Charles Mingus: The Art Of Composed Politics


Last September, I happened upon Michal Levy’s brilliant computer animation of the Coltrane classic, Giant Steps. After reading John Amato’s latest musical post on John Coltrane, I figured John and his audience would dig it. Thanks for the h/t, John.

Now, if you’re truly a political head, yet only a casual a fan of jazz, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the life work of Charles Mingus. The man lived life on the edge, spoke from the heart and translated his political perspective into complex compositions and straightforward lyrics that would make even the most polished, political pundit take notes.


Check out this quote from a review of the Mingus Big Band release of Blues & Politics:

…Mingus’ song titles are also fascinating because they are so suggestive—how does the Haitian revolution or the rise and decline of man (“Pithecanthropus Erectus“) sound? The titles make you think and pay attention to the music as it is played—this is what Mingus desired most as a performer.

Throughout his career he sought a conscientious audience working with him to bring meaning to the music. Reprinted within the liner notes of Blues & Politics is Mingus’ untitled prose poem about pledging allegiance to the American flag as well as the lyrics to “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”, “Don’t Let It Happen Here”, and “Freedom”. These pieces reflect Mingus’ concern with justice for all Americans across racial lines…

Pure genius.

Grind To The Back


So what do you do when the grind of the city commute smacks you in the face? You find a comfy spot in the back of The Jazz Gallery and let Steve Coleman’s workshop grab ahold of your soul.

Coleman wasn’t on my radar before tonight, but leave it to Jonathan to introduce me to a hot act in the Jazz scene. This guy is dope. He’s currently playing a 1-1-2-2-2-1-1 then a 1-1-2-2-2-1-1-1-1 then a 1-1-2-2-2-1-1-1-1… 1-1 beat, getting his drummer up on cue to the progressive, deterioration of the riff. Man, this is a workshop. Sue Mingus runs a “workshop” with the B and C players of the Big Band and Orchestra, occationally practicing new compositions. I love you Sue, but that’s not a workshop. That’s income.

Steve just invited audience members to join him on stage and work out the riff. Now with two women on the mic and the drummer carrying the beat, he gets abstract off the beat — like a launch point of a ramp built in progressive takes.

Two boards added, a half peeled away, two and a half stiched on, pause for a second, add three and gone!…

Now an audience member is on the piano, riffing to the progressive beat, Coleman standing back, checking out the take… and the first woman on the mic scatting… add Coleman…

Coleman’s not only brilliant, he has the patience and explanatory skills of a seasoned teacher.

Alright, now he’s dropping the improv down an octive and slowing down the tempo, mixing up the original riff into more paused flashes of laddders. Live blogging a jazz show… if I could visually describe what I’m hearing, well, imagine it to be something like this.


Buddy Guy: I’ve Got Dreams to Remember

The improv of jazz blows me away, especially the type that occurs across a large group of musicians as with Mingus Big Band. Factor in the unique, layered compositions of a Charles Mingus, with his political lyrics of the 50’s and 60’s, and you have a textured mix of jazz structure and improv with the undeniable taste of blues soul.

Great stuff, indeed.


Unfortunately for me, my age precluded me from catching live shows of the legendary jazz musicians and quintets, but thankfully, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a few of the legendary blues acts over the years. So as much as Son Seals and Robert Cray gave amazing performances—each man rocking the stage with a unique six-string sound, pouring their scarred, shaped souls into their sets—I’ve got to tell you, experiencing Buddy Guy live at the Greensboro War Memorial Auditorium last night… well, he took my appreciation of the blues to an entirely new level.

The man is pushing 70, yet he rocked the stage as if he were 30, applying an undeniable pace to his presentation to the audience. Buddy started off with his guitar singing at a murmur, which slowly quieted the warmed up, rambunctious crowd over a a ten minute period. Never changing strategy and displaying the utmost confidence in his approach, once he had the ears and souls of the crowd in tune with him, he moved right into a heavy jam to lift the spirit of the audience beyond where we were to begin the set. The temper of the packed house became something akin to a Sunday sermon when a testify! was shouted out to my left.

The preacher preached on…

The rapport he displayed with his band—jamming back and forth with the back-up guitarist, pianist and saxophonist—brought my appreciation of improv to the forefront of my attention. By the time Buddy and the band hit, I’ve Got Dreams to Remember, from his latest album, I was already kicked back in my seat breathing in the gift of this legend as he crept into my psyche with his janitor’s key in hand, unlocking the guarded door to my soul.

Words can’t do him justice.



ah yeah
feel that dive
straight back into the hive
alive with a high five
line language with spaces in between
the mean whole
the slick sixteenth
the ebony and ivory dream
twinkle fingers on the horizontal ladder
making the bassist groan deeper
making the drummers beat badder
coming together like siameese twins
dropping out like a catheter
straight to the bassline
head bouncing to the riff
as the bridge is about to be built

Mingus Big Band And Smalls

A frenetic interpretation at the fez
A frenetic interpretation at the fez

So I was hanging out with my bud JD last night at the Fez, checking out Mingus Big Band as I usually do every other Thursday night, when news through the player’s grapevine hit me like a left hook.

Smalls is closing saturday night. Smalls!

I’ve been going to this club for almost 7 years now. They’re the most lax Jazz club in the city; it’s BYOB to stock in their own fridge, with jamming until 10am for $10, a cozy environment with plush velore seats… man. A damn shame. I talked to one of the regular musicians last night and he was bummed, but he turned it around by saying:

Hey, that’s what clubs do. They close.

I guess if he can look at it like that, I should be able to as well… but still, NYC is losing a great, intimate venue for up and coming Jazz acts and established ones alike.