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. In the first piece of this series, I offer a meditation on the audible imagery of The Little Rock Nine and the potency of Mingus’s ideas for sound studies and beyond. — Guest Editor Earl Brooks
Jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus’s infamous protest song “Fables of Faubus,” (1959) channeled the anger and frustration of the Black community in response to the staunch racism of Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, who refused to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to support school integration in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. Faubus infamously used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent Black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. The visual imagery of “The Little Rock Nine” walking to school, bombarded by riotous mobs and surrounded by cameras and military escorts, remains permanently seared into the American collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement.
What makes the imagery of “The Little Rock Nine” so sonically distinctive is the contrast between the silent procession of the students and the loud and intimidating screams from the white racist protestors. When images contain explicit visual references to particular sounds, there is an inescapable cognitive referent that allows one to experience that sound through the vehicle of one’s “sonic imagination”–or the mechanism that allows us to “hear” a song in our heads even when there is only silence. Listening involves an active–not passive–engagement with sounds real and imagined. In the same vein as comic books, which rely on visual sound-cues to enhance the experience of the text, the optical power of “The Little Rock Nine” invites viewers to process both the visual and aural data presented by the image. In other words, the image is empowered by its multimodality. When combined with related source material, such as “Fables,” we stand to gain a greater sense of its meanings and an awareness of why sound, especially music, is critical to the recording, or archiving of the kinds of lived experiences that exceed easy translation.
“Fables,” as well as the album on which it appears, Mingus Ah Um, invites questions about the sonics of racism in public and private spheres. Racism oscillates between modes of silence and silencing (unjust systemic processes, othering, isolation), subtle vibrations (micro-aggressions), as well as piercing, cacophonous noise that is as disorienting as it is terrifying. In many ways, this moment made audible (and public) the noise of racism so often confined to the personal encounters of African Americans with white institutions and Jim Crow segregation.
“Fables” ridicules the defense of segregation through its caustic, satiric edge. Listeners hear an early articulation of Terrence T. Tucker’s notion of comic rage, a mixture of pain, frustration, and fear encapsulated by humor and a burgeoning militancy and articulated by comedians such as Richard Pryor. Black musicians, such as Mingus, were not only in tune with the magnitude of the historical moment they were witnessing but also attuned to its sonic dimensions.
Positioning Mingus within the evolving discussion of sonic studies opens productive inquiry into what it means to center musicians of color in relation to critical historical moments in the American soundscape. Mingus’s concept of “rotary perception,” mentioned in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog (1971), suggests one way this positioning can occur. Here’s how Mingus defines “rotary perception” and uses it to describe his musical evolution:
There once was a word used–swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle, you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three or four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat–each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle but the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed. (350)
The value of this “rotary”– or “circular”–orientation exceeds the technical, musical application discussed in the book. Mingus offered this explanation in response to claims that the music created by younger musicians was more innovative or distinctive than his generational counterparts. What the media and industry insiders were seeking to characterize as the “new” wave in jazz wasn’t all that new. In fact, as Mingus argued, one could hear the “avant garde” major sevenths over minor sevenths from Charlie Parker and free forms in Duke Ellington if they were paying attention.
However, “rotary perception” also correlates with the central ethos of Black cultural production Amiri Baraka referred to as “the changing same,” a phrase describing the cyclical return to the roots of Black music and culture as a source of futurity, innovation, and regeneration. Rotary perception, as a way of engaging experiential source material, is a useful tool for sound studies as it relates to centering the work of musicians, theorists, and scholars of color whose work contains untapped, or, in this case, unheard critical vistas from which to expand the enterprise of defeating the scourge of racism. The poetic disconsolance and biting jocularity of Mingus’s oeuvre challenges us all to do some soul searching.
As thematic motif, rotary perception renders Mingus Ah Um as a presentation of the sonics of Black life. The “head” or main melody of “Fables” is buttressed by bluesy, bebop, instrumental solos that–quite literally–translate the racism of those such as Governor Faubus into a canvas of rebellious, free expression. The gospel inflections of “Better Get It in Your Soul” emerge from Mingus’s exposure to the reservoir of traditional Black worship and performance styles preserved by the “Holiness” or “Sanctified” denominations within the Black church. What questions would emerge if current discussions of racism and political power in white evangelical communities began with such songs as hermeneutic tools to explore the relationship between theology and race?
