Mingus on the Avant-Garde and Tradition

at the Joni Mitchell recording

AllAboutJazz asked me to provide an excerpt from my book Mingus Speaks (2013), so I thought I’d share it with you. Mingus loved to talk about the avant-garde pretenders and how they thumbed their noses at tradition.

 Mingus: Everybody’s got ego and everybody who lives in a human body thinks they’re better than another guy. Even if a guy’s considered to be a nigger in the South and the white man says he’s better, if the guy’s on his own and creating, he says, “Man, I’m better than that guy.” I got a tenor player (I won’t call his name) wanted to be in my band a long time, and he can’t play. But when the people see him, he’s moving like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane at the same time and, man, they clap, and he ain’t played shit. And so I know that he feels, “Hey look, Mingus, I moved the people, you saw that. Why don’t you hire me?”

I try to explain, “Well, I don’t move no people like that, man, that’s not what I’m here to do. I guess I could kick my leg up too, spin my bass,” and he don’t believe me so I do it, do the Dixieland, spin the bass and they clap. I mean that’s showmanship, but this is supposed to be art. I mean the only time they Uncle Tom in classical is when they bow, you know those classic bows, the way they had, man? Especially the women, opera singers, that crazy bow [curtsy] when they get down to their knees? They had some class.

You know, anybody can bullshit, excuse my expression, and most avant-garde people are bullshitting. But Charlie Parker didn’t bullshit. He played beautiful music within those structured chords. He was a composer, man, that was a composer. It’s like Bach. Bach is still the most difficult music written, fugues and all. Stravinsky is nice, but Bach is how buildings got taller. It’s how we got to the moon, through Bach, through that kind of mind that made that music up. That’s the most progressive mind. It didn’t take primitive minds or religious minds to build buildings. They tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof. (They also led us to sell goof.)

. . . One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. The movements—like you remember Moten Swing? Count Basie swing is another swing. And Jimmie Lunceford had another swing. Remember Jimmie’s band? The two-four rock [demonstrates].

Well, man, there should be a school set up where all those styles and movements are exposed to the students, and they find their medium, what is closest to them, and come out with that. I don’t mean copy that, I mean they should be able to copy it and then find themselves, as most composers do in classical music. Find which one they like and that’s where they are, through direction.
You think about it, man, even the guys in jungles, they weren’t just born as a baby and picked up a drum. Their daddy taught them how to play drums, to send messages and all that. “Somebody’s talking something.” They heard it and loved it, went and fooled with it for a while, and daddy would say, “Well, here’s how you do that, son.”

They didn’t just say, “I’m Jesus born here, hand me a drum, baby; lay a flute on me, run me a clarinet next; now I’m gonna play a little bass. Where’s Jascha Heifitz’ violin? I’ll play that for you, better than him. When we get through, hand me Isaac Stern’s.”
Yeah, that’s where the guys are today: “Give me a violin and I’ll play it for you. Jascha played it, I’ll play it too.”

And intelligent people still listen to this crap, man. I don’t want to be fooled anymore: I know when I’m out of tune, and I’ve done it intentionally and watch critics applaud. And that’s when avant-garde has gone too far. I can play wrong notes in a chord if I want to sound wrong and have a clown band like—what’s that guy had a clown band? Shoots guns and all that?—Spike Jones. If you want to say Spike Jones is avant-garde, then we got some avant-garde guys playing, some Spike Joneses.

Goodman: Only he made music.

Mingus: He could do everything, man. I don’t want to be so junglish that I can’t climb a stairway. I got to climb mountains all day long? We’re going to the moon, right? Well, I’m with the guys that wrote music that got us to the moon. Not the guys who dreamed about it. Bach built the buildings, we didn’t get there from primitive drums. In a sense we did, because primitive drums was the faith. Primitive music is the faith—like Indian music—of the man to want to find out how to get there. Bach was the intellectual pencil that figured out mathematically “does this work?” “Yes, this does, now put that aside.” And finally, “does this work with this?”

