A Special Tribute to Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus, the great bassist and composer, the volcanically emotional, quintessentially unconventional jazzman, died in January at the age of 56, a victim of amyntrophic lateral sclerosis or "Lou Gehrig's disease." As the final irony in a life filled with contradiction, paradox and frustration (as well as erratically intermittent periods of fulfillment), Mingus saw the public beginning to catch up with his genius precisely at the moment of his physical decline. In 1977, his album Three Or Four Shades Of Blue sold 50,000 copies, the first of his records to come close to that figure. His last few years of performing were attended by the most enthusiastic audiences of his career (including a full, 9,000-seat house at the 1976 Berkeley Jazz Festival); last year, he was given a standing ovation at a jazz festival staged on the White House lawn, and an all-star big hand played his music to several thousand people at the Newport Jazz Festival in Saratoga. During his life, Mingus was all but ignored by the major press. When he died, his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times, while Rolling Stone, a publication which has been jazz-conscious only to the degree to which jazz brings in ad revenue, noted Mingus' passing with a black border on the cover.
Joni Mitchell, who has gradually become involved in jazz over the past several years, and who worked with Mingus during the last year of his life, will be performing a special Mingus tribute at this year's Berkeley Jazz Festival with an all-star band including Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Don Alias and Jaco Pastorius. She will be singing lyrics which she's written to a pair of vintage Mingus standards and to six tunes that Mingus wrote especially for Joni. Several thousand people were treated to a preview of Joni's Mingus music at last year's Bread & Roses festival, when Joni (accompanied by Hancock on piano) sang her poignant, biographical lyrics to "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and a very different set of funny, flippant lyrics about Las Vegas on "Fools Paradise," one of the new songs.
In jazz, Mingus was always regarded as an eccentric genius; so it's been with Joni in the folk and rock music circles she's traveled in since she emerged from her native Canada in the mid-1960s to become one of the most respected figures in contemporary American music (in this writer's mind, only Bob Dylan is in her class in terms of innovation and consistent brilliance).
Despite her flair for the kind of catchy refrain that goes over well on AM radio, it's not really surprising that Joni has been moving away from rock & roll toward the improvisational freedoms (and the demanding musical requirements) of jazz. She has always possessed a deeply intuitive creativity. Like the great jazz players, she's long had her own, unmistakable and inimitable sound, and she's always had something worthwhile to say. Her songs have often touched on esoteric themes spelled out in cryptically complex lyrics; but, just as often, she has touched upon universal themes sung in haunting melodies that enable her to literally mesmerize her audiences. (Though Joni has performed very little over the past three years, most of those appearances have been in Northern California.)
Joni is a prolific songwriter and painter who has cultivated a unique vision by seeming to live out her fantasies and romanticize her daily experiences to the point where her art and her life are inseparable. She spits out her observations in startingly concrete imagery; yet her lyrics often have philosophical overtones. It would demean her art to delve into her songs with an academic analysis. Not that every thing she's tried has succeeded perfectly-two of her recent albums, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, are, in spots, obscure, congested and confusing, perhaps suffering from an attempt to pack too many revelations into too small a space. But even Joni's small failings are far more fascinating than the "successes" of the last 383 Billboard chartbusters. Like Woody Allen, perhaps, her work is great even when it's uneven. And when she has everything fall perfectly into place (as, I believe, happened with her album Hejira), she can produce masterpieces.
Setting lyrics to jazz is a big challenge. Only a small handful of writers have done it successfully (Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks and a precious few others). But I suspect that Joni's words will fit Mingus's music very comfortably. It may be a little difficult for some of her older fans to adjust to this new format; they will long for the familiar swaying rhythms and lilting melodies, the themes of loves won-and-lost that have characterized her music for the past dozen years.
But I suggest that we should rejoice that we have in our midst a major artist who is too restless to repeat herself, too curious to fall back on formats she's already proved herself a past master at, who is courageous and resourceful enough to embark on a new path. Joni will no doubt infuse Mingus's music with her own special magic, cast his art into a new light without diminishing his grandeur one iota. In fact, Joni's fascination with jazz may prove to be one of the healthiest developments to take place in the American culture of our times.