Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Underrated Classical Musicians: Charles Mingus

 So what of non-classical music worthy of classical music.

It's true, the older I get, the tireder I get of rock music, and most particularly art rock music - the pretensions of so many thousands of white guys who experience nothing of life but touring and all of it through a hazy filter of substance abuse. And let's face it, it's getting worse now that the internet is yelling at us to consider seriously the cultural context of every piece of generational nostalgia. Don't get me wrong: Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are very serious artists, and the art in them bespeaks a very substantive experience of what it's like to live through truly significant experiences. There was no way to go through the beginning of the pandemic and not realize the earth-shaking impact of songs like The Times They Are a'Changin, A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, or Both Sides Now. But to heed objections to our not taking the Taylor Swifts seriously is so many requests too far that we have to fight back and call it for the idiocy it is.
But then you've got jazz, and the very real, substantive experience of African-Americans, which is as much or more the true American classical music as any composers.
American classical music is a very specific experience. The plurality of our greatest compositions were written mid-century, perhaps a plurality of America's greatest music in any genre was mid-century. The mid-century is the ultimate summing up of the entire American experience upon the 20th century - clarion voices of optimism and hope, much of which was not born out. It speaks to 'both sides' of that experience. We listen to Copland and Gould and Foss and now and we can hear the entire American experience up to now - both in its hope and the disappointment. The same goes for Coltrane's Love Supreme. At a level still deeper, when you listen to Charles Ives you hear America in its raw state - chaotic, untamed, the raw vitality and ugliness at times of its democratic aspirations.
But then you get to the jazz, and in some ways the great jazzmen are Ives's truest successors - and none moreso than Mingus. Not everything Mingus did was on the same level - like so many musicians, commercial considerations prevented him from reaching for the stars on every album; but Ah-Um & The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady make Mingus easily one of the most talented of all American composers. In his music you get the full 'dark' side of the American experience doing battle with the 'light.' Like all the greatest American music, there is an element of good humor that tries to make light of even the darkest experiences - it's a quality not unlike Mozart, and it creates a complete humanism of a type you rarely get in American classical music that reckons with life's ugly side as well as what's beautiful.
Mingus is existential stuff that belies the idea that popular music doesn't reckon with real seriousness. I will not stop alleging that, like the country which birthed popular music, it does not do so frequently enough, but truly great stuff is there, and there is well-known stuff among it that is not exactly hard to find.

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