Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (pt. 2)

black-saint-sinner-lady

Dear Matthew:

We’ve been pussyfooting around this conversation for a long time, but I don’t think we can avoid it any longer. Since you brought it up, I think we have to talk about the race politics of the last century of American popular music.

The history of the music industry is fascinating, and there’s a constant theme that has run through it since the days of Tin Pan Alley: the exploitation of black people by white people. The American music industry is, essentially, a cycle of black people inventing something new and interesting — and uniquely black — which is then discovered by white people, who proceed to sanitize it, whitewash it, and sell it to the (predominantly white) masses — often with little or no compensation to or real acknowledgement of the creators. It happened with roots music (gospel, etc.) after the Civil War; it happened with rock and roll after the Second World War; it’s happening right now with hip hop; and of course, it happened with jazz.

This is, I assume, what you’re hinting at when you talk about the ‘gentrification’ of jazz: you’re talking about white people taking a distinctly black art form and, over the last few decades, turning it into an institution of whiteness that, at this point, is rivaled maybe only by golf in terms of sheer albedo. (The 1970 Walt Disney film The Aristocats is a very good example of this process at work.) This once vibrant, provocative, iconoclastic art form now oozes cloyingly from the speakers in elevators, and sits conveniently packaged on compact disc for you to impulse-buy at Starbucks so you can feel more cultured.

In fact, that last bit — the weird inexplicable obligation white people feel to be into jazz, and the resulting guilt over not being into jazz even a little bit — is the giveaway that jazz is part of the institution, now. It’s the same way you’re supposed to feel about other middlebrow art forms, like Shakespeare, or Romantic poetry, or the Classical music canon (sorry). What did it take, 50 years? Probably less, even.

But we, as a society, have very short collective cultural memories for this sort of thing. Teenagers are the primary target of the American pop music machine, and I’m willing to bet the average teenager these days (what is that, Generation Z? do they have a horrible buzzword yet?) has little to no context for the history of the music they are being assaulted with on a daily basis. For them, Iggy Azealia isn’t the latest incarnation of the endless parade of white people fetishizing the art of cool black people — she’s just a pop star with a very large ass. Like Elvis before her, the (white) kids love her, the (white) parents are afraid of her, and it’s only the (predominantly white) armchair academics who notice the cycle repeating, who recognize her role in the project of hegemonic American whiteness. In 30 years, those elevator speakers will be pumping A Tribe Called Quest, and the Starbucks compact discs will have titles like The Golden Era of New York Hip Hop and Classic Dirty South, Vol. III. Time is a flat circle.

Is that sort of what you’re getting at when you talk about the gentrification of jazz?

Anyway, Mingus. The main reason I bring up the whole whitewashing-of-jazz thing is because my first coherent thought after the first few minutes of Black Saint was: ‘This isn’t what jazz is supposed to sound like.’ With all of these decades of context in mind, what an absurd thought to have! To a relative jazz novice / young white guy like myself, jazz is a bunch of guys soloing one after the other, Benny Goodman- or Glenn Miller-style. My experience with instrumental jazz is largely limited to the greatest hits collections my parents would listen to when I was a kid. So this unified, sprawling, almost orchestral style of New Orleans-inspired jazz is a total eyeopener. The ebb and flow of the arrangement, combined with the callbacks and leitmotifs, make this feel almost symphonic. There are, as you suggest, still entire worlds of jazz untouched by that gentrification.

In a morbid sort of way, I’m very curious to see what happens to hip hop as the cycle of white appropriation continues. What will the gentrification of rap music look like? Which elements will the white institution canonize, and which will it leave by the wayside? Fifty years from now, who will the modern Mingus equivalents have turned out to be?

Jazz!

You’re right — it’s a pretty great word to look at.

— Matt

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (pt. 1)

black-saint-sinner-lady

Dear Matt:

Jazz!

Isn’t that word just fun to look at? Especially with an exclamation mark. Here, let’s see it again:

Jazz!

Nice. Anyway, I’ve given you ten assignments in the course of this project, and none of them has had anything much to do with jazz. There’s a good reason for that: I really don’t listen to that much jazz, these days. People tend to assume that I enjoy jazz more than I do, because I’m a classical listener who listens to things other than classical. And when classical people like ‘things other than classical,’ people tend to assume we mean jazz.

Actually, my jazz fandom reached a peak in high school, and I haven’t continued my exploration of it that doggedly since then. But, I still like to revisit some old favourites from those days. So, here’s one that has more staying power than just about any other jazz album, for me.

Jazz as an idiom was never more interesting or vital as it was in the early 60s, around the time this album was released. It had long since matured to the point where people were making self-conscious artistic statements with it, but it hadn’t yet ascended to the bland legitimacy that has characterized so much of it for the past few decades. (Jazz might be the only music to which the word ‘gentrification’ meaningfully applies.)

In 1963, bassist Charles Mingus was perfectly situated to make the album that summed up jazz thus far. He’d played with Louis Armstrong’s touring swing band. He was briefly a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, who boasted the most complex and elegant jazz arrangements of anybody before or since. And he’d played in bebop combos with Charlie Parker, who redefined jazz harmony and set new standards for speed and complexity in solos. Throw all of those influences together with a big dollop of gospel and some conceptual notions inspired by Mingus’s psychoanalysis sessions, and you get The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

(It’s worth checking out the back half of the album’s liner notes, which were actually written by Mingus’s therapist. The first half was written by Mingus himself and is almost entirely inscrutable.)

The album consists of a single sprawling composition (hmm, this seems to be a theme, lately) written for a ten-piece band with occasional interjections by Jay Berliner on classical guitar. That format is the source of a lot of Black Saint’s appeal. For all of Mingus’s effusive rhapsodizing about how wonderful Charlie Parker was, he remained loyal to the elaborate structures and complex timbral effects of the Ellington band. I think that has a lot to do with why this is a jazz album that I still love, even having largely dropped out of jazz: it doesn’t conform to the standard jazz format of one solo after another.

Long before this album, Mingus appeared as a member of ‘The Quintet:’ a sort of jazz supergroup assembled for a single concert at Massey Hall, which also included Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach. Frankly, Mingus was the weak link at that gig. But that’s because he isn’t the kind of jazz musician where the joy lies in listening to him play his instrument. He’s a bandleader. He’s kind of like Miles Davis that way, except one suspects he was at least marginally more fun to be around. (He published a pamphlet on how to toilet train cats. Tell me you don’t want to hang out with this guy.)

There are plenty of solos on Black Saint, and they’re good solos. But, for me, the appeal lies more in the arrangements, which are enormously complex but manage to still feel intuitive. Jazz solos are best appreciated with a bit of insider knowledge — knowledge that I mostly lack. On the other hand, anybody can appreciate a band making a big, soulful sound. This band makes a huge sound, and I imagine they’ve done a pretty good job here of emulating what it was like inside Charles Mingus’s fascinating mind. What more can you ask for?

— Matthew

P.S. Since we’re giving bonus tracks now, you might like to check out Mingus’s most famous cut, which brings his gospel influences front and centre — and is probably the catchiest instrumental jazz tune ever recorded.