Bach put all these things together and called them chords. Well, we go with progress and call it scales, and these things have been broken down by Schillinger and a whole lot of other guys. Now if you work in that form and then go back and say, “Man, we don’t need to know this theory,” fine, then I accept that you’re a primitive. But when you come on the bandstand with a guy who may not want to play primitive for a minute, can you play with him? That’s what the question is.

Maybe I can play primitive too but for a minute I want just one chord, a C Major seventh. Now how many guys can play that—and play something on it, improvise something on it clearly? That’s what Bach could do, because that’s the foundation, and then he could put the D-Flat Major seventh against that. Now then you got a building, black and white, concrete and stone, and it can grow taller. Now that’s the way it is, man.

Governor Cuomo will soon be looking for a job. I have some ideas.

Maybe he’ll get another book deal. The last one reputedly brought him a $5 million advance. Or he could practice law in Florida or somewhere. New Yorkers have had enough of him. Maybe he and his brother Chris could reprise their obtuse familial stunts of last March on CNN. The network did nothing to stop them because the boys got good ratings.

Never mind that this was completely inappropriate and violated every rule of journalistic integrity. One CNN staffer, reflecting the views of many, commented: “the fact that Chris Cuomo wasn’t fired over his inappropriate conflict of interest in actively affecting a news story is not only irresponsible of CNN, but also a disgrace to journalism.” By now you should know that Chris helped write Andrew’s recent self-serving mea culpas.

Readers of this blog will perhaps recall that I put down the swaggering younger Cuomo last March:

There is no excuse for Chris Cuomo being on the air, especially after his gigs with brother Andrew and getting special treatment for Covid. His smug, brassy commentary is my nightly invitation to shut him off and, God help me, switch to Tucker Carlson for a change of ego.

Click to see her expression.

Both the brothers ought to be fired from their jobs. But Andy in particular is going to have trouble finding new work after all the mishegoss over his loathsome sexual behavior. Why is it so easy to condone the misbehavior of the powerful, especially in political life? Why is it always the women who have to call this out?

And how does a guy so accustomed to power and the spotlight go out quietly? Well, it may be temperamentally impossible for him to do that.

What a family. Mario is turning over in his grave.

Don’t Take a Laxative Before You Travel

Stating the obvious can make people uncomfortable. Still, why do most travel and expat sites not tell you the obvious things? For instance, with Covid still on the rampage in many places, and with widely varying responses to it, it may not be a good idea to travel at all. You should read “The Travel Industry Is a Total Mess, But Everyone Is Traveling Anyway,” in yesterday’s Intelligencer. Why would anyone voluntarily undergo these wretched experiences?

Travel advice often gets political, especially in the personal comments. Regarding the trials of travel, readers often make it a Covid matter, like this guy rayornot from Las Vegas—in the “Total Mess” piece—who expresses a pretty common feeling:

Headlines say masks are ‘suggested’ indoors again.  To protect the unvaccinated.  I got one message for the unvaccinated: fuckem.  I’m vaccinated, I will show my card and I will get a booster if necessary. But any business (except the grocery store) that puts up a ‘mask required for entry’ sign will be telling me they don’t want my business.  And any politician who supports a mandatory return to masks ain’t gonna get my vote.  Don’t care what party they are.

The greedheads who opened these resorts here should have given tourists an option:  get vaccinated or stay home. . . . Vegas is a perfect example of a digressionary [discretionary] expense: nobody HAS to come here.

And nobody has to travel when conditions are this bad. Yet some travel writers encourage it, and they are not just the industry hacks. Here’s one, with perhaps the dumbest advice of all:

Now is the best time to travel: because you can’t delay life. We all want to make the most of our time here, which is why taking a break or a mini-retirement shouldn’t be put on the backburner. Stop delaying all those things you really want to do and just do them. Make a travel plan and stick with it. Don’t let your travel dreams keep being just dreams—make them goals. Bring them to life.

