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THIS IS JAZZ!

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Wednesday, June 3, 2009.

 

I graduated from high school in May 1964. From August 1964 through March 1965, I attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota — I stayed that long because I had to wait for the weather to break in order to make my getaway. It was cold. Totally cold.

Years later, I began to appreciate the learning experience of being at Carleton; the people I met, the films I saw, lectures I absorbed and the completely new variety of classmates. I remember one senior female student was dating a guy who was present when Malcolm X was gunned down. Some years later, I got to know Robert Allen, a man I first met through reading the letter he wrote describing the horror.

While there, I was dating a fellow student from
Turkey and Carleton introduced me to the wider world.  It started me on some roads I would continue to travel for years. 

 

For example, Carleton had a radio station and that was my first gig as a jazz DJ. Sunday nights, 8pm to 10pm. I was 17 years old and emulating Larry McKinley, the famous New Orleans WYLD radio personality who had a Satuday afternoon program called This Is Jazz.

One of my most daring shows was playing the entire of
Black Saint And The Sinner Lady. The whole thing with no chatter. And when I flipped the record over, so quickly and so smoothly  there would be hardly an appreciable pause.

 

Preparing to do the write up this week, I started listening to Black Saint trying to decide what section to feature or whether I was going to just do one or maybe two tracks, or whatever… you know just feeling it out. I started with track 4, which was actually a medley of the last three parts of the suite.

As I listen I almost cried. I certainly hollered loudly during certain parts.

For a year or so circa 1967/68 I was a part-time professional drummer. I had first been highly influenced by Art Blakey and then totally blown away by Tony Williams. But the discipline and beauty of Max Roach was also deeply embedded in my ear. And yet, beyond all of the above mentioned (and also beyond the incomparable, pile-driving magician Elvin Jones), beyond every drummer I knew and respected there was the whirlwind that was Danny Richmond, Mingus’ main drummer.

 

If you have never played modern jazz as a drummer you probably do not realize how difficult it is to play free, to improvise and at the same time hold together the ensemble’s rhythmic pulse. I know that a lot of jazz drumming sounds like mad hatter pounding to no purpose other than loud noise but even doing that is difficult in the midst of music as wide open as this work.

The diminuendos and crescendos are nothing short of impossible to match in both their emotional impact and the precision of their execution. At certain moments, you don’t have time to decide what to play, you just have to play counting on your instinct and gut. You don’t choose to hit this cymbal or rim shot the snare, you do whatever you do and keep moving.

In the Black Saint context, Danny Richmond was the tail who had to lead the tiger. By that I mean, they were playing a composition full of shifting rhythm patterns and wild swings in the dynamics.

 

In one sense, he knew where they were going but he never could be sure when they would get there. Nevertheless, Richmond had to be the engine keeping the music moving, both augmenting what the men were playing, providing appropriate stokes, rolls and cymbal crashes in sync with whatever they came up with and at the same time pulling the whole ensemble into and out of the various stops and starts, and doing it on time, on the dime, no hesitation.

 

Dannie Richmond. I’m telling you the man is the real Captain Marvel. He deserves a medal of honor for keeping time on this one.

To illustrate what I mean. Listen to any of the tracks twice, or thrice, and on the fourth time see if you can even pat your foot in time all the way through without getting flux-moxed and wrong-footed.

Besides the “holy shit Dannie, you a bad man” on the skins, besides the deeptitude of Charles Mingus’ composition—and that is a lot of besides to put aside, but anyway, besides all of the aforementioned, notice the fierceness of this music.

Mingus got these musicians to play at a level of intensity any of them rarely, if ever, matched on any other record they made. 

 

Soon Coltrane was to arrive along with Albert Ayler and they brought Einsteinium nuclear fission-esque saxophone energy to modern jazz—oh, and must mention Pharoah Sanders in that number—but what they brought was mostly improvisation. What Mingus drops here is both composition and improvisation. Not even Sun Ra has a record that is as exhaustive as this work.

Finally, it is stunningly clear that The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady captures this thoroughgoing emotional intensity.
The record is so graphic it’s almost pornographic. It’s the energy of sex that Mingus captures. There’s no cooing and oohing, no squealing and moaning, just eleven men making music like somebody had a gun to their heads and prompting them to play hard or die. Nobody died that day.

When the radio show ended at ten, I was exhausted. I didn’t smoke then and don’t now but that was one time I could have used a cigarette.

And a shout out for the band


Charles Mingus — bass, piano, leader
Jerome Richardson — soprano, baritone saxophones, flute
Charlie Mariano — alto saxophone
Dick Hafer — tenor saxophone, flute
Rolf Ericson — trumpet
Richard Williams — trumpet
Quentin Jackson — trombone
Don Butterfield — tuba, contrabass trombone
Jaki Byard — piano
Jay Berliner — acoustic guitar
Dannie Richmond — drums

The debt Mingus owed Duke Ellington is obvious but I believe Mingus did more with what he had than did Ellington, precisely because Ellington kept a band full of virtuosos who worked constantly.

 

This was a band that Mingus had only briefly, and none of them were as influential on their individual instruments as were their counterparts in the Ellington orchestra.

 

I do not mean that as a put down. No, I mean that this recording is so superb that it holds its own against the great Ellington recordings. The biggest difference is that Mingus didn’t produce as much music and as many magical recordings but on the flip side, nobody before or since, Ellington included, recorded such a staggeringly complex composition of overwhelming emotional intensity.

Larry McKinley was right: this is jazz!

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a writer, musician and film-maker based in New Orleans, USA.

 

 

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