Mingus and More: A Conversation with Krin Gabbard

mingus_black saint sinner ladyKrin Gabbard is one of the pioneers of the New Jazz Studies, in which academia took on jazz from new, multidisciplinary angles from the late 1980s onward. He is professor of cultural analysis and theory at Stony Brook University and author of Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema and Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture, among other titles. His current project is an interpretive biography of the great composer and bassist Charles Mingus, to be published in 2014. We first met back in 2001 in St. Louis when Gabbard came to the opening of Miles: A Miles Davis Retrospective, an exhibition I curated, and contributed  to a conference on Davis hosted by Washington University. My e-mail conversation with him went something like this:

BC: When I heard you were doing a book on Charles Mingus, it made perfect sense to me. A scholar well known for employing psychoanalytic theory takes on a musician whose analyst contributed notes to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, perhaps Mingus’s greatest record. You must have had him on your mind, so to speak, for some time.

KG: Charles Mingus changed my life. It was 1963, and I was fifteen, growing up in a small Illinois town two hundred miles south of Chicago. One night I was listening to the little cracker-box AM radio my grandmother had given me.  It was 11:00 at night, and I was supposed to be asleep.  My parents were unusual, but they did try to enforce certain rules about bedtime, except on Sunday nights when I was allowed to stay up a little later than usual to watch Alfred Hitchcock on television. But listening to the radio after 10:00 was not even in the gray zone, so I had to be careful. Usually I listened to WLS, a station out of Chicago that played the pop music that was central to the lives of all my high school friends.  One night, while trying to tune in WLS at 890 on the AM dial, I discovered a station out of Dallas/Ft. Worth, probably at 870, that played jazz on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I began listening regularly and loving the music. But there was one night when the DJ put on what I later discovered was The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Mingus’ big-band masterpiece from 1963.  This was my Damascus Moment. I could not believe what I was hearing.  I had no idea that such textures and harmonies were even possible. As Mingus magisterially drove the band with his bass, saxophones howled in the upper register and brass instruments created rumbling, threatening sounds at the lower end. No sooner had I decided that the music was full of menace than peaceful, lyrical harmonies seamlessly emerged from the mix. The tempo would speed up, then slow down, giving the music an exhilarating, nervous edge, as if it were searching for a direction. Something happened to me that night as I listened to Mingus for the first time. For one thing, I decided that I did not belong in east central Illinois. There was another world out there, and I wanted to be in it.  I decided at that moment that I wanted to be in New York. It took me a while, but I eventually found a home in Manhattan in 1979, the same year, I am sad to say, in which Mingus died.

BC: So you lit in for the city. All right, now I’m playing The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and remembering how it feels at times like the greatest noir film soundtrack ever made but is mostly just an amazing and cohesive burst of ideas that somehow work seamlessly, and you describe the feeling of it so well. But I don’t want to talk about film just yet—that’s another of your specialties. What happened when you actually got the album itself and read the liner notes by Edmund Pollock, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist? I love that Pollock ends them with this nugget on Mingus: “One must continue to expect more surprises from him.” Can a surprise be expected? Makes sense with Mingus.

KG: You could always expect surprises from Mingus. I’m still being surprised as I get deeper into his story. Just recently I ran across a poem he seems to have composed or improvised into a tape recorder.  It’s on one of the 100 or so reel-to-reel tapes that Sue Mingus gave to the Library of Congress. Here’s a brief sample of what I transcribed from the tape:

And so they come, a few steps farther and farther
Into a fool’s life.
Eating flesh and bones with the vultures.
They bleed and they sigh
They kiss and mourn before they die
They lust for what they live
And this we know is living
And yet it’s not life.

Who knew that he was a poet as well as a composer, a bassist, and a social activist, and a memoirist?  As a writer, he took the time to compose a self-mythologizing autobiography that ran to 1000 pages before it was substantially reduced to become Beneath the Underdog, surely the most remarkable book ever written by a major jazz artist.

The book, by the way, was written under the star of psychoanalysis, not just because it includes a dialogue between Mingus and his therapist, but because the man’s entire world view is informed by Freudian notions of the self.

imagesBC: Correct me, but foundational to psychology is the concept of the self and its subjective mode of perception. Mingus seemed completely “in tune” with the idea. One of my favorite pieces of his is a solo piano work he called “Myself When I Am Real,” a most intriguing title. Can we expect a psychobiography or perhaps a work that treats his relationship to psychology with some kind of seriousness rather than seeing it as part of artistic eccentricity? Robin Kelley did a great job of recasting Thelonious Monk as something other than “that crazy jazz guy” in his recent biography.

