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Avant-Garde and Tradition
"Bach is how buildings got taller. It's how we got to the moon."
The history of the jazz avant-garde is interesting, even if the music frequently is not. Could a white person have any business writing that history? Or even understanding the music? That's the kind of question that was being asked in the late 1960s.
I didn't form my opinions on this music based on what Mingus had to say; I came to them after a long period of trying to be sympathetic to the widely advertised intentions, protests, and sounds of much so-called free jazz. One of the problems I had, as our conversations demonstrate, was trying to separate the apparatus of protest from the concerns of music.
Mingus always claimed to play "American music," and yet his idea of creating a music to appeal to the spiritual and cultural needs of black people, a revitalized ethnic blues, is an old one in jazz, though not widely recognized. The free-jazzers wanted that too, and Cecil Taylor, for one, tried to bring music to the black masses. Still, it is hard to imagine a worse way to reach large numbers of people than through avant-garde free jazz. Mingus at least thought a broad-based blues might be the answer.
He also brought politics overtly into his music, which generally worked because the politics were subordinated to the musical concerns. Avant-garde jazz came alive in the '60s as part of so much other political protest, of course, and was a response to that political environment, the rise of rock and roll, the growing exclusion of jazz by the record industry, the diminishing jazz audience, the entrance of jazz into the academy, and more.
Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) has been a great champion of the avant-garde, and his writings in Blues People (1963) and later in Black Music (1967), a mixed bag of essays, reviews, and notes, frequently get close to the essence of the New Thing and its people. Yes, there is a lot of "Crow Jim" in Baraka, but he knew the music, its players, their aims—and he was black. Finally, a literate black jazz critic spoke out—going beyond Ralph Ellison, one might say.
It's difficult to read the old Baraka/Jones today, at least for me, because of the ethnic venom that took him over for a long time. It's also hard to make that jump back into a period when art was so deeply politicized, in every sense of that term. Politics and art have never merged easily and have frequently failed, as they did in the New Thing, to merge at all. The Africanism in much of that music was often just an overlay, and it was simply not cool to stress the importance of training and tradition: that was too Western, too white, too Brubeck.
Not everyone saw it that way, of course. Time magazine in a basically sympathetic 1962 piece entitled "Music: Crow Jim," begins by reporting Mingus's angry threat to leave the United States forever (for Majorca). The article concludes by quoting Cecil Taylor on the destructive effects of this kind of prejudice: "Noting that modern jazz owes much to the European classical tradition, pianist Taylor points out: 'Crow Jim is a state of affairs which must be remedied; jazz can never again be music by Negroes strictly for Negroes any more than the Negroes themselves can return to the attitudes and emotional responses which prevailed when this was true.'"
A 1958 piece by Kenneth Rexroth, one of jazz's best and least-acknowledged critics, predates this observation and presents "Some Thoughts on Jazz as Music, as Revolt, as Mystique" with references to Mingus (whom Rexroth knew well) throughout. I don't know of a more interesting, quirky, "I've been there" approach to these subjects.
Regarding jazz as protest, Rexroth says, "The sources of jazz [as dance music] are influenced by racial and social conflict, but jazz itself appears first as part of the entertainment business, and the enraged proletariat do not frequent night clubs or cabarets."
Many members of the New Thing scorned the entertainment and business side of jazz. But trying to be "relevant" while making a living playing any kind of jazz in the 1970s was a serious and growing quandary. That's the context in which Mingus and I spoke.
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GOODMAN: The people most involved in this free jazz, like Archie Shepp—do you think they're trying to con the white folks or that they conned themselves in this thing?
MINGUS: I don't know about using their names, but I think what has happened is that they're trying to cut Bird, to say this is a new movement. But you don't take an inferior product and say that this is better than Vaseline. Everybody knows it's not—everybody who's listened seriously to the other thing. "This isn't Vaseline; it's got water in it." They may be serious, but their seriousness hasn't gotten through to me yet.
Everybody's got ego, and everybody who lives in a human body thinks they're better than another guy. Even if a guy's considered to be a nigger in the South and the white man says he's better, if the guy's on his own and creating, he says, "Man, I'm better than that guy." I got a tenor player (I won't call his name), wanted to be in my band a long time, and he can't play. But when the people see him, he's moving like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane at the same time, and man, they clap, and he ain't played shit. And so I know that he feels, "Hey look, Mingus, I moved the people, you saw that. Why don't you hire me?"
I try to explain, "Well, I don't move no people like that, man; that's not what I'm here to do. I guess I could kick my leg up too, spin my bass," and he don't believe me so I do it, do the Dixieland, spin the bass and they clap. I mean that's showmanship, but this is supposed to be art. I mean the only time they Uncle Tom in classical is when they bow, you know those classic bows, the way they had, man? Especially the women, opera singers, that crazy bow [curtsy] when they get down to their knees? They had some class.
