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A holding corporation called old America: Charles Mingus’ religious multitudes

You can’t understand jazz without its continual, creative religiosities. But to investigate this association is to encounter the scrambling of format and expectation in terms both musicological and religious. For while it is certainly true that jazz has strong roots in African-American Protestantism, not only do these roots twist in unexpected directions but there are other branches reaching into farther soils as well. One well-known musician illustrates these complexities well.

Bassist/composer Charles Mingus was profoundly shaped by his exposure to religious music, especially that of “the Holiness church, which was too raw for my father,” and by Duke Ellington, whose music “excited me so much that I almost screamed.” Mingus’ commitment to jazz was accompanied by his restlessness with jazz orthodoxy. By the 1950s, he began to explore African-American history and religion as vehicles for the expression of enthusiasms and passions that signified against a dead, conformist society (and against musical expectation).

Mingus held that “this machine world we see would never have been… if not for the religious fanatics… [who] ventured to America as pilgrims.” He experimented compositionally and often sought to conjure “soul” through a complex rhythmic language whose multiple tempi became vehicles for thematic juxtaposition. Setting different musical materials against each other was no simple act of musicology; for Mingus, these efforts called attention to the clash of opposites and sublimation of passions in American life. It is meaningful, then, that records like Oh Yeah, Ah Um, and Blues and Roots brimmed with church influences: a low-end gospel tremolo; complex antiphonal work, trading phrases back and forth in a knowing echo of the call-and-response dialogism of African-American music; and a use of guttural, vocalic textures that connected New Orleans to the avant-garde. Mingus shouted encouragement to his bandmates, the stage his pulpit. He described tunes like “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” as a sound from his childhood, where parishioners “sing and shout and do a little Holy Rolling.” On some tunes, Mingus even confessed from within the ensemble: “Oh my Jesus!” or “I know I been wrong, yeah, I have.”

Bass Guitar Guitar Beatles Bass Instrument Rock by seriouslycr8ive, Public Domain via Pixabay.
Bass Guitar. CC0 via Pixabay.

And yet it is too simple to hear in such multitudinous music only the call-and-response patterns of “the black church” or the emotional enthusiasms audiences demanded of “black music.” Like Charles Ives, another great American compositional maverick, Mingus’ music aimed to jar the senses, scramble convention, and sound out new cultural, political, and religious meaning. Many authors have called Mingus’ use of hushed dynamics “reverent” or “confessional,” or suggested that his use of collective improvisation parallels the “oral tradition” of African-American religiosity. But such hearings are too credulous, mistaking Mingus’ preacher guise on these famous pieces for a one-dimensional authenticity, absent of irony, critique, or complexity, recapitulating an audience’s desire to hear an uninterrupted flow of “black religion” through improvisations that could be edifying but not troubling. But Mingus music was history — the music of past, present, and future roiling together in an “imagined church service.” Like James Baldwin, he often lambasted the tradition to which others would habitually link him. He said of “religious minds or primitive minds” that “[t]hey tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof.” And he fretted that “black people of America don’t have a folk music, unless it be church, which is pretty corny.”

Mingus’ music resounded with an ambivalence about “jazz” as pronounced as that regarding “religion.” While he dreamt that jazz – “which is religiously involved, without the Christian tones” – might one day be recognized as “a sacred music for our people,” he also asserted “[j]azz means ‘nigger’: if you can’t get a job in a symphony you can get a little job over here where you get a lot of write-ups and no money.” Mingus meant it when he displayed his ambivalences and multiple personae, resisting any false cohesion of his personality or his composition of religio-historical elements. In his last decade, “religion” emerged most vividly in Mingus’ words and sounds, a complex brume of the sacred, beginning with his early prayers outside the Principal’s office (disobedient from the first, Mingus worried that God might be a “boogie man”) and his suspicion that he had “mystic powers.” The bassist recalled: “I could always hypnotize people… we’re nowhere as good as Jesus Christ was or even Buddha or Amenhotep. Swami Vivekananda is closer to my league… I know I was born with something mystic.”

Even while dutifully attending church, Mingus read “everything he could find in the library that went beyond his Christian Sunday School training – karma yoga, theosophy, reincarnation, Vedanta.” He felt himself outside of his own context, America and the church, even while pinned to his blackness. He doubled down on his satire of Christianity: “HEAL BROTHER JOHNSON! … Talk in tongues, brothers!” Mingus thought culturally normative religion was a scam. It was more than just the hypocrisy or racism of religious people that convinced Mingus: “God is white, ‘cause the white man’s the only thing I know can cause, make or force people to do his bid.” But still, the same Mingus who hurled lightning bolts at “old America” said “[s]omebody – the God of love or someone – seems to believe the world can make it with all these races here or things wouldn’t have gone this far.”

Believing in jazz meant occupying its limits, turning them inside out like an alternate take in the studio of history. Mingus’ own beliefs held that “I’m as old as time and my knowledge of all the worlds express an Edison, Buddha, Christ, or Bird” come to teach America about itself through sound, with religion a key factor in the riot that Mingus documented. If “[t]here’s no better test for Biblical life than American society,” this was also the country birthing the music that might heal its own madness.

Featured Image: Saxophone Suitcase. CC0 via Pixabay.

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