In the act and art of writing–whether word or music, prose or poetry, a writer is almost completely lost in the creative challenge; the adventure that unfolds as words or notes start to appear on the page or in between the lines and spaces of a score sheet–both of which start off blank–is both exciting and terrifying. Perhaps this is why the so-called ‘jazz’ musician AND the subject of my by-now-infamous manuscript–Charles Mingus considered himself a vessel through which ideas poured in by divine intervention.
The ‘music’ came from God, so to speak. And he just interpreted it as he heard it, but to perfection, mostly at the bass or piano all his life, until the end when–stricken with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma–he ‘noodled’ his musical ideas into a tape recorder. Perhaps as a result of this belief, he was a demanding boss, berating his musicians to interpret the music as HE heard it. In performance too, he was known to care little for audiences especially the ones who considered his concerts social events. Mingus often ceased a performance mid-composition, if and when audiences were not giving the music complete and undivided attention and lectured them with an evangelical fervor that belied his gospel roots.
It was no different for me when I packed in my research for my BIG Mingus Book–as I called my work in progress, deciding that like the music of my subject, that was exactly what it would be: A book that would shatter ‘the predictable’ and challenge the reader to ‘hear’ Mingus’ music and moods; his cry for recognition amid racism; his failures and ultimate triumph–even though most readers would least expect it in a book about musician, who went unrecognized until the very end of his life. So even before writing a page, I entitled this book, The Unfinished Score–The Complete Works of Charles Mingus. Of course I knew very well that it would never really be complete, even after the 15 years it took me to ‘complete’. Perhaps ‘put to bed’ would be a better way to describe bringing something to fruition. You would think…
Now I had to deal with the fact that in Canada, my new home, I had nothing. My only significant published work had been in India, the Mid East, where I created the first English language magazine for Sony Entertainment and in the US.
More precisely, my poetry was first featured in the prestigious pages of the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India, IN 1974. Then came a book published together with two other poets, simply called 3 Poets as an affront to the establishment in Bombay–including the likes of the Oxford University Press, Cambridge Press and Penguin Books–then part of a so-called colonial publishing empire and known to thumb their noses at emerging writers, as a colonial publishing industry is wont to do!
We sold 500 copies of our book by direct mail, held our own poetry readings and ended up a fairly successful independent publishing house in its own right. Later my poems found their way into the exotica of the 70s and the 80s: anthologies of ‘Indian Writing in English’ ‘Indo-Portuguese/Indo-Anglian’ poetry! How quaint and how revolting these categories were! But I was happy to be published at any rate.
The University of Michigan at Ann Arbour published one such anthology and the only copy I had was lost to a flood one monsoon in the 1980s. But most of the books were so esoteric that you have to ‘Google’ to find if they existed or were out of print. I also found Journal of Commonwealth Literature–India (Ed. Narayan, 1979), Modern Indian Poetry (Bruce King, OUP 1987), Literary Cultures in History–Reconstructions from South Asia (Ed. Sheldon Pollock, Univ. of California Press, 2003) and a website that has translations of my poetry into the Norwegian, of all languages! Flattering? Perhaps, but it would have been better to know which of the poems have been translated. And no one asked for my permission to translate the poetry. Perhaps the translators assumed that I was dead a quarter of a century–or more–ago! Penguin (India) did ask my permission to include a poem of mine in a textbook for a degree course in English, but I have yet to see the book. And that was in 2003! It would have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back, but for the fact that I continued to be consumed by my other inheritance: Music.
And so, fade to sepia…
In 1960, I had begun the study of Theory and Pianoforte at Trinity College of Music, London. My aunt, the first and only teacher I ever had, discerned in me a talent worthy of further recognition and so I began formal study of music almost as soon as I could read English with fluency. My family’s first language was Portuguese, so understanding the Latin instructions written into the music by its composers came easily as well. Within a few years, as I progressed quite rapidly, and with excellent grades, I developed a head full of baroque, romantic, classical and modern impressionistic music.
Johan Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt, and the modernists–Antonin Dvorak, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky…Their names echoed like epiphanies in my head in my waking moments. I studied, performed, lived and breathed their music. I dreamed of performing in the concert halls of London–like the Royal Albert Hall, where my aunt, the great pianist Olga Crean, had become the first coloured woman to play solo in concert in the 40s. Until, that is, my late father introduced me to the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong via a vinyl copy of ‘Paris Blues’.
