exaggerated comes at the expense of Latinx women. Despite having grown up in a multi-ethnic community in Los Angeles, his representation of the voices of the Mexican prostitutes flattens their identities and plays upon ethnic stereotypes. With each “Sí señor,” the women are presented as both sexually promiscuous and submissive. Mingus’s relationships with women were fraught, and his anxieties about his own sexuality were inevitably tied up with race. His tendency to treat women as sex-objects is similarly on display in the comic strip above, in which a suggestively-attired white female hipster acts as a narc, exposing a bootleg record dealer. “Uh, you got anything by Charlie Mingus? Uh-h, y’know, like uh… under the counter?” she asks, dripping innuendo.
And yet, these cringe-inducing scenes are often complicated by Mingus’s use of pimping and prostitution as metaphors for exploitation throughout his Beneath the Underdog. At various points he portrays himself as both prostitute and pimp, both masculine and feminine. When his friend Hickey seems to question Mingus’s extreme behavior, he responds: “In this white man’s society what else have I got” (178). Even in moments that indulge in humor, such as the Tijuana scene, Beneath the Underdog darkly implies a pimp or be pimped world.
Mingus would become known for writing music with a political edge—one might think of “Fables of Faubus” from Mingus Ah Um (1959)—but perhaps the closest musical relative to the satirical Tijuana scene is Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” In the liner notes for the album, penned by Nat Hentoff, Mingus describes that as he wrote the tune, he realized that it had two parts, and started to imagine it as the story of the clown. He then told the story to radio celebrity Jean Shepherd and allowed Shepherd to improvise the telling of the story during the recording. As Mingus described it to Hentoff, the story was
…about a clown, who tried to please people like most jazz musicians do, but whom nobody liked until he was dead. My version of the story ended with his blowing his brains out with the people laughing and finally being pleased because they thought it was part of the act. I liked the way Jean changed the ending; leaves more up to the listener.
Like the Tijuana story, “The Clown” also incorporates sound effects, and it opens with the hollow laughter of men and women in a nightclub. As auditory phenomena, sound effects are especially interesting because of their artificiality—they are performances of sound. In a cinematic or radio context, sound effects typically amplify an action. Even when sounded, rather than written, they seem to act onomatopoetically. Thus, the addition of the laugh track on “The Clown” is both performance and commentary.
But part of the genius of Mingus’s composition is the way he incorporates the logic of the sound effect into the music itself. The vocal quality of his bass, the wah-wahs of the horns, and the rim shots on the drums are but one piece of this totalizing sonic landscape. “The Clown” borrows stylistic elements from other recognizable genres (like, circus music) to evoke the playfully comedic and absurd, but a second, more serious and ironic story of exploitation runs concurrently and undercuts the first narrative’s simplicity. On the one hand, we hear the more jaunty, carnivalesque melody of the trombone (Jimmy Knepper) and the tenor saxophone (Shafi Hadi) that lilts in 6/8, but that melody is punctuated by moments of dissonance and free playing under the narration—stretching the space between comedy and tragedy. The question he seems to ask in both the Tijuana story from Beneath the Underdog and in “The Clown” is essentially the same: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself?
Black musicians who pushed back were often called “angry,” even as music didn’t always sound that way. One might think of the contrast between seemingly jaunty, upbeat rhythm of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and its devastating lyrics. It is the sound of political and existential crisis. Both “The Clown,” and the Tijuana scene indicate Mingus’s heightened awareness that, as much as he was known for his music, he was also known for his explosive behavior at performances—the “angry man of jazz.” As Eric Porter has pointed out, Mingus’s “irrational behavior appealed to audiences at a moment when many members of American society (of whom Beat writers were emblematic) were looking to the oppositional aspects of black culture for solutions to their dissatisfaction with consumerism, conservative politics, repressed sexuality, constrictive gender roles, and other social ills” (130-131). 1957, the year Mingus recorded The Clown, was the same year that Norman Mailer published his infamous essay “The White Negro” and Jack Kerouac published On the Road. It was also the year that Governor Faubus of Arkansas attempted to halt the integration of Central High School in Little Rock.
Subtle they may be, but the use of comic sound effects in works like Beneath the Underdog and “The Clown” highlight the absurdity of the roles black jazz musicians had come to play within American culture. In worrying the line between the comic and the tragic, the explosive and the reflective, Charles Mingus refused to concede to the identity that had been shaped by the music industry, by the press, and by institutionalized racism.
Featured Image: Charles Mingus 1976, Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, Colorized by SO!
Jessica Teague is an Assistant Professor of English at the University Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and specializes in 20th and 21st-century American Literature and Sound Studies. The intersections between literature, sound, and technology are the focus of her research, and her book, Sound Recording Technology and American Literature: from the Phonograph to the Remix, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Her work has been published in journals such as American Quarterly and Sound Studies, and she has also been the recipient of research fellowships from the ACLS and the Harrison Institute at the University of Virginia. (PhD, MA, Columbia University; BA, UCLA)
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