As Mingus traces his roots, the musical themes on the album look back as much as their execution points toward a new era of soul-infused jazz through a series of homages paid to Lester Young (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”), Charlie Parker (“Bird Calls“), Jelly Roll Morton (“Jelly Roll“), and Duke Ellington (“Open Letter To Duke“). Mingus delineates the kind of fictive kinship Eric Pritchard theorizes as a mode of constructing community and resisting social isolation and historical erasure as a byproduct of the Black experience. While Mingus’s allegiance to continuity is clear, rotary perception encourages us to consider the expansive scope of heretofore unexplored frontiers of African diasporic subjectivities.
Sound is a unique and worthwhile vehicle to recover the lived experiences of black communities often marginalized or completely ignored by the archives. The value of such experiences lies with their potential transgression of ontological and phenomenological investments in conceptions of time, space, and identity that ultimately undergird the sterilized normativity of white supremacist thought. The idea that people of color contributed nothing to history and the march of progress, or that the lands of indigenous peoples hold no value outside of capitalist ends, form the foundations of white supremacy. Questions such as: Who owns time? How much is time worth? and Who has the power to grant or retain space? form the structures beneath structural racism. Yet, through black music, black musicians reclaim that time, (Maxine Waters reference intended) as responsive to the needs of the community and the occasion and also something powerful enough to be distributed equally. Such music creates space–ideologically, spiritually, mentally–for a broader humanity that accompanies differences, like a swinging rhythm section, instead of fearing them.
Although large portions are fictional, the authenticity of Mingus’s experience of racism as described in Beneath the Underdog illuminates the sonic qualities of the album including its innovative fusions of musical traditions. For example, Mingus characterized his father as a parent who preached racial prejudice and forbade him and his siblings from engaging children from his neighborhood with darker skin complexions. Additionally, Mingus’s youth was fraught with discriminatory incidents heightened by the irony of his light skin color: too dark to pass as white and too light to take any solidarity with his darker companions for granted. Mingus Ah Um represents an important waypoint on Mingus’s journey to political consciousness and Black identity. This was a journey constantly freighted by what would become a lifelong quest to reconcile the self he saw as fractured, or the “two-ness” that W.E.B. Du Bois famously described as the psychic consequences of life behind the “veil” within racially oppressive social order. Responding to this veil (or mask according to Paul Laurence Dunbar) became particularly complicated for Mingus. For musicians such as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, the deference to white audiences belied a defensive posture and a recognition that the interiority of their lives would always remain—like Ralph Ellison’s proverbial protagonist–invisible.
However, the subversive “creative mockery,” that Mingus conjures in “Fables” coincided with the operationalization of Black Nationalist sentiment and discourse brewing within the Black community. What Mingus wanted more than money or fame from his music was to be taken seriously as an artist and for jazz to be seen as equal to classical music in terms of cultural stature. In many ways, Mingus’s music gave a sonority and texture to this tension. This search for artistic authenticity dovetails with the racial solidarity showcased on the album, expanding the scope of its introspection.
One of the great misconceptions of post-Civil-Rights-Era America is the assumption that the decline of such public and audible displays of racism includes a decline of such phenomena in private spheres. However, the recent barrage of viral videos depicting the weaponization of police toward Black bodies quickly dispels any such assumption. Rotary perception, beyond its use in sound studies, offers a critical tool useful for grounding current analyses of liberatory struggle against racial and social oppression. It reminds us of the value of returning to, and listening again, to songs like “Fables.” It also urges us to continue fingering what Ellison called “the jagged grain” of the “painful details and episodes of a brutal experience …” in order to squeeze from it a “near-tragic, near-comic” transcendence.
Featured Image: By Flicker user Matthew Venn, (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Earl H. Brooks is a saxophonist and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His research interests include jazz, rhetoric and composition, black popular culture, and media studies.
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In teaching the many interrelated and complicated aspects of the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the Black Arts Movement, the challenge for me is to help students understand the “facts” of this period, and to simultaneously destabilize the teleological historical narrative these “facts” seem to suggest. In a pedagogical context, sound helps fill in the gaps that fall outside of the knowledge produced–and contained within–certain archival accounts of black cultural and political history. While crucial, having students listen to the gaps, can be daunting, especially in our current historical moment, as the decades-long push against identity politics has been solidified by the recent (re)election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. This point demands more elaboration than I can provide here, but the critical pedagogical issue it raises within the province of black studies, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to consider black political culture outside of the sedimented lines of American pluralism and black radical thought.
