Mingus Ah Um (1959) and An Ethics of Care in Jazz
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 second installment of this series, Brittnay Proctor challenges us to view Mingus through the discourse of ethical care. She argues that we have often “confused Mingus’s care for the future of jazz music and black jazz artists for an ornery and grouchy disposition.” You can catch up with the full series by clicking here.–Guest Editor Earl Brooks
One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. —Charles Mingus, “Avant-Garde and Tradition” in Mingus Speaks (2013)
My present working methods use very little written material. I ‘write’ compositions on mental score paper, then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the ‘framework’ on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used…I can keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos. –Charles Mingus quoted by Diane Dorr-Dorynek, Original Liner Notes, Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Released in 1959 in the same orbit as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (August 1959) and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come (October 1959), Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um (September 1959) showcased Mingus’s range both as a composer and bassist. Intimate both in its sound and session composition (only seven sessions players worked on the album), the album provides a purview into Mingus’s commitment to the idiomatic (“interconnected”) and collaborative nature of the black jazz tradition and the stakes of/for black art and artists. His investment in jazz’s black idiomatic structure stood at odds with the increasing importance of the singular jazz man to the marketing of jazz music.
Works like Mingus Ah Um prompt listeners to listen attentively to collaboration and collaborative efforts, both in the setting of a jazz ensemble/collective and in the historicity of black (jazz) men caring for one another. While the imposition of white gender prerogatives sometimes foreclosed intimate, homosocial (same-gender, social) relationships between black jazz men that revolved around what Christina Sharpe terms in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being as an “ethics of care,” Mingus Ah Um is not only an ode to black jazz ancestors and elders, but performative of Mingus’s deep care about the black jazz tradition and its futurity. (131)
In histories of jazz, Charles Mingus is often characterized as volatile and dismissive of young black jazz artists. His purported critique of neo-jazz movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s, like the free jazz (“The New Thing”)/avant-garde jazz movement, narratively put him at odds with emerging jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. But as demonstrated by Mingus Ah Um, Mingus profoundly cared about black jazz men and the future of black jazz music. Given these histories, what would it mean for listeners to not dismiss Mingus altogether, but hold in tension his anxieties, deemed dogmatic and peremptory, with his often careful and honorific sonic confabulation with black jazz men? How does re-listening to Mingus Ah Um make us empathetic to Mingus’s pursuit in preserving a waning black jazz tradition that was ever increasingly ridiculed and mocked (by way of anti-blackness) for its presumed anti-intellectualism and placation to whiteness? The undercurrent of Mingus’s care is not always expressed in histories or interviews, which begs the question: what is rooted in, yet exceeds the autobiographical, when we listen?
When listening to Mingus Ah Um the album’s ethics of care might be heard most explicitly on tracks like “Fables of Faubus,” a protest song in the most righteous sense, aimed at Orval Faubus, the former Arkansas governor who deployed the state’s national guard to barricade Central High School in Little Rock from the threat of integration (which is also to say the threat of miscegenation). A tune steeped in dissent and once with lyrics that made Columbia ask Mingus to re-record the tune: “Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!/Boo! Ku Klux Klan (With your Jim Crow plan).” (“Original Faubus Fables,” Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, 1960)
Listening to the cluster of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Open Letter to Duke,” and “Jelly Roll” (it has been written that “Bird Calls” was composed in honor of Charlie Parker, but Mingus composed the song to sound like birds) you realize these tracks are his oeuvre to the “eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing.” (See first epigraph) The tracks are less about mimicry and reproducing the exact sound of Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, or Duke Ellington, but are rooted in Mingus’s ethics of care. With these works, he demonstrates how black jazz men enabled him to invent and play his own idiom of jazz. But most importantly, Mingus uses these compositions to argue that Young, Morton, and Ellington should not be treated as disposable or as an obstruction to “harder” or more radical avant-garde jazz sounds and forms. For Mingus, without Duke, Jelly Roll, or Lester, there is no Mingus, or jazz for that matter.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a tribute to tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the oft cited creator of “cool jazz,” is somber in tone, but masterfully weds mournful playing by way of saxophonists Booker Ervin, Shafi Hadi, and John Handy with Young’s confident, melodic, and smooth style of play. A buoyant, bouncy encomium is forgone for a tranquil, cool, serenade. The song does not reference Young in name but is deeply personal; Young was slated to play on Mingus Ah Um but died shortly before recording sessions started. The song narrates the kinship between Mingus and Young, as well as, the devastating loss to Mingus and black jazz communitas. Sensually euphonious, listeners feel spatially close, nearly inside of the track. The physically intimate resonances of the song make it undoubtedly, a Lester Young track on a Mingus album.