You know, anybody can bullshit—excuse my expression—and most avant-garde people are bullshitting. But Charlie Parker didn't bullshit. He played beautiful music within those structured chords. He was a composer, man, that was a composer. It's like Bach. Bach is still the most difficult music written, fugues and all. Stravinsky is nice, but Bach is how buildings got taller. It's how we got to the moon, through Bach, through that kind of mind that made that music up. That's the most progressive mind. It didn't take primitive minds or religious minds to build buildings. They tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof. (They also led us to sell goof.)
It's very difficult to play in structures and play in different keys. When a guy tells you all keys are alike, he's a liar. If so, give him a pedal point in B-natural or F-sharp or A-natural and see what he does. Even if he's playing another instrument like the alto saxophone (which if you're in the key of C it puts you in A-minor anyway), if you put him in A, he's in F-sharp; if you put him in B, he's in G-sharp. So he's hung while you look at him. Guys like McPherson who play bebop are the best; they can run right through the changes.
I don't do anything hard, just play the blues, and to see these guys turn ... With Shafi Hadi we played five choruses; we modulated the second one to the key of F (in the "Song for Eric"), we then went to B-natural—and he stayed right in F all the way out. He never even heard the fact that we modulated. Then the trombone player finally came in, in the right key. That goes to show you how even musicians don't listen. Here's a guy paralyzed to realize something's wrong with the bass notes: he stayed right in the key of F. It was like going wrong down a one-way street and you don't even see the cars coming. It was pitiful.
And it wasn't only Shafi Hadi. Eddie Preston soloed and stayed in the same key. He finally caught himself after three or four choruses. You can tell when the piano player and I were doing it for fifteen-twenty minutes, changing keys all over the place, and finally the guy came in, in the key the tune was written in, a blues in F. But by then we had gone to B-natural and chromatics.
There are some famous avant-garde guys playing only in C-natural, man, and it's very sad that Bud Powell played in F all the time. I remember him playing in D-flat once and B-flat, but the key he always chose was F. If he played in bands, the tunes Bird played, he played 'em, but if he chose it was always in F.
GOODMAN: When I interviewed Teo Macero [Mingus's friend and producer of Let My Children Hear Music] a few days ago, he was moaning about Ornette Coleman, saying just what you did, that he couldn't play a straight chorus if he had to.
MINGUS: He couldn't, man. It would be pitiful if he was forced into a jam session and somebody called "Body and Soul." He couldn't make it, man. When we played the Protest Festival some years ago at Newport , we played "All the Things You Are," and Ornette was lost after the first eight bars. It's OK to play avant-garde and say, "I meant to get lost," but Max Roach clearly said, "Let's do something simple like the blues or 'All the Things You Are.'" He couldn't even play the melody, man.
But if a test comes by, man, to say, "I'm a jazz musician," you should be able to play the blues, or "All the Things You Are," or "Sweet Lorraine." I got a son named Eugene, and all over Europe, man, he said, "Boy, can I play the piano!" So people thought he was a piano player. And he could play a little bit, he's got talent enough to go where his ears tell him to go, but then he starts picking up other instruments, flutes and things. Now if someone tells me my son can play the flute, saxophone, bass—he's plucking the bass too—so if he got famous, man, I'd have to tell you something is wrong, somebody's fooling somebody.
I got in a fight with my piano player [Don Pullen] about Art Tatum. I said that Art Tatum was the world's greatest. I was going to say Bud Powell too, but I said he'd never be cut, man. He said, "Why do you want to tell me that? I never heard of Art Tatum." He's never heard of Art Tatum? How could a guy play piano and never hear of Art Tatum? Look him up! Art Tatum can play with his left hand what most of the kids today do with their right and left. And don't mention Bud Powell—he's creatin' every moment.
And I heard a record where Ornette tried to play some [familiar] tunes. You hear that one? He played some melodies, but it was like a lot of kids who try to play Charlie Parker: he never made it. Once when I heard him play in California, I got to understand him better. See, when you play without a piano, you can sound avant-garde up front, 'cause a piano boxes you in. Unless you got a piano player who's gonna play like Monk does—everything in a minor key. Monk is smart; he doesn't block you in.
Ornette had a piano with him, and he sounded like a poor man's Charlie Parker. I couldn't believe it, that this is the same guy everybody was saying was so creative. Very strange. I think that he'd be a hell of a musician if he'd continue to study the alto. He may be a lucky composer. That may be his natural thing, 'cause I don't know anything bad about his writing.
GOODMAN: The first records he made—for Atlantic, I think—were kind of exciting to me.