I use sound as a pedagogical tool to help outline a middle ground–what Frantz Fanon refers to in The Wretched of the Earth as “zone of hidden fluctuation” (166)–based upon articulations of resistance and identity that refuse to be frozen in time. Building on Paul Gilroy’s conceptualization of anti-anti-essentialism in The Black Atlantic, an idea of black consciousness that is flexible and moves between the insufficient terms of “essentialist” and “anti-essentialist,” I use specific pedagogical examples to suggest that teaching about race and sound is a rich, evolving, and productively interactive continuum. The auditory sense opens up new terrains of knowledge and dynamically expands the possibilities for students to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.
The recorded presence of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, represents an important aural site for engaging in reflexive pedagogy, because King’s tonality–the resonance of his voice–creates a certain familiarity and is pivotal to the construction of the American myth of the radical transformation of the civil rights movement and the idea of post-civil rights racial equality. For many students, King’s sound signals the dream of, and the pathway towards, a unified America. Conscious of how this idea of King reflects a linear understanding of civil rights as simply a desire for inclusion, I direct students’ attention to the sound of King’s last recorded speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968. Given the evening before his assassination, this speech resounds with King’s deepening critical perspective on black struggle through its haunting concluding notes. I point out to my classes that King’s final years (1965-1968) were marked by his increasing focus on ideas of black resistance outside of the Civil Rights mainstream, including his critique of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and his radical rethinking of the possibilities for black economic and political self-determination.
Centered on the economic injustice and dehumanization of Memphis’s striking black sanitation workers, King’s speech details the need for the Memphis black community do more than simply boycott municipal entities, but rather articulate their resistance by boycotting prominent national brands such as Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola. Against this background, I play segments (particularly the final minutes) of King’s speech, entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
The acoustic dimensions of King’s final speech resonate with a social and political complexity that troubles the sonic memories many students have of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The much more intimate and less overtly majestic soundscape of Memphis’ Mason Temple underlines King’s shift from national icon back to local, community activist. The frequent audience shifts–applause, extemporaneous interjections, and silence–create a reverberating sonic energy that accumulates throughout the speech. Rather than relying strictly on a call-and-response interpretation of the interactive exchanges between King’s voice and the audience’s response, I have students consider the non-linear ebbs and flows in King’s sound in this latest of moments (as Fred Moten would say, the totality of King’s tonality). For example, as King’s audience considers the weight of his analyses and what it means to articulate black resistance as “a dangerous unselfishness” that “puts pressure where it really hurts,” I identify moments of uncertainty, hesitation, and contemplative reflection that mark a non-linear interactive sonority between King and his audience.
Listening to King’s final thoughts offers a disturbing and disruptive emphasis on the stakes of breaking with entrenched modes of activist thinking. He concludes the speech with a series of prophetic thoughts on mortality as a cost of making a stand against “our sick white brothers.” Set within the historical and ideological context I have sketched above, the delivery distinguishes the sound of King’s words. As we listen I draw attention to King’s expression of a lack of fear in anything, any man, as King seems to convey an eerie foreknowledge of his murder and his irreverence in its face.
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” –Listen to the concluding two minutes
The apocalyptic sound of King’s concluding notes to this political sermon leaves much to contemplate. From the mention of the potential threat posed to his life by “our sick white brothers,” through the speech’s last line, there is a tonal, timbral shift in his voice and demeanor. Through sound and posture, and the reaction of the audience to those factors, King’s affect seems to convey something more momentous occurring beneath the event’s surface dynamics. King projects a confrontational edge through the sound of fearlessness in the face of mortality. Did he know he was going to be killed shortly after giving this speech? It’s a question that the peculiar tonality of his concluding lines raises for students. If so, what does it mean to use the sermon as a site of prophetic, aural documentation of the fact that a force of transformation exists beyond the flesh and blood of leadership, a force that assassination can’t kill? In the speech’s final synesthetic moment, I have the students listen and watch the shift that occurs in King’s demeanor as he closes, and the way that this shift culminates in an almost ecstatic moment as he delivers the final line: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” His defiant turning away from the microphone is crucial as it amplifies the meaning of the voice, letting those watching know that, much like an emcee, King has just “served” white power with a delivery that will outlast the sniper’s bullet the following evening.