“Jelly Roll” pays homage to Jelly Roll Morton, the founder of New Orleans Dixeland jazz. Embodying a slow drag emblematic of Jelly Roll Morton’s play and compositions, the song revolves around the bounce of the trombone and ragtime play of the piano. His version of “boogie-woogie” (“Boogie” = black rent parties of the twentieth century) is characterized by a lower register bassline (a left-hand bass figure) and leisurely tempo (appositional to hard bop). The dedication to Jelly Roll Morton is also honorific of jazz’s history as an “unacceptable” form of popular music; “Jelly Roll” both in name and sound alludes to the black sexual subcultures and vernacular that were once an integral part of jazz music.
“Open Letter to Duke” is a salute to Mingus’s greatest musical influence, Duke Ellington. The bounce and accelerated trot of the track reminds listeners that jazz music was once dance music. A piano solo that leads into woodwinds, marks flight and movement, while Mingus’s bass play resembles Ellington’s use of Afro-Latinx rhythm’s later in his career; an “ethnic” turn (“Spanish tinge”) in Ellington’s big band sound and an allusion to the diasporic connection between black music in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Similar to Duke Ellington’s body of work and composition, the sum of the track is greater than its parts.
We have often confused Mingus’s care for the future of jazz music and black jazz artists for an ornery and grouchy disposition. He was quite cognizant of the fraught relationship black jazz artists had with the financialization of black performance, writing in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus that the music industry was a “system those that own us use. They make us famous and give us names—the King of this, the Count of that, the Duke of what! We die broke anyhow—and sometimes I think I dig death more than I dig facing this white world.” (9)
Likewise, Mingus’s “working methods” for the album were deeply embedded in an ethics of care. As a bandleader, his compositions were structural, but tailored to each players style of play. What does it mean for the bandleader to care about the ensemble as much as, if not more, than himself? For example, John Handy “met Mingus in December  at a jam session at the Five Spot…the musicians on the stand thought he looked too square. Mingus asked them to give him a chance to play, and they did. A day later Mingus asked him to join his group.” (Original Liner Notes, Mingus Ah Um) How does care and assistance change how we understand Mingus and his relationship to young, black jazz men?
What Charles Mingus (maybe) understood most or at least more than his contemporaries, is that you cannot “think” or intellectualize away the conditions of black life, as Christina Sharpe reminds us, “all we have [is care]” (131). For each other, in the most intramural (situated or done within community.) Mingus’s compositions, especially on Mingus Ah Um, reflects this ethics. He composed pieces in a way that allowed young, passed over, and unacknowledged black jazz men to shine.
Featured Image: Still from Mingus 1959 by the BBC, colorized by SO!
Brittnay L. Proctor received her PhD in African American Studies from Northwestern University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California—Irvine. Her research interests include: Black Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies; black feminist theory, black popular music, sound studies, visual culture(s), and performance. Her work has been published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, The Journal of Popular Culture, American Literature and is forthcoming in Feminist Formations.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Amplifies: The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club–Chelsea Adams
Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States–Vanessa Valdés
becoming a sound artist: analytic and creative perspectives–Rajna Swaminathan
Charles Mingus, Rotary Perception, and the “Fables of Faubus”
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.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Reads: Nicole Brittingham Furlonge’s Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature
SO! Amplifies: The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club–Chelsea Adams
SO! Reads: Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity–Celeste Day Moore
Living with Noise–Osvaldo Oyola
“Music More Ancient than Words”: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Theories on Africana Aurality — Aaron Carter-Ényì