Home Masthead From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

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Skies-Charles-Mingus-With-Flag-JDGThat feeling of discomfort was sometimes so palpable that I felt my head ready to explode! How could a species whose compassion had enabled it to create definite cures for so many diseases, for instance, and come so close to destroying itself with anger and hatred? Where would I go now, to seek a better understanding of this human conundrum? The psychoanalysts could only explain the phenomenon after the fact. So inevitably I turned to the work of great artists of yesterday, today and tomorrow — all the poets of their individual instruments. Their poems sonic booms from lips or fingertips… But there is a greater significance of their art… and that is the holding up of the mirror to life itself. And in we see the decadence of civilization as seen in Cavafy’s poem and Mahler’s symphonic poem, the 9th. I remember hearing Charles Mingus’ “Meditations on Integration” for the first time. Something I have never got over, even until today, is that the music touched me in the depths, where no other music had ever reached before.

The long, brooding composition arose out of a newspaper article that Eric Dolphy had read and told Charles Mingus about. According to Mr. Mingus, residential zoning of some kind had become a phenomenon in the South, where they were separating people “…the blacks and whites… by barbed wire… and how they’d better put some wire-cutters in our hands before someone gave some guns to us…”

Skies-MIngus-Town-Hall-JDGOne must remember that this was the late 50s… in April 1964, at the Town Hall, New York City… Also Charles Mingus was reflecting the unfinished business of Civil Rights, shortly before Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and (the) Soledad Brother(s)… and although Mingus was being far more generous than the Panthers would be some years later, the unmitigated sadness of his sentiment was eminently vivid in the music, reflected in the mirror that showed an image of a society shattered by senseless hatred.

The music opens in a minor key, reflecting the dynamic tension of social reality. Mingus makes his way arco, expressively, majestically through the front end of the theme – a brooding examination of civil rights depicted in the senseless segregation by colour. The sadness is immense, like thick grey smoke that hovers gloomily in the sky above us. It is the pieta sung in the idiom of jazz. No bass had ever sounded so elementally sad, capturing the mood of the inhumanity towards a people no different than their white counterparts in society. Mingus was joined in statements of theme and narrative by the explorative piano at the hands of Jaki Byard, the heartfelt cry of Dannie Richmond’s cymbals searing through the heat of the theme… and all this is capped by the mournful wail of a people denied as the melody is sung at the lips of Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet and flute. The mood of the music never becomes hugely uplifting because there was no resolution to the social conflict. But in subsequent movements – originally dubbed ‘prayers’, by the composer, the music reaches a sort of dénouement driven by Charles Mingus’ abrupt shifts in rhythm and propulsion in the ensemble passages. Like so much music of the era, a resolution is suggested for reflection: in this case, ‘how they’d better put some wire-cutters in our hands, before someone gives some guns to us.’

Skies-Mingus-JDGI would be hesitant to judge Charles Mingus’ motives, but I believe that I know intimately that his music suggests only love in the end. This is a kind of child-like imagined love, the kind you experience when so crushed by the weight of hatred thrust upon some of us, we begin to imagine just the opposite. Yes, imagining love! (Mingus’ greatest work – one he was not able to perform in his lifetime suggests this: in Epitaph (Columbia, 1990) indicates that there was some sort of resolution to hatred in Mingus’ world, but it is tinged by sadness as this did not happen to his world until his time was passed. So tragic that this is suggested by the inevitable perception of an artist examining the progress of our civilization as late as in the 50s and early 60s!

Then in early 1970, we hear, reflected in the deep indigo dish of the sky, a colourful harmolodic excursion of some 200 years of history… a sonic continuum, a single unbroken work in one long movement. Skies of America (Columbia, 1972), was a colossal work from Ornette Coleman’s revolutionary pen.

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