I want to briefly point to two other examples that show additional ways in which sound complicates ideas of racial identity and expression during the 1960s. When I teach Nina Simone’s composition, “Mississippi Goddamn,” (recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1964), I ask students to consider the relationship between the distinctive sound of her voice and the ironic and critical elements of her lyrical meaning as this interaction creates a complex idea of radical black consciousness. Composed in the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone offers a musical, and more broadly sonic meditation on white supremacy.
Most students find the timbre of Simone’s voice, its grain (as Roland Barthes would say) and depth, immediately striking. Her unique sonority and its context, greatly influence attempts by students to understand her reference to the song as simply a tune: “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn” she says, and “This is a show tune, but the show for it hasn’t been written yet.” Clearly it isn’t simply a tune, and the caustic quality of lines such as, “Oh but this country is full of lies/ You’re all gonna die and die like flies,” creates a critical depth through the sound of Simone’s commitment to a black radical perspective. What does it mean, for instance, that Simone projects such sarcasm and biting critique to a predominately white audience at Carnegie Hall? How might we hear the specific grain of her voice in this setting? How does Simone’s projection of critical black sonic resistance, emerge at the conjuncture of anti-black racism and the beginning of legislative efforts under the Johnson administration to rectify racial inequality through civil rights bills? What can be taken from the simultaneity and contrast that Simone projects her sound within? I pose such questions to my students as a way of considering what it means to be committed to critical thought and social transformation that falls outside of the dominant lines of American national consciousness, and how the sound of such commitment, heard in the pitch and tenor of Simone’s voice, matters as a different kind of historical documentation.
In considering how the sound of music can offer an intervention within the formation of black political consciousness in the Black Arts Movement, I often use the 1966 recording of Amiri Baraka’s signal poem, “Black Art,” as it set to the experimental musical sounds of Sonny Murray’s ensemble (Murray-drums, Albert Ayler-tenor saxophone, Don Cherry-trumpet, Henry Grimes, Lewis Worrell-bass). Having first read the poem, students then are able to hear it set to– and against–the unconventional instrumentation of Murray’s ensemble.
The musicians create an unconventional sonic context for Baraka’s reading that de-emphasizes and re-situates the apparent dimensions of black rage that seem to arise from verse that can “shoot guns,” through an almost carnivalesque, comedic, and off-kilter sound that troubles the linear expectations one might have of instrumentation amplifying the words on the page. The dissonance between page and sound allows for useful pedagogical opening, in that it underlines the non-conformist, avant-garde aspects of the movement, and the fine line that artists such as Baraka were imagining between the intensity of black radical consciousness and the ability to articulate that standpoint outside of the expected forms of black cultural nationalism.
As these examples have shown, I incorporate sound into my pedagogical framings of black cultural and political identity as an opening through which students may expand their understandings of black consciousness and black political culture well beyond stagnant ideas of racial authenticity, while still preserving an understanding of the transformative and often radical possibilities that have been projected through black expression during the period. It is the open space of sound that invests the project of black radical thought with the uncanny spontaneity of experimentation. Having students understand ideas of expansiveness, asymmetry, and non-linearity as central to black cultural expression and critique–even as artists refuse to sacrifice an expressed political commitment to black resistance–begins to suggest ways for students to contemplate the intersection of identity politics with the unexpected, fantastic elements of expression that lie outside of more recent flattened diagnoses of black nationalism. Teaching at the intersections of race and sound opens up new terrains of knowledge, dynamically expanding students’ abilities to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.
Carter Mathes is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University. He has completed a book manuscript entitled, Imagine the Sound: Experimental Form in Post-Civil Rights African American Literature, that focuses on the relationship between sound and literary innovation during the 1960s and 1970s. He is co-editing a volume of essays on Black Arts Movement writer and critic Larry Neal; and also has essays in print or forthcoming on Toni Cade Bambara, Peter Tosh, and James Baldwin. At Rutgers, he regularly teaches classes focusing on African American literature, Twentieth-century literature, music and literature, and experimental writing.
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