13 11 2009

Charles' open letter to the avant garde



by Charles Mingus
Are there any jazz connoisseurs around who remember writers like Barry Ulanov who used to write for Metronome Magazine? In the 1950's he used to speak about avant-garde musicians. At that time it included myself, Teddy Charles, John LaPorta and many other guys -- I can't remember all the names and at this time it's not necessary. But as time went on and went out of hand for me -- I mean ten, fifteen years -- I began to joke with musicians like Dizzy and Clark Terry and some other players, saying why don't we do an avant-garde date or a new thing date?

The reason I was saying this was that I wanted to show what would happen if some musicians who could really play the chord changes, who could really play a tune and not get lost, were to improvise and play free -- and everybody do what they want to do to outdo the avant-garde.

So I held this idea for several years until Dizzy approached me and said he was ready for it and wanted to do it. So did Clark Terry and so did Thad Jones. Our only thing was to find the next man.

Now, when I was considered avant-garde, Duke Ellington at that time was avant-garde to me -- and I'm sure Barry Ulanov would say the same thing, although he never exactly said Duke was avant-garde; but Duke was, because his music was more modem than most things going on. Well, I had to go to Yale recently for some kind of award they were giving away to different musicians for the Ellington Scholarship Fund, and I talked to Duke.

I said: "Duke, why don't you, me and Dizzy and Clark Terry and Thad Jones get together and make an avant-garde record?"

Duke's reply was very quick. He said: "Why should we go back that far? Let's not take music back that far, Mingus. Why not just make a modern record?"

And this to me appeared to be very funny, because he was saying just what I was thinking -- which I didn't have enough nerve to say. To hear musicians on the bandstand say: "Well they're playing in the avant-garde because they do anything they want to do" -- and most of the ones who do play avant-garde can't play a straight melody and solo on it with the approximate changes, with any approximate changes.

My main reason for wanting to make this record was as a joke, calling it 'Avant-garde by Ellington and Mingus and Diz and Cleric Terry.' Clark still wants to do it, although Duke dropped out because he considers what they call avant-garde today old fashioned music. And it's true. It's old fashioned music because it's played by beginners, by people trying to learn how to play, or trying to wonder what to play to be different.

But the press has confused it, so that the minute a guy gets up at the bandstand and squeaks and hollers on his horn, then he's a new avant-garde player. But you take that same kid and give him Body And Soul, he can't play Body And Soul. He can't play the changes. And that's a test. Not only Body and Soul, but any tune - Perdido.

The saddest thing about it is I wonder if those guys enjoy themselves. Or are they just playing that way because they think that's the way to make a living? I don't think they're playing feeling. I think they're playing anything they want to play: noise, squeaks and hollers, yells, banging bells, with no continuity to it, with no recapitulation, with no form.

In the long run, I don't think it's going to win out. I think we need more critics like Barry Ulanov who used to write for Metronome Magazine. I think we need some real critics that are serious about what's going on today, who aren't afraid to say whether this guy is out of tune, to say he squeaks up high, he misses notes -- and not those who write that he swings his horn up and down in the air and dances and appeals to the audience, without paying attention to what the guy is really playing.

I've never heard Pharoah Sanders in person, but he's certainly got a lot of gimmicks, a lot of machinery. He's got a drill -- I saw his equipment when he was at the Vanguard -- a drill you drill holes in the wall with. I don't know what kind of music he thinks he gets out of that.

A saw, for example, is an instrument. There's a book on it that tells about a saw quartet they had in Europe. It's almost like playing tympany -- it's not a gimmick, it's not avant-garde. If you've ever heard it bowed right.

Cecil Taylor, I don't know, I've never had a chance to hear him right, I've only heard him when he's plucking inside the piano. I don't listen much to the so-called avant-garde. I would like to hear one of them play "Lush Life."

I think the most unique thing about avant-garde is the rhythmic patterns that the guys are making. The people are going by the rhythms rather than by the musical sounds. I think people are listening to the beat, mainly.

I'm not trying to knock avant-garde. I'm just trying to say that it would be beautiful to hear -- if there were such a thing as avant-garde -- the best musicians play it. Because don't let anyone tell me that Clark Terry or Duke Ellington can't play avant-garde music, or incoherent music if they wanted to. It would be the most incoherent. It would be the most noisy. They would cut everybody playing bad. Because Duke could sit down at the piano and play a composition and it would sound like a symphony of Wrong, it would sound like he wrote it out with an introduction, interludes and recapitulations. The whole thing would be decided, if Duke was in the avant-garde. We'd all be crazy listening. If he should suddenly go avant-garde, I wouldn't know what to do except go crazy with him. I'm sure he's not, though. Mainly because he already is avant-garde in another way.

This doesn't have to be a long interview, the subject is not that important You can take a few things and make an article out of it. If I was avant-garde in 1954, then what am I now? Avant-avant-garde? Modern-modern, new thing-new thing? The new, new thing? I hope they settle down and start playing some music again, because there's a good chance that jazz will come back.

What you really should do is go and ask Thad, and Clark Terry, and even Duke, and get their ideas on avant-garde and put the whole thing together. Not just my opinion. See what they say about it. Clark would say, man, I can sputter on my horn. His range is two octaves higher than the most masterful avant-garde trumpet player. He can sound like the gorillas are coming. I really would like to hear that -- people like Clark Terry playing avant-garde -- just for one tape, not for a whole album; one tape that lasts for four or five minutes, that expresses the unique feelings of someone who plays any way they want to play at any given moment.

I just think those guys are frightened. I think they're afraid they're caught in a rut they can't play really, and that if they don't clown and have a bunch of gongs and bells and paraphernalia around them, they feel they can't connect, because they know if someone requested a tune, they couldn't play it.

What Duke said was so funny, I laughed. I still laugh when I think about it. Here, everybody was calling his music modern and Duke -- a man almost in his eighties -- was saying: "Let's not go back that far, Charles." That's funny.

Mingus wrote this article a few months before he composed "Remember Rockefeller." It appeared in Changes Magazine, in a slightly longer version, in June 1973.


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