Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Mingus in the Workshop: Leading the Improvisation from New Orleans to Pentecostal Trance

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Mingus in the Workshop: Leading the Improvisation from New Orleans to Pentecostal Trance

Article excerpt

But within all the varied components of black music and throughout all the changes it underwent, it remained a group-oriented means of communication and expression.

--Lawrence Levine (1977, 239)

In the mid-1950s Charles Mingus embraced two historical African-derived approaches that emphasized group expression: (1) the collective improvisation of early New Orleans jazz, whose roots lay in (2) the ecstatic worship and singing rituals of the black Pentecostal church. Mingus's recordings from the mid-1950s to early 1960s musically progressed from short sections of frontline collective interplay and group improvisation reminiscent of early jazz to longer forms of ecstatic ritual. This latter practice--in the form of solos, band, and audience participation--was a direct invocation of the "Holy Ghost-filled" spiritual communion (Booker 1988, 32), or Holy Spirit possession that Mingus had witnessed in Pentecostal church services as a youth. Many writers have observed Mingus's diverse influences. Eric Porter (2002) writes that Mingus challenged all musical boundaries, invoking his aesthetic of late Romanticism, his anticipations of free jazz, and points between in tributes to Jelly Roll Morton. Brian Priestley (1982) remarked on influences from Mingus's work as a sideman for Louis Armstrong and big-band leaders Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington. Both Porter and Priestly also note influences of the black church, bebop harmonies, and rhythms modeling Charles

Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk as well as Lennie Tristano's modernist jazz sounds. Finally, Todd Jenkins mentions Mingus's jazz-rock and world-music fusions (2006, 4).

Relatively little has been written regarding the contexts of these influences, particularly of early New Orleans jazz and the black Pentecostal church, nor have they been explored in close readings of Mingus's works and recordings. In this article, I argue that Mingus's use of New Orleans-style collective improvisation and composition (as in his response to Jelly Roll Morton) and the influence of church music follows a stylistic trajectory. I also explore his use of these influences contextually and through a musical analysis of the recordings. The elements of the two African-derived approaches are most evident in five recordings from the 1950s. The New Orleans style can be heard in the frontline's collectively improvised sections, in recordings as early as "Jump Monk" (1955), in "Pithecanthropus Erectus" (1956), "Dizzy Moods" (1957), and implicated in "Moanin" (1959), where melodic instrumental interplay--along with group and solo improvisation--create texture and timbre, but also determine a tight structure. Later, such elements evolved into the pivotal idea of "growth" or expansion, what Mingus referred to as "extended form." Here he gives soloists room to enact a spiritual transcendence within this more flexible form; Mingus's reenactments of the communal dynamics of the black church play out most obviously in "Better Git Hit in Your Soul" (1959) and "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" (1959).

Mingus used these two approaches to advance not only musical expression but also political and spiritual ideas. In his music and testimony, after the moldy fig/modernist debate (Gendron 2002, 121-123; one between early jazz and bebop proponents arguing the merits of these subgenres) within the 1940s "Dixieland" revival, Mingus made New Orleans jazz a part of his larger embrace of group expression in the 1950s. His use went beyond bebop's small group format of head-solo-head (or soloist-versus-rhythm) or big band's similar arrangements. While Mingus's music orbited the same sphere of soul music (influenced by gospel) that Ray Charles and others mined during this era, his inclusion of idioms from African-American church tradition developed in musical form the confined uses of a "roots" stylistic approach, which can be seen in Charles's contemporary recordings or Nat and Cannonball Adderley's work songs. …

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