"Just because I'm playing jazz, I don't forget about me. I play or write me, the way I feel, through jazz, or whatever. Music is, or was, a language of the emotions. If someone has been escaping reality, I don't expect him to dig my music... My music is alive and it's about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It's angry, yet it's real because it knows it's angry."

--Charles Mingus, An Open Letter to Miles Davis, Down Beat Magazine, 1956

If you don't know Mingus, stop right now. Go someplace noisy: downtown in a city, by a highway, your nearest pet food processing plant, anywhere where clamor is king. Settle down, close your eyes, and find a rhythm. Tap your feet. Find the beat of the bustle of a subway station. Huddle under an awning and listen to drops of rain as they paint a syncopation above you. There is a beauty in the chaos of natural sound. Seek this out, understand the roles of the individual players, and you will be well on your way to appreciating Mingus' 1957 Atlantic Records release, The Clown.

From the dancing of fingers across an upright bass that opens the album, there is no mistaking that this could be anyone other than Mingus. This first tune, Haitian Fight Song, is driving, determined, soulful, spiritual. The tune comes from Mingus' Methodist upbringing, which, musically, mixed with the Holiness Church down the street. There's a constant stirring in the tune, a striving toward a higher state of being, and, within the first few minutes, you can understand why Mingus was such an influential figure in his genre: up to this point, a lot of jazz numbers were opening pieces that eventually gave way to solos and then, at some point, ended. Mingus was changing all that. Yes, of course, there are solos, but the song still occurs and changes and progresses behind them. Haitian Fight Song is twelve minutes of building beauty, something strong and passionate behind every phrase. Mingus' bass opens us up and takes us straight to the initial lyrical lines, gives way to Jimmy Knepper's forceful trombone, which bows gracefully to Wade Legge's comparatively soft piano work, which, in turn, steps aside for Curtis Porter's sax, then we're back to the dancing of Mingus. Mingus says in the liner notes that he can't play his solo right unless he's "thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution... there's sadness and cries in it, but also determination." All the while, Dannie Richmond sits at the drums, alternating between a steady beat and the pound and Pound and POUND of the march. You practically wanna strut to this song. This is a proud tune, something invigorating that practically begs you to jostle someone on the streets and see if they fight back. Everything happens so quickly in these twelve minutes, leading up to the final minute and a half when the initial phrase starts to come together again and sax chases trombone chases bass over and over as Mingus howls something fierce over it, a cry of pain and passion. This is a song that seems to physically hurt the men playing it, and it ends rather calm for something so chaotic.

Blue Cee is, especially in regards to the opener, rather sedate, but by no means weak. This is a notch down to something that practically seems like your ordinary jazz standard. This is almost a dancy number, standard blues in the key of C and B flat that Mingus admits to having a bit of the Basie as well. During the summers of my childhood, my mom would take me up to the university and we'd have picnics during sunset jazz concerts by the archaeology museum. That's what this reminds me of: steady, afternoon jazz with just enough pain and creativity behind it to not be completely discounted. Particularily interesting is the bouncy quality that Mingus gives his solo: the upright bass is very rarely a featured instrument in jazz, but Mingus was never keen on the status quo. He takes his moment, makes it his, and repeats the phrase behind Knepper's wailing, bright solo. Near the end of the song, the horns howl together. We have something simultaneously bright and mournful here, eight minutes that take a summer to end.

Reincarnation of a Lovebird is the lilting, chaotic opener to side two, with a hectic beginning, instruments responding bit by bit to the piano's call. Mingus started this out by writing a mournful line, then realizing it was about Charlie Parker, aka Bird, which is understandibly a requiem considering Mingus was in Parker's band when he died in 1955. In this light, we have a turbulent and beautiful piece that reflects the life of Parker, with soft mournful lows built on long phrases that pick up the pace immediately and burn out into another low. There is an airy, head-in-the-clouds feel to the tune, a subtle darkness always at the back heels. Mingus said he felt like crying as he wrote the song, but could never get anyone to understand his mood while playing it. The tune was only fit to record once Porter, on alto sax, got the point and was albe to convey, at once, the sorrow and yearning of the piece.

The original closer and title song, The Clown features Jean Shepherd, then-mainstay on New York's WOR and the narrator and writer of A Christmas Story, conducting a spoken word improvisation based on Mingus' original story. What we have here is a metaphor of a jazz musician as a clown who is set in his act, sees the world in bright oranges and greens and yellows and reds, even has a little seal playing the trumpet, but just can't seem to please anybody, even in such prestigious venues as the Kiwanis or Rotary Club. The only time the crowd laughs is when something goes wrong: the seal gets sick on stage, he trips over a prop and injures himself, whenever he pains or embarasses himself. His view of the world shifts, the bright and beautiful colors he once used to see all the time begin to succumb to a darkness deep within him. The clown begins to change his act to pander to the crowd: he buy some pads and hires a girl to drop a sack of flour on him. His colors start to grey out, he loses his passion for the world, but he gets some cash, starts playing the big towns. One night in Pittsburgh, the backdrop comes down on him and the audience is on the floor. Something breaks inside of him. He has sacrificed himself to the crowd. The tune is a happy, lilting, jolly tune that carrys on then hits a sudden dissonance: the clown's own misery. Shepherd says his part, and the band reacts to the story. This is powerful stuff with some beautifully dissonant instrumentation to boot. Mingus originally had the story end with The Clown blowing his brains out on stage, but Shepherd's version leaves it open ended with the haunting words "He really knew now... He really knew..."

In 1999, Rhino Records, in conjuntion with Atlantic Jazz Gallery, released a remastered edition featuring two extra tracks, Passions of a Woman Loved and Tonight at Noon. Passions... starts off almost as dinner jazz, but begins to take a sinister, feverish bent three minutes into it. Once beautiful and subtle instrumentation gives way to unbridled chaos that winds down a minute later, contains itself again, but still there's a bit of chaos, building a little in the background, here in the piano, here in the drums. The tempo picks up then plays down again. This is hectic and at odds with anything your ears should consider rational. It is passionate and appropriate to the title. Tonight at Noon is a hectic piece driven by what seems to be Middle Eastern rhythms and intonations with a free jazz bent. The beat is constant, unrelenting, unforgiving. Even the main phrasing doesn't cut you any slack. This record must've been hell on its musicians.

Mingus was a tough man, an innovator. I don't think he ever expected anyone to like him, and, as a consequence, wrote his music as a reflection of himself. I once played this record for a co-worker of mine a couple years back, billing it as "real jazz," and she told me to turn it off halfway through. She couldn't stomach the wailing, the dissonance, the pure chaos behind the sound. In my heart of hearts, though, I know this: if you understand the chaos and beauty of nature's rhythms, you will understand and enjoy Mingus.
    Track List

  1. Haitian Fight Song (12:02)
  2. Blue Cee (7:56)
  3. Reincarnation of a Lovebird (8:33)
  4. The Clown (12:23)
    (reissue bonus tracks)
  5. Passions of a Woman Loved (9:51)
  6. Tonight at Noon (5:57)
Released on Atlantic Recordings in 1957. All songs written by Charles Mingus, published by Chaz-Mar, BMI. Charles Mingus on bass, Curtis Porter on alto sax (tenor sax on The Clown), Jimmy Knepper on trombone, Wade Legge on piano, and Dennie Richmond on drums. Improvisational narration on The Clown by Jean Shepherd.

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