KG: Yes, Robin’s book on Monk is a model. He has done excellent research and he neither sentimentalizes nor exploits the psychological problems of his subject.  I have tremendous admiration for Robin Kelley and his work.

I actually engage in very little psychoanalysis as I try to tell the story of Mingus’s achievements. Beneath the Underdog itself is inflected with a great deal of psychoanalytic knowledge, though, beginning with the assertion that “I am three.” It’s not quite ego, id, and superego, but it comes close. I also think that his dialogues with his father suggest a Freudian turn. And throughout the book, much of what Mingus says about himself is self-analysis with at least one foot in the works of Freud.

BC: In your previous work you have taken on broader subjects—film and psychoanalysis, jazz and film, the trumpet, and so forth. What was it like to focus on a single actor, complex though Mingus certainly is? What new kinds of demands did it make on you as a researcher and writer, if any?

KG: What’s new for me is trying to tell a story that has already been told in such a way that it justifies retelling. There are already two biographies of Mingus plus Sue Mingus’s memoir, the two-for-the-price-of-one memoirs by Janet Coleman and Al Young, and a brand new book of interviews by John F. Goodman (Mingus Speaks, published this month by the University of California Press). What makes my book-in-progress different is an emphasis on what I think makes Mingus truly important, especially his life as an intellectual and a writer. I’m also devoting special attention to the vast reach of Mingus’s musical career: early in his career he played with Kid Ory, the Creole trombonist who HIRED a young Louis Armstrong; Mingus then played with Armstrong himself; he would eventually perform with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Red Norvo, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, and Hamiett Bluiett. No other artist had a role in virtually every chapter in jazz history. I’m especially intrigued by how Mingus’s participation in Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream Music Project, still another moment in jazz history on which Mingus left his mark.  And I have a chapter about three of the most crucial collaborations in Mingus’s career, his history with Dolphy, Dannie Richmond, and Jimmy Knepper.  The collaboration with Knepper has all the elements of classical tragedy.

BC: So we maybe need to rethink the jazz family tree a bit. Speaking of Ellington, I’m working on his Jump for Joy and its relationship to the great migration and 1941 Los Angeles. In what ways could we say that Mingus is a Los Angeles story? He had some very important early musical education in Watts, for starters.

KG: Yes, let’s work on a history of jazz that is not built on separate, freestanding monoliths called “New Orleans,” “Swing,” “Bebop,” “Cool,” and “Fusion.”  Mingus’s presence in all of these — not to mention several sub-genres — is reason enough to stop thinking of jazz as so rigidly periodized.

I look forward to reading what you have to say about Jump For Joy, a show that was way ahead of its time. Have you read what Stratemann has to say about the show in his Duke Ellington Day by Day and Film by Film?  He argues persuasively that the show had a limited run because it was competing with several highly regarded shows playing nearby, including the road show company of Cabin in the Sky starring Ethel Waters. A substantial Los Angeles audience for Jump For Joy might have emerged.

I was in Los Angeles a few months ago to walk around in the area of Watts where Mingus grew up.  Did you know that he grew up literally in the shadow of the Watts Towers? Mingus discusses it in an early chapter in Beneath the Underdog.  He talks about Sam Rodia, the illiterate Italian immigrant who began his extraordinary project in 1920 and completed it in 1954.  Mingus says he would watch Rodia take apart his work from the previous day and redo it on the next. Eventually Rodia simply walked away from what was always a work in progress. I wonder if Rodia’s constant revisions were an early inspiration for Mingus’s Jazz Workshop, a series of groups that was always creating and recreating, even for audiences who expected a finished product.

UnknownBC: I wouldn’t be surprised. He also had some pretty strong peers, such as Buddy Collette and the Woodman Brothers, coming up at the same time from Watts. If you read their oral histories in the Central Avenue Sounds project, it is clear that he was very talented and very difficult from the first time they met him. He started on cello and apparently switched when Collette offered him a gig, though you may have more details on just how that happened. But your comment about rethinking jazz history leads me to this: twenty or more years ago, you were part of a maverick group of interdisciplinary scholars who more or less created the field of jazz cultural studies. The two essay volumes you edited, Representing Jazz and Jazz among the Discourses, staked out new territory for the discussion of jazz and its relationship to American culture by questioning the way music had been written about and analyzed, calling for greater attention to concepts such as canonization, the place of racial politics in the music’s history, and the ways jazz has been expressed visually. That’s an obvious interest of mine, of course, eventually leading to Blue Notes in Black and White. Looking back at what has happened since, do you think the field has matured? Does it still have energy? Was it a good idea?