For those sensitive plants among us, travel can bring personal nightmares to life. One such person named Erin writes about that:

Things will go wrong. You will stress out about making friends, and you’ll wonder how everyone else in the hostel already knows each other. You will rehearse openers and practice them in your head. And maybe you’ll try convince yourself that you don’t need to make any friends—at least then you wouldn’t have to put yourself out there. You wouldn’t have to take the risk. Travel is full of risk.

Without taking too many risks, I managed to make it out and back last month from Oaxaca to Charlottesville to see my kids and grandkids. The trip entailed a whole day of bad food and involved four airports and three flights each way. It was worth it, despite having to deal with the incidental chaos of Mexico City’s airport and the premeditated pain of surviving Atlanta’s. Getting there was not half the fun, as the Cunard ads once advised us.

The Toxic Arrogance of Rumsfeld

“Toxic” and “arrogant” are two words that writers have continually cited in reviewing Donald Rumsfeld’s career in government. How fitting and revealing they are. The man was also wily and supremely confident in his views, as if confessing there were “unknown unknowns” could explain how deeply wrong he was.

Rumsfeld, who passed on Tuesday, was two years older than I, grew up in the same North Shore Chicago milieu, went to New Trier High School and was a wrestler, then on to Princeton and, later, flew for the Navy. In the ‘50s he got to Washington, worked for four presidents, and “did everything well.” Another ‘50s golden boy, another Robert  McNamara.

When I was working for the Navy in 2003-2006, Rumsfeld was W’s Secretary of Defense and the war in Iraq was raging. Our PR shop naturally tuned into the many press conferences, which the Secretary often treated as his own personal extravaganzas. The ever-worsening war effort was blithely written off with phrases like “stuff happens.”

My boss liked to give a half-day seminar on media training so the Navy folks would know how to deal with the press. He had rather different ideas about this than I had, yet my opinion was not solicited although media training had been my business for some years. Finally, at the end of a long-winded seminar, he showed a video of CNN’s Greta Van Susteren interviewing Secretary Rumsfeld and tossing him puffball questions. Rumsfeld’s tortuous replies were offered as examples of finely crafted answers.

The insane war with Iraq and its consequences have been with us to this day. What happened at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib has never been forgotten. What developed in Syria and made Iraq a shell country has made Iran powerful and created persistent enemies of the U.S. Biden’s recent withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan has been a tacit confession of defeat, and the country will now belong to the Taliban.

Rumsfeld, with the connivance of Cheney and Bush, set all this in motion. The process was well documented in 2013-2014 by Mark Danner’s pieces in the New York Review of Books; now available here, here, and here. You, or some of you, will remember such odious names as Paul Bremer and Douglas Feith, Ahmed Chalabi, Paul Wolfowitz. These were Rumsfeld’s boys.

Finally, the hostility to Islam took on a new and powerful form, which Trump and his cohorts pursue to this day. Danner writes:

Rumsfeld is first and foremost a patriotic midwesterner, a politician who nourishes in his soul a primordial and undying belief in the manifest need for, and rightness of, American power. To him this truth is self-evident, imbibed at an Illinois breakfast table. Who do we want to lead in the world? Somebody else? The idea is plainly inconceivable. And it is because of that plain necessity for American leadership that after September 11 American power and credibility must at all costs be restored.

Sound familiar? As Rumsfeld later told the press, “I don’t do quagmires.” Well,

It did not turn out that way. Having watched from the Oval Office in 1975 the last torturous hours of the United States extracting itself from Vietnam—the helicopters fleeing the roof of the US embassy in Saigon—Rumsfeld would be condemned to thrash about in his self-made quagmire for almost four years, sinking ever deeper in the muck as nearly five thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. He was smart, brash, ambitious, experienced, skeptical of received wisdom, jealous of civilian control, self-searching, analytical, domineering, and he aimed at nothing less than to transform the American military. The parallels with McNamara are stunning.

And, just as surely, he defined the world that Trump inherited.