I was seduced by the tone and texture of what I heard. I begged my father for more and he obliged surreptitiously! Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and a few others became staple diet. I was drawn to the bass and drum conversations–the pedal point and ostinato statements. Walter Page’s walking bass lines for Basie and Jimmy Blanton’s majestic harmonics with early 40s Ellingtonia…
Then my father–the creative engineer that he was–gave me the ultimate gift that any boy obsessed with an instrument could have: he built me a double bass! I returned the compliment, attempting to imitate the licks of Jimmy Blanton and Wellman Braud well into the night–when I was not playing Beethoven and Mozart! I knew that something in me was changing. I was being drawn to the blues of jazz like an irresistible heartache. Not long after I heard Bird and Dizzy; Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk…I was taken to a concert featuring the Ellington band of the 60s. I heard Satchmo and wished that I could have jumped on stage to hold onto his horn as he wiped the beads of sweat off his brow between songs…My mind was made up. This was now my music. And so I committed–according to my teachers at the conservatoire–the ultimate blasphemy by abandoning my classical studies and began to study jazz harmony and composition.
By this time I was twelve years old. My fingers were becoming strong and moving faster.
I was also a practising poet who dreamed a changing dream. One day I woke up a disciple of Keats, the next day an acolyte of Dante, Villon and Shakespeare…Yeats, William Carlos Williams–finally Pound. I was precocious; even started a magazine with two other poets when establishment journals refused to publish my always-experimental work. To support myself, I took up work as a proofreader in an advertising agency. I paid my way through University, finally acquiring a Bachelor’s Degree in World History, and because I was disillusioned with history as documented in text books, changed my major for my Master’s degree from History to the Romance Languages, acquiring that degree finally in the Classics. Two years later (as I mentioned at the very beginning of this article) I published my first collection of poems.
Still…I had no idea of what was coming down the turnpike!
One day, just past the New Year of ’74, I walked into a second hand record store. There I found a record that was to change my life yet again, this time, seemingly forever. This record was ‘The Town Hall Concert’ by Charles Mingus (with Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Clifford Jordan and Dannie Richmond…) The vinyl issue was the one on which Mingus performed–to my mind–his magnum opus: ‘Meditations on Integration’.
It was this work that set me on a decades-long voyage of discovery of Charles Mingus: the man, his music and ultimately his life.
In his introduction to the performance, Mingus explained to his Town Hall audience, that he was inspired to write the piece by something that Eric Dolphy had told him…about how ‘they were separating people down South…the blacks and whites…with barbed wire…and how they had better put some wire-cutters in our hands, before somebody gives some guns to us…’
And then he launched–with some of the most exquisitely expressive arco bass playing, into his brooding composition about the deep-rooted racism under the skies of America. Byard joined him in the introduction on piano, his alter ego Dannie Richmond sizzling on his various cymbals and the great Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.
The complex harmonies–dissonant in their symmetry…The surprising shifts in rhythm…all contributed to the wondrous narrative of the music. And of course, all this captured exquisitely wrapped in the mercurial character of Mingus. Elementally sad and then joyful with but a moment’s notice…then empathetic, with suffering greater than his own…explosive anger at Man’s inability to recognize the individuality and separateness of every human being. But above all, what came through at every turn was Mingus’ immense and limitless ability to love; and in that love, to forgive all trespasses against his race. Yes, I heard this (as now) all in those ten minutes or so of music, by one of America’s greatest musicians and composers–Charles Mingus. So I decided to pursue study of the man, His music and his life as it unfolded from myriad sources.
Mingus was different. It is true he evolved from the great Duke Ellington, but he leapt much further as a man and as a musician.
He said he was ‘three’ and by this he was describing his cultural ethos, being black, brown and yellow. He was neither black, nor white, but he felt ‘black’. I was drawn to this image of the man and musician. It dawned on me that he was, in fact, describing me and how I felt. (I was born to a half-Brazilian-half Portuguese father and an Indian mother and grew up in a Portuguese-speaking household). I belonged to neither cultural ethos and my childhood too was brutally middle class and oppressive. I was drawn to oppression. I felt ‘black’ just like Mingus! And Mingus’ music expressed ‘me’. It also mitigated my own oppression. It mirrored my separateness; my anger…I belonged to no one race one culture. I began to feel the suffering of the entire human Diaspora…Eventually, like Mingus after a ‘complete’ and perfect piece of music written, recorded and performed, I was made whole again. Sadness becomes joy. And I always became real again…
Over the years I gained so much from Charles Mingus; I had to give something back. It began with a poem and then another…I had no idea that I wanted to write a book about Mingus. It seemed too presumptuous. But as I dug deeper into jazz…into Mingus’ oeuvre, a book began to unfold like mystic leaves. It was a book that took me from 1980 to 1999 to write. Let me describe it briefly:
Like Mingus’ music itself I decided to call it: The Unfinished Score–The Complete Works of Charles Mingus. It was and still is nothing like any other books that have ever been written and published about Mingus–or for that matter any other musician, jazz or otherwise. Quite simply, what I have done is capture the many moods of Mingus’ tumultuous life almost exclusively from his music, and relocated this to the poetic landscape.