MINGUS: For his own good he should try to learn from his own solos off the record, play them back. The other guy, Albert Ayler, [does a flutter-tongue trill] and those guys: let those guys try to play one of their solos back. They'll make up a new one every time. It's sick, man, it's sick shit. You can bullshit some people, but see, they came in and said, "Let's see how far out you are, we can make a living like this!" But they can't enjoy doing that, man. It's impossible to enjoy that.
You want to hear some of that music? Get me and Clark Terry and some guys who know music to play like that and put 'em on. Nesuhi Ertegun was talking to me about doing an avant-garde date with some guys who can really play. I called Clark and he said, "Baby, let me get at it." That would upset those guys, because he can play to begin with, and if he decided not to play he would unplay playing [laughter]. I want to get with Clark and make an avant-garde record. And Teo Macero.
Take John Coltrane: he went back to Indian-type pedal point music, but he got in a streak [rut]. Why couldn't he do other things too? Why do guys have to stylize themselves? Don't they know that in the summertime you wear thin clothes and straw hats and in the wintertime, you know, you got a right to play a different tune? You don't have to be stylized. A preacher preaches a different sermon each Sunday. He don't preach the same one. They turn a different page, and I'm turning pages all the time because I have a special page I want to get to and if I'd thrown that page open many years ago, I'd have never even got this far.
'Cause it's very way out, man: it'll make the weird guys sound like babies, make men sound like girls [laughter]—at least some men. No, baby, I been waiting to do this for a long time, man, it has to do with three-four keys at once, atonal, whatever you want to call it. But I couldn't just lay it on everybody at once, because the musicians have to read and improvise at the same time. I had to train the guys to improvise; I've got a few of 'em now. I'll be able to inject 'em into a reading band, and when I get that thing going, you'll see.
GOODMAN: You're going to start that in the Mercer [Arts Center] band, or what?
MINGUS: Well, you heard a little of it on this last date [Children], 'cause I used improvisation in all my writing on the record, like on "Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife," where I overdubbed the solo. Now on "The Clown," I couldn't have written that and had the guys do it right, so I had them overdub it. But I knew before recording that I was gonna do that.
I had two spots in there that definitely make fun of the avant-garde musicians. If you listen, you'll hear McPherson and [Lonnie] Hillyer playing Charlie Parker, and then at the end of the "Fisherman's Wife," you hear Ornette Coleman, played by Teo Macero, and then playing all over, this beautiful alto sax, just like Bird, but McPherson's tone cut everything they were doing. Teo got [the rest] so soft you gotta listen for it. But the idea is that with all this noise going on, here's this guy playing music and going to good notes behind or against this bass melody [demonstrates], and [McPherson], he's playing pure honesty, not saying, "Look at me, I'm a king" or "I'm better than you." Just doing his best he can, like Bird did through the changes, and it's beautiful, man. [Pause.] This tenor player I got yesterday [Bobby Brown] got a helluva sound too, man.
It's a drag to have to put down people. But I've always known there's something else to learn, and I really found out what it was just recently when I started saying: "Wait a minute, man, I used to play with Art Tatum, and he used to say, '"Body and Soul," Mingus.'" Or he wouldn't say nothing; he'd just start and I'd come in in the key of D-flat. And all of a sudden here's a guy starting on D minor and I'm used to playing E-flat minor. Or some night he'd come in and play in C minor. And I got all hung up on the chords and positions. He'd say, "I'm in the key of B, man, come on, let's go." Or, "I'm in the key of G. Can't you think like this?"
So I go to the piano and realize I can't do [my old style] no more. So for the rest of my life, I do what all these guys gotta do: study the keys they can't play in. Then as they study them, minors and majors, they'll be able to play in 'em. And that's the truth of music, and that goes for symphony guys too. They are still trying to play in the hard keys. It's simple to write in D-flat because we play in it all the time. And F, we done wore it out, and we wore out B-flat. But nobody wore out B-natural yet. They ain't wore out E-natural or D[-natural] or F-sharp.
GOODMAN: But why can't a musician catch the modulation in a tune? How can that pass them by?
MINGUS: Because we all want it to be easy! I would know something was wrong, but I'm talking about the guys who can't do it, who haven't got the fingering to do it, yet they call themselves musicians. You gotta know how to do the fingering. You play piano? You can't play the C scale the same way [crossing your thumb, etc.]. So you gotta know what you're doing. It's like starting over and admitting that even professionals gotta study and practice. Plus go to teachers. I'm sure all the guys I know do it, who are in the good positions. Buddy Collette talks about going to his composition teacher. Red Callender's going to a teacher; these guys are my age. Who else goes?
Excerpted from Mingus Speaks by John F Goodman. Copyright © 2013 John F Goodman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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