Like many of the greatest minds to emerge from jazz music’s deepest waters, Charles Mingus was a genius, proficient not only in adapting his own manic impulses but in recognizing those same instincts in others. Mired in the histories of hard bop, gospel and classical music, Mingus’ work was its own beast, a multilayered roar that is hard to pin down and even harder to describe. It is a sound best felt and experienced, one that soaks into your bones and lays bare your deepest secrets. Driven by a desire to capture feverish moods through a collective improvisation, his music established tangible connections between the wonder of free jazz and the elliptical musings of jazz fusion.
Known for his unpredictable temperament and for divining the true talents of those performing in close proximity to him, Mingus saw raw potential and wasn’t afraid to draw it out in whatever fashion he saw fit. A pioneer in double bass techniques and compositions, he was also a talented pianist and bandleader, earning a reputation as a hard man to please, one that inspired an almost-godlike fascination in his acolytes. He traced his influences to Duke Ellington and church, revealing a reverential feeling toward both. But he possessed a riotous imagination, filled with ideas that broke away from the classic molds that many people associate with jazz music. His was a strange, terrible and wonderful world where music was an agent of both salvation and corruption.
Although born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1922, Mingus spent much of his childhood in the Watts area of Los Angeles. He developed a love of music early on, and although his mother only allowed church-related music in the house, he soon developed an affinity for Ellington. He studied the trombone and cello but was met with some resistance in his passion for the cello because of the racial stereotypes of the time. He started learning how to play bass with musician Red Callender in the latter part of the ’30s, eventually using the skills he acquired on the bass in his work on the cello.
As a teen, he began writing advanced musical compositions, many of which laid their influences at the feet of classical music. On top of his prodigious arrangements, he soon became known as a bass prodigy, taking up refuge in the company of artists such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Ellington himself. Mingus would later acknowledge, though, that he thought Parker was the greatest innovator in jazz history but found himself at odds with the romanticism in Parker’s notorious addictions. Music was a pure thing, full of darkness and light, and Mingus saw it as something to be taken seriously and not wasted.
In 1952, Mingus co-founded Debut Records with fellow musician Max Roach and used the label as a way to direct his own recording output. He was no longer tied to specific label demands or timelines and could deliver music at his own pace. He also used it as a way to champion new and young artists whose work deserved support. By this point, he had released a number of albums and generally worked with a midsize ensemble, a rotating collection of musicians that eventually became known as the Jazz Workshop. Including Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, John Handy and Jimmy Knepper, this group—under Mingus’ supervision—became an improvisational behemoth, successfully capturing the ferocity and volatility inherent to the genre.
With records such as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Mingus Ah Um” under his belt, he had already helped create sprawling musical complexities that were winding their way through jazz music. Other artists such as Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and John Coltrane had offered their prophetic glimpses into what the genre could achieve and, alongside Mingus, given jazz a newfound sense of purpose and conviction. But Mingus wasn’t done just yet, and in 1963, he released “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” an album built from a single continuous composition, divided into four tracks and six movements. One of the greatest musical moments of the ’60s and a giant leap forward for modern music, it is complex, damaged and captivating in a way that only truly revolutionary jazz can be.
The album was recorded in January 1963 by an 11-piece band, and Mingus described the record’s sound as “ethnic folk-dance music,” a cryptic if not entirely untrue categorization. Because of his penchant for perfectionism, it is filled with studio overdubs and subtle revisions but retains the delirious genius with which his music had become associated. By breaking the recording down as he did, each of the various moments are given their full due, with gaping brass lines, double bass melodies and skronking saxophone eruptions all taking center stage when called upon. There is a violence built inside these rhythms, a repressed aggression and divine vindication that come bubbling to the surface when least expected.
“The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” isn’t just one of Charles Mingus’ greatest accomplishments (although it certainly is that); it is also an immense expression of rage and sacred understanding. Through these different movements, he explored his own troubled experiences while extending the same invitation to us. Consequently, these tracks become a Rorschach test that uses a variable rhythmic impressionism to evoke boundless emotional force. Even within jazz music’s often-insular corridors, nobody had ever heard anything like this before. It is the work of a man and his band who saw the opportunities afforded them through jazz and reshaped our assumptions about modern music.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.