So, in a sense, mine is the only book about the musician that starts and ends with Mingus’ music: its melodies and harmonies, complex tones and textures, abrupt changes in mood and tempi and, most of all, his insecurities, fears and his enormous appetite for loving.
The entire book is written in poetry and prose. The poems have been interspersed with prose chapters that lyrically introduce key episodes in his life that influenced his music. It was a challenge, to say the least. As I have already mentioned earlier, the book took me 15 years to research; it also took me 4 years to complete. But, by the end of my excursion into his sonic landscape, I came to know Mingus more intimately. He was one of a kind–an American who actually rose above the discrimination that he suffered AND that did the thesis of my book!
So I had to be extremely brave or foolhardy to attempt to ‘sell’ my book on Charles Mingus to publishers in my new home, Canada. I had to find a publisher. I agonized over a query letter. Fear of never being satisfied with one that would do the book justice, I never did write a conventional one; rather with a bluntly drafted cover letter I approached a few whom I believed to be the more adventurous publishing houses in Canada. ‘Too experimental’ was the typical response.
I would have lost heart sooner than later, but I decided to send copies to musicologists and people in the music industry.
A gig with the spectacularly famous online magazine, allaboutjazz.com, a feature on Bill Laswell, to be precise, led to a hook up with Alan Douglas.
Mr. Douglas is a legendary figure in the world of music; a producer whose credits include Mingus’ own infamous Complete Town Hall Concert, the Ellington, Mingus and Roach session that resulted in Money Jungle, Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man album and the discovery of the still incredible founders of rap, The Last Poets, not to mention Jimi Hendrix’s last and yet unreleased music.
For Douglas Music, I wrote liner notes for the European release of Pharaoh Sanders’ With a Heartbeat and Bill Laswell’s OperaZone: The Redesign. This leveraged a promise from Alan Douglas to read my Mingus manuscript and ‘see what I can do’. I was flattered when he called me back to say that he found the book ‘raw…and beautiful’. I also sent a copy to Andrew Homzy at the University of Concordia in Montreal. Dr. Homzy, who had discovered and pieced together Mingus’ last manuscript, his ‘Epitaph’, which he and Mingus’ widow, Sue produced for the BBC, with a big band conducted by Günter Schuler. Homzy thought it ‘one of the most unusual ideas to make it to poetry’. Still…no publisher! I wanted to send a copy to Joni Mitchell. She had that beautifully oblique album, Mingus’, which rendered some of his great music in her context, just before he died in Mexico. But Ms. Mitchell continues to be protected by a firewall. Or so it would seem…
Then I thought about an endorsement from Sue Mingus–keeper of the legacy of my hero and alter ego. It was her readership that I came to crave, being too late to reach the Man himself by two decades! A few of the poems from the book had appeared at allaboutjazz.com and that would be grist for my grinding, at least with Mrs. Mingus. She was gracious in responding to a rambling email I wrote her about “Mingus and Me”. Probably curious about how Brazilian/Portuguese/Indian bloodlines could be so bold as to invade her husband’s legacy and posthumously plunder his emotions and spiritualism for my own poems!
I did not bother to explain why I had chosen some of his music and not others, nor why I had left Mingus’ song titles and the titles of my poems one and the same. But I did try to piece them together with–as abruptly as his own changes in tempo–incidents real or imagines by Mingus and/or me. Now when I look back at the whole epiphany, I find it hard to believe that the book actually happened. The fact that it has yet to find a publisher has nothing to do with it–although I will always be bewildered by a (Canadian) publishing industry that appears to be so strikingly and perversely like George W. Bush’s Middle America. And I take comfort in a statement that Marshall McLuhan made about his difficulty in getting his message about the extensions of man out with the publication of ‘Understanding Media’ in 1964 (ironically the year of Mingus’ first public performance of his magnum opus on the alienation of the coloured man in America–‘Meditations on Integration’: “…just how little consideration had (really) been given to…such matters in the past can be gathered from the consternation of one of the editors of this (Understanding Media) book. He noted with dismay that ‘seventy-five percent of your material is new. A successful book cannot venture to be more than ten per cent new’.”
As with McLuhan, so also with me…for as he said, “Such a risk seems worth taking at the present time, when the stakes are (still) high, and the need to understand the effects if the extensions of man”–and the importance of the legacy of my man, Charles Mingus–”becomes all the more urgent by the hour.”