Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

While in college I had some good friends who introduced me to jazz. A world opened up and my musical horizons expanded considerably. Names like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane had meant nothing to me before that. They introduced me to a vast array of new sounds of which I had previously been unaware. Some of the names were uttered with a measure of reverence by these guys. One of these was a guy named Mingus.

Jazz fans greatly rejoiced in the Ken Burns PBS documentary on the history of jazz. As I watched the series it unearthed forgotten memories and led me to pick up a few new CDs. To help with making selections I looked at a list of the top fifty jazz albums of all time. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was #2 on that list and I accidentally purchased two so that we have a "his" and "hers" copy. Great album.

Number one on this particular list was Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I purchased it soon after.

It had been a long time since I listened to Mingus and the strangeness of the sound was initially off-putting. I gave it a chance and then just couldn’t get into it. For more than a year, it may be two now, I had that CD in my car without giving a second listen. Till yesterday, when it blew me away.

Under the Volcano

It may have been twenty years ago I first picked up Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, in part because its setting was in one of my favorite cities in Mexico, Cuernavaca, and also because it was on of the top ranked books on the Modern Library's list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th century. Because the book is dense, convoluted, and not easily accessible I set it aside after two or three chapters.

A couple years later, I again picked up the book, beginning at the beginning. I did not do much better the second time either. But after yet another year, it seemed that when I picked it up a third time, I was transported. I understood the characters, and seemed to grasp what Lowry was striving to achieve with this tragic story.

My point is this. Whether it be music, art, literature, don't draw "conclusions for a lifetime" just because your first encounter with something original or different was jarring. (The same probably applies to people and cultures.)

For some reason, yesterday, when I slid The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady into the CD player in my car, I was mesmerized. I could see plainly that this was a work requiring significant arrangement, that it was rich with the variety one finds in a Beethoven symphony, a symphony of jazz both evocative and remarkable.

THE FOLLOWING EXCERPTS were extracted from the Wikipedia entry on Mingus in an effort to give a brief intro for those unfamiliar with his life and work.

Charles Mingus, Jr. (April 22, 1922 – January 5, 1979) was an American jazz musician, composer, bandleader, and civil rights activist.

Mingus's compositions retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of Third stream, free jazz, and classical music. Yet Mingus avoided categorization, forging his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz.

Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona. He was raised largely in the Watts area of Los Angeles, California. His mother's paternal heritage was Chinese and English, while historical records indicate that his father was the illegitimate offspring of a black farmhand and his Swedish employer's white granddaughter.

Mingus developed an early love for jazz, especially the music of Duke Ellington. He studied trombone and later cello. Much of the cello technique he learned was applicable to double bass when he took up the instrument in high school. He studied five years with H. Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and compositional techniques with Lloyd Reese.

Mingus often worked with a mid-sized ensemble (around 8–10 members) of rotating musicians known as the Jazz Workshop. Mingus broke new ground, constantly demanding that his musicians be able to explore and develop their perceptions on the spot. Those who joined the Workshop (or Sweatshops as they were colorfully dubbed by the musicians) included Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Charles McPherson and Horace Parlan. Mingus shaped these musicians into a cohesive improvisational machine that in many ways anticipated free jazz. Some musicians dubbed the workshop a "university" for jazz.

In 1963, Mingus released The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a sprawling, multi-section masterpiece, described as "one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history."

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