Monday, February 6, 2017

Mingus: A Critical Biography - Brian Priestley

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Charles Mingus died in 1979.

Brian Priestley, who at the time of its writing was described on the book’s dust jacket as “a Jazz pianist and critic who also presents a weekly jazz program for the BBC in London where he now lives,” published Mingus: A Critical Biography three years later in 1982.

Some might argue that this was too soon after Charles’ death to allow for an objective assessment of Mingus’ work and his significance to the World of Jazz.

But Brian’s Mingus bio is not some hagiographic epistle, filled with dross and drivel.

It is - as the title states - a critical biography, not in the negative sense of the word, rather, with an emphasis on the word’s definition that means discernment, evaluation and analysis.
It would be no exaggeration to call Charles Mingus the greatest bass player in the history of jazz; indeed, some might even regard it as understatement, for the hurricane power of his work as a composer, teacher, band leader, and iconoclast reached far beyond jazz while remaining true to its heritage in the music of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.

In his biography Brian presents a masterly study of Mingus's dynamic career from the early years in Swing, to the escapades of the Bebop era, through his musical maturity in the '50s when he directed a band that redefined collective improvisation in jazz.

Woven in with exacting assessments of Mingus's artistic legacy is the story of his volatile, unpredictable, sometimes dangerous personality. The book views Mingus as a black artist increasingly politicized by his situation, but also unreliable as a witness to his own persecution. Capturing him in all his furious contradictions — passionate, cool, revolutionary but with a keen sense of tradition—Brian Priestley has produced what can be called, again without exaggeration, the best biography of a jazz musician we have ever seen.

Brian sets the stage for how he approached writing his Mingus biography in the following “Introduction” to the book.

“As a representative of a racial and cultural minority of the society into which he was born, Charles Mingus took some beating. At least in part, this was because - whatever the therapeutic potential of his musical endeavours - he reacted to his own situation in a manner that was often self-defeating, and certainly revealing to the outside observer. This in turn was symptomatic of the generation which came to maturity during and immediately after World War II, and which was no longer content to adopt either the seeming subservience of a Louis Armstrong or the sophisticated scorn of a Duke Ellington.

For black Americans, the hopes and fears of that decade of indecision, 1945-55, were expressed in markedly different ways. The two artistic archetypes of their generation, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, reflected a deep polarization of attitudes: the alienated yet hypercreative Parker sacrificed himself, fully conscious, on the rocks of prejudice and cultural ignorance; while Gillespie, heeding that awful warning, waited until he reached the shores of economic and creative security before even obliquely criticizing American society. Mingus (five years younger than Dizzy, less than two years younger than Bird) was temperamentally drawn to follow both these directions. In both, he nearly succeeded, and he constantly lived out the tension between such mutually exclusive approaches. It is small wonder, then, that his artistic development did not follow a smooth graph of continuously evolving achievement and - if this is not being too cynical - small wonder that his tragic death came just as he was entering the Dizzy Gillespie 'elder statesman' class.

Unlike primitive cultures which feed and clothe their musicians, and venerate them almost in the same way as religious leaders, Western societies now leave them to fend for themselves within the market system. It is this system which encourages the increased fame of an artist immediately after his decease, and it is the Western criteria for posthumous evaluation which emphasize such factors as innovation and influence on others. Measured against these criteria, Mingus comes out extremely well. His redefinition of collective improvisation in jazz and his introduction of episodic structures were as important historically as his incorporation of modal materials and other exotica such as repeating bass-figures. Similarly, his insistence on featuring his own compositions from the mid-1950s onwards set an example for other musicians, as did his tenacity in running the longest-lived of the early attempts at creating a specialist record company owned by musicians themselves.

As well as seeking to alter the mechanics of reaching the jazz audience, Mingus also wished to improve the musicians' relationship with the audience and, although by no means the first jazzman to be interested in painting and literature, his attempts to co-opt the descriptive virtues of these arts were only part of a wider (and, for the time, untypical) concern to force otherwise passive listeners into an involvement with the very act of creating music.

Compared to innovation and influence, Western society has less enthusiasm these days for the continuity of tradition which was the hallmark of pre-technological cultures; and it has not yet understood the concept of asserting individuality as an expression of that tradition - doing your own thing in order to be human just like the rest of us - which is essentially an Afro-American concept. Nevertheless, it is by this standard that Mingus's music will eventually be assessed. Its utter uniqueness of tone and accent (even when stylistically derivative) is what will guarantee his place in the jazz pantheon, rather than innovations which have already been absorbed, in some cases unconsciously. For, unlike the enormous influence of Mingus's bass-playing, directly traceable although often overlooked except by other bassists, the influence of anyone who succeeds as the 'composer' of a music which nevertheless remains 'improvised' is difficult to grasp, for practitioners as well as observers. In fact, Mingus's efforts to involve his audience in what was going down on the bandstand can also be seen as an attempt to dramatize the role of the composer in jazz.

