Great piece on the irascible Charles Mingus, whose idea of his own life wasn't bounded by the limits of his art form.
Mingus wasn’t afraid of the n
ew, but he didn’t see why it should come at the expense of the past, as the slogans of the avant-garde seemed to imply. He was a rebel in defense of tradition. In his liner notes to Mingus Dynasty (1959)—on the cover of which he appeared in Chinese imperial robes, with a Fu Manchu mustache—he grumbled, “ten to fifteen year cycles in jazz are camouflages for insecure musicians who hide behind the current style.” (“Camouflage” was the ultimate insult for Mingus, for whom art was nothing without self-exposure.) Just as “sham copies” had dishonored Parker’s genius, so young jazz musicians were now “hanging on to a few of the rhythmic phrases Coleman has been able to create.” In 1959, the year Coleman announced The Shape of Jazz to Come, Mingus called one of his records Blues & Roots: black music, as he saw it, was a continuum, a bottomless source of renewal; you couldn’t move into the future without a thorough knowledge of the past. “Those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland,” he told Goodman, “are the same and as important as classical music styles are.” Gospel and blues, the New Orleans polyphony of Jelly Roll Morton and the urbane sophistication of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the stride piano of James P. Johnson and the dazzling harmonizations of Art Tatum: all went into the Mingus cauldron, seasoned with dashes of circus music, obscure pop tunes, B-movie scores, flamenco, scraps of Mozart and Richard Strauss. To listen to Mingus is to hear the black American musical tradition talking to itself. Jazz had always been an art of quotation and allusion, a palimpsest of commentaries on other musicians’ interpretations of the same material. But with Mingus, who came into his own as jazz reached middle age, it acquired a more acute sense of historicity, even if his own work—a one-man genre he called “Mingus music,” as expansive and restless as the man himself—seemed to defy periodization.