The recent release of a spectacular recording of Charles Mingus's posthumous "Epitaph" is a major musical event, no doubt about that, but it is also considerably more. "Epitaph" is something we see all too rarely in our popular and commercial culture: a genuine work of art, done by a man who was above all else a true artist. As such it stands on its own, and must be judged by the high standards to which true art is held accountable; but in the story of how it came to pass there is a cautionary tale, a reminder of how, and in what circumstances, art gets done.
"Epitaph" appears more than a decade after its composer's death at the age of 56. Charles Mingus may well have been a great man; unquestionably he was greatly gifted and greatly troubled. He was born in 1922 into the family of a black postal employee and spent his early years in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where his light-skinned father "taught race prejudice to his children -- said they were better than others because they were lighter in color."
That quotation comes from "Beneath the Underdog," Mingus's autobiography, a strange, tumultuous and revealing book published in 1979. It contains many stories, all of which boil down to the testimony of a man of mixed racial heritage living in a society polarized by race. Mingus called himself a "mongrel" and recalled his father dismissing darker playmates as "them little black nigger yaps," but at a young age he learned the truth that may well have been the controlling influence in the rest of his life: "For the first time it came to him that whatever shade he was, he was going to be nothing but a nigger to some people."
In time Mingus reached a stage that he called a "colorless island"; he believed himself to have transcended race and prejudice, and perhaps he had. But to the end he was driven, in the words of the jazz critic Doug Ramsey, by "the hatred the composer nurtured because of a lifetime of racial mistreatment." Perhaps more vividly than that of any other American composer, Duke Ellington included, his music expresses the tensions and ambiguities of race that permeate American life.
His music has an extraordinary ferocity; in "Haitian Fight Song" his anger rises from chaos to an eerie beauty, while in "Fables of Faubus" it takes the form of sarcasm and mockery. The major compositions of his career, mostly written in the 1950s and 1960s, return over and over again to the black experience, finding their sources in what Ramsey calls "an eclectic mixture of elements from field hollers and early gospel music to Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, the quasi-classical approach of Third Stream music, and free jazz."
All of these elements, and many others as well, came together in an extended piece upon which Mingus, also a virtuoso bassist, worked through much of his adult life. He "wrote it for my tombstone," he said, and there can be little doubt that he intended it to be not merely the magnum opus of his musical career but also the ultimate expression of himself: a life's work in the truest and deepest sense of the phrase.
It never came to pass. Once, in 1962, he took over the stage at Town Hall in New York and attempted a performance of what he had written to that date, but the result was closer to calamity -- or farce -- than triumph. A variety of technical difficulties combined with Mingus's failure to produce the music in finished form presented the members of his orchestra with insurmountable obstacles, and the evening degenerated into confusion; it reached a fitting if ghastly end when stagehands, paying homage to unionism above art, lowered the curtain before the event was over.
For Mingus it seems to have been a crushing blow from which he never really recovered; he vanished from the music scene for a while in the 1960s, reappeared in the '70s after the publication of his book, then died in 1979 -- of Lou Gehrig's disease -- with the great project still incomplete. But he left a huge pile of manuscripts that, after going unnoticed for some time, were discovered in 1985 and eventually turned over to the composer, conductor and jazz historian Gunther Schuller, who accepted the heavy responsibility of "editing, reconstructing and even, in some movements, construction and completing" of the score.
He has done a superb job, as he is not above pointing out in his liner notes for the recording. But immodesty is neither here nor there, for "Epitaph" -- various evidence suggests this was Mingus's preferred title -- rises far above such silliness. It is a work of immense length, complexity and, like so much serious contemporary music, difficulty; it is also lyrical, agitated, exuberant, insouciant, angry, pensive, insistent -- the whole catalogue of adjectives that applied to Mingus himself. It is not easy to listen to and at moments it borders on the chaos that was so essential a part of Mingus's signature; yet even with Mingus himself absent it seems what he wanted it to be, quintessential Mingus, and in time it will be accepted, I suspect, as a monument of American music, a major composition of the 20th century.
But that is for others to decide. My business is words, not music, and I would not presume to pass judgment upon a work I am not competent to evaluate objectively. Rather I should like to tap lightly on another aspect of "Epitaph," one Schuller hints at in this paragraph from his notes:
"Charles Mingus, as a composer, learned profound lessons from Ellington but he also had a talent and a vision which drew upon other sources of information. Unfortunately, Mingus did not have at his disposal a large orchestra ready and able to realize his most recent creation, night after night, year after year. Furthermore, as jazz did not enjoy any support from the arts establishment, Mingus had to turn to the dubious environment of jazz clubs and also to the commercial record industry for opportunities to present his music. Neither of these venues were able to support large groups with any regularity since jazz had passed out of currency as a popular music. Nevertheless, Mingus continued to compose and work with a growing coterie of musicians as he developed a language which went quite beyond that of the common practice of his contemporaries."
The key word in that paragraph is of course "nevertheless." Mingus was up against immense cultural and financial odds, but he persevered. He wrote his music, struggled to put his masterwork on paper, not because he had an audience or a patron or a contract to satisfy, but because he had to. He had no choice. "Epitaph" was in his very soul -- indeed one of its sections is the raucous, joyful "Better Get It in Your Soul" -- and it demanded to be given life.
That is how art gets done: not by a publisher's or a recording company's contract, not by "peer review" decisions inside a government or foundation bureaucracy, but by men and women whose inner visions demand expression. Circumstances don't matter; rejection doesn't matter; money doesn't matter. Emily Dickinson never made a nickel off her poems and wasn't published until well after her death; she wrote because she had to write.
So did Charles Mingus. He was, as "Epitaph" triumphantly reminds us, above all else an artist. He had more than his share of frustration and disappointment, but through it all he remained true to his art. It is an example that those who now masquerade as artists and demand that the public subsidize their "art" would do well to contemplate