N.B. How Rumsfeld charmed the press, and how his doctrine of warfighting has continued to cost us.

Phil Croaks at 99

With bated breath many Brits were waiting for the Duke to turn 100, but he skipped out early. So now the plaudits are flowing in everywhere, praising the man who preserved the English spirit and supported the Queen in perpetuity.

Here’s what Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Like the expert carriage driver that he was, he helped to steer the royal family and the monarchy so that it remains an institution indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.”

What a metaphor. You may remember that a couple of years ago the Duke injured two women in a crash and totaled his Land Rover (immediately replaced by another). He finally apologized and gave up his driver’s license after a major media outcry forced his hand. Noblesse oblige is not dead.

Many good things are now being said about Prince Philip. His stoicism could be stifling but his character was to persevere in the impossible role of Prince Consort. He really did exemplify some typically British traits, as Anthony Lane put it in an excellent tribute: “The Duke was clever, restless, resilient, brusque, hot-humored, at one with the deep ocean, and oddly unreadable: pretty much as we expect our gods to be.”

What strikes me most about the Duke is how condescending his quips and gaffes could be. Otto English called him “the bigoted family uncle who couldn’t be trusted in company. Famed for his gaffes, he evermore resembled the kind of character Sacha Baron Cohen might dream up, an exaggerated version of what a xenophobic member of the English aristocracy might be.”

The Washington Post has tracked some of his more egregious comments:

During a 1986 visit to China, he told a British student: “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes.”

To a driving instructor in Scotland in 1995, he said: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”

During a trip to Canada in 1976: “We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves.”

To a group of female Labour Party lawmakers during a reception at Buckingham Palace: “Ah, so this is feminist corner then.”

When he met Nigeria’s president, who was wearing traditional robes, he declared: “You look like you are ready for bed.”

The Duke wasn’t just sneering. He seemed to favor a kind of native condescension that the Brits hadn’t seen since the days of Evelyn Waugh. Philip’s humor often had that edge.

There is very little of that in the U.S. Where are the honestly condescending put-downs? Our late-night comedians are a weak substitute. The only laughable substitute we have is Joe Manchin talking about bipartisanship, and he’s not funny.

Gaetz, Trump, and Fred Hersch

The besotted nitwit Matt Gaetz is under investigation, and the libs are cheering. Why not? It may be the only way we can call such idiots to account. Here is Salon’s somewhat overheated account of the Gaetz interview with Tucker Carlson, part of which I watched and giggled over.

You know the story by now, in particular how the Repubs have all walked away from him. So has Fox News, on which he was formerly a fixture. Gaetz has absolutely no talent except for parroting Trump’s lies, so why would anyone buy an ersatz product when the original was still available?

This piece just came my way and says it all:

Donald Trump may be a man with a very limited set of talents, but he has learned to apply those talents to masterful effect. His talent is to employ shameless lies to create an image of himself in the media, and then use that media to bilk people. . . .

Shane Goldmacher reports at the New York Times that Trump’s campaign bilked donors out of tens of millions of dollars. The scam was not complicated. When people gave them money online, the donations came with pre-checked boxes authorizing the campaign to take donations every single week. They needed to uncheck the box to stop the automatic transfer.

Gaetz is into young women instead of money, and apparently is just as reckless as his boss was and just as addicted to lies. And to sex.

Why are we all so intolerably tired of this? Because, number one, it’s vapid and boring. After so much media exposure to rampant malfeasance and misdeeds one has to retreat and change focus. I did that today by watching and listening to Fred Hersch on one of Jazz Standard’s virtual concerts. It was great music that helped cleanse my politically overtaxed mind.

I’ve spent many evenings listening to the Mingus Big Band and others at the Jazz Standard, now closed owing to Covid. Those nights have always been highlights of my trips to New York, restocking my jazz life and renewing connections with musicians. Fred Hersch is one of those people who constantly redefines jazz, and he did that for me today.