KG: Yes, Mingus had great musical peers and mentors in Los Angeles! In addition to Buddy Collette and the Woodmans, he saw a lot of Lloyd Reese, the elegant, Ellingtonesque teacher of many black Angeleno musicians in the 1930s and 40s. Mingus was also able to study with Herman Reinshagen, who was principal bassist in the NY Philharmonic. When he retired and moved to LA, there was a moment when most if not all of the bassists in the LA Philharmonic were studying with him. Mingus had at least a few lessons with Reinshagen, although I have not yet tracked down the kind of solid verification I’d like to see.

Unknown-1As for the New Jazz Studies, I’m happy to say that it is alive and well. I do not at all regret opening doors for many young scholars now doing fascinating research at the intersections of jazz and all kinds of other disciplines. My friend Chris Washburne just got back from Washington, DC, where he attended the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association. He had taken part in a panel on “Latin Jazz and the New Jazz Studies.” But I should also point out that some of the most interesting work in jazz studies these days is being done by people digging into archives. We know a great deal more about jazz history now than we did even ten years ago. Not all of this work is the kind of theoretical, cultural studiesish work that some of us were doing in the 1990s and early aughts, but it is all extremely valuable.

BC: I’m also noticing a trend towards the biographical. Not only your work on Mingus and Kelley’s on Monk, but Guthrie Ramsey’s book on Bud Powell, a tough subject with little in the way of direct primary sources on which to draw. It is as though the time has come for a scholarly generation to take on these seemingly well-known artists, to write about them with the myths in mind as part of the subject to be investigated. Maybe that has always been part of the field, but as John Gennari pointed out in his book on the jazz critics, the journalists’ first draft of history had a long shelf-life. I guess what I mean to say is that there came to be a tipping point where the first works on jazz came to be viewed more as primary than as secondary sources. I think the New Jazz Studies represented, in part, that shift.

KG: I think you’re on to something. As much as I admired critics such as Otis Ferguson, Dan Morgenstern, Whitney Balliett, and many others, their writings now seem more like personal statements of like and dislike than anything else. I still enjoy reading them, but I seldom use them in my own work except as representative samples of jazz journalism at a certain moment. This is not to say that the more theoretically inflected work in the New Jazz Studies may some day show (or may already be showing) its age, but I think you’re right. The most recent generation of students now sees the new scholarship as primary, and they are likely to start their research projects by looking into this material and poring over the indexes and bibliographies.

Unknown-2BC: My book certainly benefited from the notion that the images could be set against the discourse happening among the older generations of jazz writers as they argued over the music’s status as art, whether it should be popular or to what degree, the racial questions, and so on. Speaking of images, your Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema, is a terrific look at the ways film has used, as opposed to featured in any meaningful or essential way, jazz. It also contains an excellent analysis of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, one of my favorite 90s films, by the way. Can we expect more contributions on the film front after you complete your “Mingus years?”

KG: Thanks for your kind words, Ben, and let me return the compliment. Your Blue Notes in Black and White is an extremely smart meditation on the many ways we can think about jazz photography.

It’s funny that you should mention Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. I just got back from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I attended an Altman conference. Anyone who has followed Altman’s career knows that he had a stretch of flops in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s. Nevertheless he kept on making films, but he also explored other venues. For a while he was in residence at the University of Michigan, where he directed a production of Stravinsky’s opera, The Rake’s Progress. He later decided to leave his papers to the university, and his archives are now opening officially. Hence the conference, which turned out to be pretty amazing!

I have published a revised and expanded version of the section on on Short Cuts from Jammin’ at the Margins. It was published a couple of years ago:

“The Hypertexts of Short Cuts: The Jazz in Altman’s Carver Soup.” Robert Altman: Critical Essays, ed. Rick Armstrong. McFarland, 2011, pp. 20-37.

I’ve also written a piece on the jazz in film noir, specifically in Out of the Past and The Blue Gardenia.  That should be out sometime next year.

After the Mingus book, I’ll probably take a year or so to write a memoir about my parents. They were extraordinary people, and the story of their 62-year-marriage is kind of amazing. I only learned how amazing after they both passed away a few years ago.

images-1Thanks to Krin and best wishes for his Mingus book, to be published in 2014.

Krin’s Kronikles

Screening Genders (edited with William Luhr) (Rutgers, 2008)

Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture (Faber & Faber, 2008)

Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture (Rutgers, 2004).

Psychiatry and the Cinema (with Glen O. Gabbard) (American Psychiatric, 1999)

Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (Chicago, 1996)

Representing Jazz (editor) (Duke, 1995)

Jazz among the Discourses (editor) (Duke, 1995)

See also: http://www.kringabbard.com/

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