Sunday, September 9, 2012

Charles Mingus: Chaos, Commentaries, and "The Clown"

When I took my jazz band to participate in the CCCC Jazz Festival in the spring of 2008, I discovered Charles Mingus' Haitian Fight Song.  This piece reinvigorated my interest in his work and its educational value. Years before, as a much younger teacher, I tried to get my band to play Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, but as great as that tune is, it requires a musical maturity that, in retrospect, is probably unreasonable for the average high schooler.

Not to say that Haitian Fight Song is easy, but it does have an aggressive, chaotic energy that immediately appealed to my students. Additionally, it is, in essence, a blues piece, and in my later years as a jazz educator, I strongly emphasized the importance of soloing over blues changes. It all seemed to fit, but I needed to find a model.  Usually, commercially available big band arrangements are based on a specific recording, and I always try to make it a point to find and become intimately familiar with that recording. After some digging about, I found it on Mingus’ 1957 album The Clown.

A bit of patience is required - although it begins at a barely audible murmur, the original version of Haitian Fight Song is a piece of devastating, perhaps almost terrifying, intensity. Within minutes it builds into a transcendent chaos, boiling over into a gripping trombone solo that simultaneously drives and floats, preparing for the next eruption.

The next year, we played Haitian Fight Song, and in my mind, it became the signature piece from my 08-09 band. Additionally, although the usual starting point for Mingus’ work is the great Ah Um, The Clown is now easily one of my all-time favorite jazz albums. On the one hand, I admit that it pulls my memories back the conflicted state of mind I was in when my time teaching jazz in Krum was drawing to a close, but its musical strengths and artistic statement also elevate the listening experience above mere nostalgia.

In truth, I feel that all of the tracks on The Clown are equally affective in their own way. As a whole, they relate a sense of intellect and defiance that society would not catch up to for over a decade. In particular, the album’s title track is a scathing satire with that belies its late 50s release date.

The Clown by Charles Mingus on Grooveshark

As a composition, The Clown is an attention-grabbing expedition through a variety of styles, programmed to enhance the simmering build-up of its plot. Its narrative begins in a bittersweet, almost heartbreaking tone. It unfolds, however, into a disturbing commentary on the entertainment industry and, more subtly, the often wicked expectations of a faceless public audience. I don’t know of a more contemptuous and self- referential send-up outside of Frank Zappa’s usually acerbic oeuvre. Although Zappa never cited Mingus as an influence, and was a bit ambivalent about jazz in general, there is a tenuous conceptual relationship between these two giants that I perceive on The Clown.  In both cases, well-crafted compositions, edgy performances, and defiant narratives speak strongly in the countercultural voice of their time.


  1. FYI, Zappa did indeed cite Mingus as an influence. His name appears on the famous "Freak Out list" of influences which Zappa included in the liner notes of that album.

    1. I should know better than to use exclusive statements like "never." It actually makes more sense that Zappa was influenced by Mingus than if he wasn't.

      Later in his life, however, Zappa was a little critical of jazz in general, saying in an interview that without certain musical cues, it all just "sounds like noodles." I think at that point, however, he was talking more about the intellectually vapid work of Kenny G than the deeply meaningful output of artists like Mingus.

    2. He talked a bit about jazz in this interview for Musician Magazine in 1979:

      MUSICIAN: A lot of people, when they get into theory, gravitate towards jazz because it's a music where they can see the theory in practice.

      ZAPPA: Well, it depends on your approach to jazz. I mean, guys who go in there with a theoretical approach and say, "I will now apply these incredible extensions to II-V-I" – people who approach it that way – aren't the ones that you usually remember as being the great jazz musicians. I think the jazz that succeeds – and for my taste there's not much of it – is not based on the guy's erudition; it's based on balls. Balls operating in that kind of a format.

      MUSICIAN: Is there any sort of submovement of jazz that you like more than others. Are you more into, say, Ornette Coleman than Duke Ellington?

      ZAPPA: Well, I like Charlie Mingus, and I Iike Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy – I used to really like Harold Land, but I haven't heard anything from him in a long time. But that's about it.