A few years ago he wrote a gripping memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly, which defined his life as a gay white man who brought new elements to the music and gained him respect as a true innovator. How utterly different a story from the political crap we feast on today.

I cite this musical experience to say that many people are fed up with the far-right horseshit that we are overexposed to. Or the cheap pop culture that too many feed on. Real art has too few followers, but it can be the vaccine to inoculate us from the many poisons in the political air.

CNN Is Tottering

“More people watch CNN than any other news source,” they tell us, another assertion of the demented state of the populace. But for world news in Mexico there isn’t much choice. In English it’s CNN International or Fox News. I finally signed up with SKY TV to get both and also to watch SKY’s sports coverage.

It was fun for a while. Then it seemed CNN was dumping ads and promos on us every five minutes. And they have kept repeating the same ones constantly: Africa has apparently taken on CNN as a wholly owned subsidiary; more recently, it’s Japan. And we continue getting the same old promos for their tired anchors like Becky (“It all Stahts Heah”) Anderson.

I just had to boycott much of this stuff. When the commercials came on, I switched to Fox, than back to CNN after getting nauseated with Tucker and his guests. There is no loyalty possible on cable. The news media informs us, corrupts us, and too often deceives us.

The latest instance of that is CNN’s recent two-hour special, “Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” which came on last Sunday and will be repeated this coming Friday (8:00 ET). Here is a good positive review of the show if you didn’t see it. You should see it.

Six principal doctors, including Fauci, were interviewed by Sanjay Gupta, as the show tries to set the record straight about how the Trump administration politicized the pandemic from the beginning and caused many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

The doctors’ revelations are sometimes gripping, sometimes trite. Yet often they seem trying to rehabilitate their reputations, glossing over past remarks and attempts to placate the Trump crew and keep their jobs. Deborah Birx is the prime example of that, and her remarks testify to the pressure she felt.

Says Vox, “That the Trump White House was engaged in politically motivated wishful thinking instead of trying to save lives was painfully obvious by late March 2020. And yet Birx opted to try and stay in Trump’s good graces instead of telling the public the truth.”

CNN presents all these interviews without much commentary by Gupta. That’s fair enough, but they can’t stand on their own. The truth behind them is multiplex. Despite their possibly good intentions, these doctors functioned as enablers, one and all.

The show’s apologetic one-sidedness is why so many distrust the media. Polarization just gets reinforced. CNN has many good anchors and hosts who respect the multiplicity of truth. Among them are John Berman, Pamela Brown, and Jim Acosta. The network’s well-paid stars like Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper are something else.

There is no excuse for Chris Cuomo being on the air, especially after his gigs with brother Andrew and getting special treatment for Covid. His smug, brassy commentary is my nightly invitation to shut him off and, God help me, switch to Tucker Carlson for a change of ego. Anderson Cooper can speak like a robot. He often runs over his own words but gets paid $12 million a year for his drawn-out pauses while thinking up a response to a difficult interviewee.

CNN management may well be facing some hard choices soon lest they forfeit their most-watched standing. Media politics as usual isn’t going to cut it. Indeed, they have demonstrated that media politics makes strange bedfellows.

Biden’s Presser

I’m not a media critic, but having just watched Joe Biden’s press conference I thought he did an excellent job. I used to program such events for a former governor in days long past and in a very different climate. So let me give some personal reactions to a mostly successful performance.

The present-day climate demands that the speaker maintain a tricky focus. The prime purpose is to speak to the broader audience—which is the American public and in particular your supporters. One does this in an opening statement and then by giving straight, tolerable answers to the media present. You don’t want them fighting you. It is tricky because the setting with the press is merely a prop for the pitch to the people. The tone of how one handles this is everything.

Biden has the good sense, maybe reinforced with practice, to give the reporters at least some meat that they were looking to hear. He has ended the folksy manner of how he used to address the press in the campaign. That, of course, fits with his new station. The press after all is adversarial, to one degree or another, yet they also function here as prompters for the president to get his points across. To reinforce his own pitch, Biden selectively picks up on the points his questioners make. He’s good at that. The answers to the media are often couched with anecdotes.

