Thinking About Mingus

Charles MingusNoting my friend Megan’s trip to the Louis Armstrong House in honor of Jazz Appreciation Month, I’m appreciating a little jazz of my own. Jazz is a truly American form of music that gained popularity in the 1920s, the height of the Harlem Renaissance. It embodies freedom of expression and is, perhaps, our truest example of individuality in collaboration.

I took a History of Jazz class with musicologist Jonny Farrow a few years back in which we explored not only the history of the genre but the form of the music, meaning we diagrammed it. AABA, or 32-bar form (a plethora of jazz, rock and pop songs), 12-bar blues (Miles Davis Kind of Blue), and rag (Scott Joplin, the first recorded jazz artist) all became part of my vocabulary. One of my classmates, a lover of jazz music, was concerned that such an intellectual perspective of the art form might ruin her appreciation of jazz as an art, that thinking too much about it would hinder the spontaneous joy one feels when listening to music. I reassured her that quite the opposite was true, that gaining such an understanding would actually only serve to enhance her appreciation because it would provide her with another lens to view the talent and skill of the musicians.

At the end of the class I asked her if her appreciation had indeed been corrupted or improved. She smiled and said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll be making any more diagrams, but–but I think that now I can actually hear it better, if that makes sense.” It did.

Our diagrams were difficult to those of us who were not musicians, and though Farrow was wise enough to put us in groups with those who were, it was still no easy task. However, I, like my classmate, learned to recognize the song form and much to the confusion of those within earshot, can often be heard saying (and feeling very pleased with myself) “AABA!” or “12-bar blues!” whenever I hear a jazz song. My own appreciation for jazz was also heightened by the class–my spontaneous joy now accompanied by the diagrams and the memories of trying to construct them. I too can hear the music better, and what before seemed like chaos now has a beautiful and masterful order to it. (In case you’re interested, our textbook was Jazz: From Its Origins to the Present by Lewis Porter and Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell.)

In jazz, everyone gets his or her turn at interpreting the form, his or her space to make some variation on the theme. One of the greatest leaders of collective improvisation was the great Charles Mingus (that’s him above in New York City in 1976). A video from a 1964 performance in Belgium is below. Though sadly, Charles Mingus is no longer with us in body, luckily, the sounds of Mingus remain alive in New York City with bands that play his music. Check out the shows at Jazz Standard this month, featuring Mingus Big Band and Mingus Orchestra, and don’t forget to listen for the form!

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