JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


While Charles Mingus combines many musical influences, was he intentionally composing works to firmly identify jazz with African-American influences?

Mingus is an interesting example of being torn between the classical influence, the jazz influence, the pop influence, and the deep African American community influence as it existed, say, in rhythm and blues - which is what was popular when Mingus was coming along. Now Mingus is a musician of enormous sophistication who may be the greatest bass player we've ever had in jazz - he's my favorite - unbelievable tone, incredible mind, creativity. But if you listen to his early work, his really early work that's almost entirely forgotten, he's trying to do doo-wop songs and R&B and he's trying a little bit of everything. Then in the 1950s he becomes a part of the jazz workshop, which is mostly white composers, and suddenly he's writing these very long, classically influenced pieces. Most of which are fairly dull. They don't really work.

And then he has his breakthrough around ‘56, ‘57 where he throws away a lot of that and just retains the best compositional ideas he has and gives a lot more attention to the rhythm section and to the soloist. And that's the Mingus that we venerate. It's pure jazz, it's a magnificent combination of writing and improvising. One example: he did a record called Haitian Fight Song. It's like the Gil Evans piece in that hardly any of it's written. It's like an 8-bar theme and then there's a 12-bar grid for improvisation and there's like, what, a five-, six-piece band. And it goes on for 11 or 12 minutes. And there was not one boring measure. It feels completely under control of the leader/composer and yet it's 80 percent improvised.