As to content, the president made a few errors. Most Republican voters do not favor his proposals, as he suggested. And he walked a fine line on the immigration mess. He showed himself to be more at ease with controversy than in the past, even over the border disorder. He poked fun at the notion of people coming to the U.S. because he was a nice guy:

Occasionally he talked too long on a subject, as he has in the past. “Am I giving too long an answer? Maybe I’ll stop there.” Sometimes he’ll come back at a questioner: “Is that a serious question? Come on. ‘Is that [children in lockdown] acceptable to me?’” He made several references to Trump, something he hasn’t done in the past. He also announced that he planned to run in 2024. When asked by a reporter whether Trump might also run, as hinted, Biden replied, “Oh God, I miss him.” He’s become a performer, in the best sense.

Then came the filibuster controversy and how to deal with it. Biden made clear his reluctance to remove it but left the door open, depending on how the Republicans handle themselves. Something like the right to vote, he said, should never be subject to the “complete lockdown and chaos” of the filibuster and if that happened, he implied, it would change his mind.

He was most animated in attacking Republican plans in the states to change voting rights, calling these efforts “deeply un-American,” “sick,” and “most pernicious.” This was the most vehement part of his presentation, and one got the impression that he would move any obstacle, even the filibuster, to protect the people’s right to vote.

Dr. Seuss and Race Music

How we view matters of race is inevitably measured by how we grew up. Which in turn influences how we reckon with cultural change. I think the ambivalent history of white responses to black music plays out in our own time through our hesitant responses to Black Lives Matter.

Reflecting the tenor of these times, Dr. Seuss Enterprises—publisher of all those stories we grew up with and which kids still read—recently saw fit to withdraw two of the lesser known books from further publication. You probably know the story, some of which is recounted here by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. He reflects on the ironies and absurdities of the so-called cancel culture and its response to the calls for black justice. Conservative media jumped all over the books’ withdrawal. But the elites dug themselves into a typical hole by their defensive, uncertain responses. The Wells piece is well worth a read.

The ambivalence of white American culture to jazz, for instance, was always part of the picture when I was growing up in the ‘50s (see Jive-Colored Glasses). And the whitening of black jazz started from the beginning, with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 19l7. In a strange progression, black music was accepted as the ur-source even while white and black performers bantered about black culture. Bing Crosby, who did a lot for jazz, is a case in point. He recorded “Mississippi Mud” with the great Bix Beiderbecke in 1928.

They don’t need no band,
They keep time by clappin’ their hand.
Just as happy as a cow chewin’ on her cud
When the darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi mud.

Later on, “darkies” was changed to “people” in the many recordings that followed. I had an old 78-rpm disk of this, along with other such period pieces that generally functioned as white entertainment with an overtone of genial mockery. “Novelty” (comedy) records were popular in early jazz; Jelly Roll Morton made several. Blacks put up with this until the ‘60s when musical standards for jazz changed along with the culture. Now, ironically, most every pop singer sings in “black-voice.”

Walt Disney’s movie Dumbo (1941) featured the singing crows in full black-voice which everyone loved. Disney to its credit has kept these scenes while adding a disclaimer. The funny animated cartoons we grew up with featured racialized characters in abundance. “Race records” was the name for recorded black music until the early ‘50s. I had several orange vinyl 45-rpm discs, which RCA Victor used to signify R&B type black music—color-coded marketing.

A recent book, Sittin’ In by Jeff Gold, is a wonderful archive of “black-and-white souvenir photographs and memorabilia that bring to life the renowned jazz nightclubs of the 1940s and 1950s.” The notable thing here is the mixing of black and white patrons two decades before the Civil Rights movement and while Jim Crow laws were still rampant.

The cultural power of black music has always been to accommodate both protest and reconciliation to some common values. Our cancel culture denies this power, and the music has become commoditized and politicized in recent years. Yet it still informs much of what we listen to.