Mingus on My Mind

Zibby Jahns
MFA SC 2023

When I quit drinking nearly eight years ago, I felt like I’d won the lottery. My pockets were always full of cash. Whose money was this? After some confusion, I realized the bills were what I’d normally fritter away on spirits and ephemeral evenings. I decided, as a reward for my good be havior, to start treating myself to a luxury I couldn’t have otherwise afforded: precious vinyl.

I’ve since amassed a couple thousand records. At this point it doesn’t feel more productive than any other addiction. I lug these crates filled with their tiny imprints of sound around with me as I move about and it’s wholly impractical.

In high school, I’d occasionally divest from punk and hip hop to mine my father’s music collection. They were mostly CDs—I was barred from the possibility of scratching his records, which was one boundary I respected. When no one was home, I would feverishly skip through tracks and then on to the next album until I found something that captivated me. I had a rule that it had to grab me within fifteen seconds or I’d keep going. But if it shocked me from the get, I’d lie on the scratchy wool rug, feel its shaggy tendrils tickle my neck, and immerse myself in the composition. I was hungry for music, for music that made me feel something new.

I remember my first moments of that feeling as early as single digits: The Stones’ “Paint It Black” changed the world for me, starting at six years of age (I remember the criminality of that time, when I was first required to be in school for an entire day). I remember staring out the window of my mom’s station wagon, listening to those vicious drums beating wildly, and reworking the sentence “the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes/I have to turn my head until my darkness goes,” trying to understand a world drained of color into shadow as the pressure of the song builds and builds: “I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky.” Soon after, The Shondell’s reverb masterpiece “Crimson and Clover” reminded me of spinning in circles until I fell over, or of my head racing with excitement on holidays until everything moved really slow and dreamy, a joyful high. That key change! Listening to that song was another way I could induce psychedelia that I’d heard whispers could also be chemically invoked, which piqued my interest for the alteration I would seek in the future.

A decade later, I had run through every genre my dad had—folk, blues, “world music”—to find the stuff that moved me, music that could tint the colors of my world. I also wanted to cavalierly mention their titles in casual conversation to my best friend’s older brother. I wanted his approval, and I wanted him to refer me to more things in their vein. Their family lived down the street from me, and I spent most of my free time in their haven. The brother was not only a weed hookup but also a virtuosic jazz pianist. I would come over with the excuse of hanging out with his sister and then hide against the wall just out of view of the piano, and listen to him roll across the keys for hours on end. He was the best musician I’d ever heard up close. I played music too, but practicing felt like a chore, because I had assignments. But this kid, he just played, for the sheer delight of it, and it showed and shone brightly. He inspired my pursuit into jazz, but I couldn’t find a CD of my dad’s that spoke to me until I came across Charles Mingus.

Charlie had me immediately. The first two seconds of The Black Saint and Sinner Lady told me to sit down and pay attention. The record is beautiful: it's angry, it's sweet, it's sexy, it eulogizes and threatens. It creates a space to behold. It demands full presence, and then it blooms. I didn’t know what the record was about, but its sound told me I was lacking in significant knowledge. It said, Look around you. It made me want to know.

I can’t say for sure I know what the album is about now, but I know what I hear. This record was acquired early on in my vinyl amassment and is frequently on the turntable. Charles Mingus plays piano and bass, but the reeds and horns are what dominate the start of this album. The best directors bring out the gifts of others instead of propping up their own superiority. Mingus is a superb and prodigious musician, gifted since his youth, and he does take his moment to solo. But ultimately he supports the wails of the sax, the flutters of the tuba, the wa-wa’s of the trumpet. Mingus was a notorious asshole with a brutal temper. Certainly, he devised this orchestration with extreme particularity and purposeful feats of instrumental majesty. The mastery of this sound is surely due to his phenomenal composition and formidable conducting, but the way the album plays, it sounds like he’s stepping aside to make way for the brilliance of each instrument and its performer.

His first piano solo comes on the third track (the piano turns that precede belong to Jaki Byard), in Freewoman. Mingus’ playing begins soft and sweeping, with wing-like flourishes, welcoming the traditional musicality of the band that enters. But then the notes stagger, back step, look around themselves, trip across octaves, making way for a host of new sounds to enter the track. With this unruliness of unconvention—an alarm bell of discordance—Mingus abandons the piano and pats the bass, strumming out little lullabies behind the screeching reeds, their cries cross-hatching the score, best heard in stereo, like a devil sitting on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

Each song, while still somehow thematic, is dynamically surprising and diverse in musical references. For instance, on Stop! Look! And Sing Songs of Revolutions!, the lone Spanish guitar solo dances in somber defiance of the rest of the song, until the trumpets from earlier return with the race of the drums to compete, rhythmic and charging. I don’t notice how cacophonous it is until the sound falls away and the piano’s gentle melody rises (this I believe is Byard’s), finally given the space to dramatically heave and lilt and stomp about. Each instrument seems to go until it loses its breath, dancing out its song until it needs to be tagged out. While I imagine Mingus’ strict rule and outlandish expectations are to blame for this exasperated devotion, it plays like everyone’s expressing themselves with all their might.

The ecstasy I feel welling up behind my eyes—of love of pain of passioned revolt—as the drums march and the horns swell, is the way I feel in the pit at a hardcore show or when I’m dancing out death at a Second Line. But we’re only given a taste of that maddening euphoria before Side Two slides sexily into sounding characteristically jazzy. Slow and sensual then picking up speed to mimic a big band sound, then slowing down again like it’s 4 a.m. and everyone’s looking around the bar for whom they’re going to stumble home with. It’s chaotic then sultry, with vague demarcations made by heralds and battle drums in between the two. I don’t want the slow dance to end, this head on my shoulder feels so good, the music milks the dance floor to its last drop, until the drums mount nearly to a d-beat and then virtuosically flutter to some simple cymbal and snare.

It is so energetic and stunning—I can’t help but see the movement of bodies across a stage when I close my eyes. The drums are really the driving force on this record, allowing something so fragmented to beckon somatic movement. I didn’t know for many years that the album was initially conceived of as a ballet. I can’t help but imagine its premiere would elicit the same maniacal response as Stravinksy’s ballet Rite of Spring (another perfect masterpiece, another favorite of mine): the public not ready, but drawn to their feet in a violence of excitement, a riotous applause.

Why is there such a strong correlation between intoxicants and art? I have a theory: people who are drawn to substances feel things more strongly, more emotionally. There is no source to back me up on this one besides decades of field research. When you feel the things, you have to release them somehow be it through expression or chemical adjustments. When I feel the things, I want to connect with other expressions of those feelings, and the people who feel them, too. At this point, the music is enough for me. I don’t have the same thirst I once did for destroying my consciousness and abandoning all control to the tides of ecstatic revelation or pits of despair. I can feel it all in the music. I can lose myself in it and I can walk away.

Zibby Jahns, or “my friend” to some, and “the one that got away” to others, is, as of this article, a published author.