Duke Ellington in his best work had set such an impossibly high standard of cannibalizing his musicians' very souls, as if by some beneficent form of osmosis, that only a handful of bandleaders have ever tried to emulate him (as opposed to copying his stylistic features). No one, until Mingus, had taken what Ellington achieved with New Orleans and swing-style musicians and tried to apply it to the more rigid and complex language of bebop, and to the more insistent virtuosity of its players. That Mingus often made it work should not blind us to the enormity of his self-imposed task.

Of Mingus's extramusical efforts to dramatize his own personality, some mention must also be made here. If these are largely subordinated in the following pages to the description and assessment of his musical career, this is partly because of the existence of his autobiographical work Beneath the Underdog. One of the subsidiary aims of my initial research was to provide a context and a counterweight for Mingus's book, and it is hoped that, whether the reader is baffled, infuriated or impressed by Beneath the Underdog, the present book will render it somewhat more tangible. Although the events Mingus covers are almost exclusively confined to the first three decades of his life, and therefore to my first two chapters, they all contain at least a symbolic truth. Careful verification can also relate many of them to objective reality, but their purpose as narrated by Mingus is clearly to explain to his audience the pressures on a sensitive and self-aware artist in his position. And Mingus was nothing if not self-aware. Before his final illness was correctly diagnosed, he offered his own tongue-in-cheek diagnosis: 'I think I have an extremely aggravated case of paranoia.'

But his book is also symbolic in another way. For, although Mingus was self-aware, he also (like many creative artists) had a self-image which was slightly removed from reality. His musical companion for so many years, Dannie Richmond, makes the comment: 'I still feel that a lot of Mingus's writing was fantasy, [not only in Beneath the Underdog but] throughout his life.' If this applies to his writing of words, how much more true must it have been of his composing? And, however liberating this free-flowing fantasy was for the act of composition, how problematic must it be to conceive music which - whether actually notated on paper or (as Mingus later found preferable) not written down at all - can after all only be brought into being through the sympathetic collaboration of others? Put another way, is it better to be a composer who makes impossible demands on his collaborators, or one who writes what musicians can easily play in their sleep and whose music is then played by musicians who actually are asleep?

Some of the musical details included in the following book, which show exactly why musicians could not afford to sleep while playing with Mingus, may possibly have the opposite effect on readers. And sadly, because of the relative perfection of the technological approach to music in the West, it is easier to be specific about structural and to some extent metrical complexities than it is to describe the rhythmic subtlety within a single bar of jazz, let alone the enormous flexibility of tonal expressivity which even players not especially noted for this gift demonstrate.

So far, we do not possess the vocabulary to discuss these particular factors, which are so significant in the impact of jazz and related Afro-American music. If there are gaps then in describing the minutiae of a specific piece, there are equally gaps in our ability to quantify the patterns of tension and release which determine the effectiveness of a whole performance, or its emotional ambiguities, so that the writer is reduced to encouraging the reader to listen for him- or herself.

As to the musical data which can be quantified, the responsibility of a biographer, especially the author of the first biography of a major artist, is surely to get it all down - just as much as the names and the places, and the inevitably conflicting opinions. Naturally, there is still an element of selection and emphasis involved here, as in any 'impartial' documentary film, but my aim has been to present as much material as possible for the would-be 'interpreters' of Mingus to pick over at their leisure. Clearly, though, anyone who seeks a simple, one-sided interpretation of such a complex figure is asking for trouble. So it can hardly be surprising that there are few conclusions here, but rather an expression of the conviction that Charles Mingus was one of the most important musicians to have transcended his origin in the America of the twentieth century.”
  • Brian Priestley March 1982

This is a not-to-be-missed book for in addition to a comprehensively critical look at Charles Mingus’ life and music, it includes invaluable appendices that contain musical examples of Charles’ playing, the non-standards chorus structures in many of his compositions and in-depth analysis of The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady - one of Charles’ more intricate compositions, as well as, a nearly forty page discography.

Mingus’ immense role in the development of modern Jazz from approximately 1945-1975 was deserving of a fair, detailed and critical biography.

Now he has one thanks to the efforts of Brian Priestley.

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