The Mingus Big Band is one of several ensembles formed after the death of jazz titan Charles Mingus that dedicates itself to performing and interpreting the canon of the late composer’s music. Since 2008, the band has held a residency at mid-Manhattan’s Jazz Standard club, performing two sets of music every Monday night. The Mingus Big Band has been recording their iterations of Mingus’ music for nearly thirty years, and their album Live at Jazz Standard (2010) earned the group a Grammy award.
During spring break, I was fortunate enough to see the group play one of their sets. On this specific night, the band performed “Haitian Fight Song,” one of Mingus’ more significant and revered compositions that appeared on his 1957 album The Clown. After announcing it, lead alto saxophonist, Alex Foster, discussed Mingus’ purpose in writing the piece, explaining that “Haitian Fight Song” is the composer’s embittered reaction to prejudice and racism he perceived throughout his lifetime. As the piece emerged from its ominous introductory bass solo, its tempestuous character became apparent. The brass and saxophones blared the composition’s militant melody, and one trumpeter in the group began to yell out, “Get mad! Get mad!”
Get mad! It is precisely this fervor, angst and thematic conveyance that comprise the most profound occasions of jazz composition and performance. Jazz, like poetry, punk rock, abstract expressionism, etc. is able to reflect the thoughts and feelings of its composer with stimulating artistic clarity. Yet, despite its creative power, jazz has indeed fallen dramatically in popularity during the past several years. Moreover, the creative potential of jazz is dishearteningly absent from the few appearances of the genre in popular culture of the 21st century.
As the popularity of jazz music has dwindled in the past several decades, its presence in prominent cultural phenomena is rare. In the most recent years, jazz seems to be limited by the confines of intensively promoted duet albums or historical biopic films. Of course, I am referring to works like Cheek to Cheek, Tony Bennet and Lady Gaga’s 2014 collaborative album consisting of the duo singing famous 20th century jazz standards. There is Don Cheadle’s just released Miles Ahead, a cinematic exploration of the life of Miles Davis. These two examples are indeed aesthetically enjoyable and indicative of their creators’ vocal or directorial talents. Nevertheless, the underlying tone of similar albums and films is nostalgic in nature and not contributive to the creative evolution of jazz music. Rather than contribute to the genre, these works only attempt to recreate specific moments in the history of jazz. Perhaps this is to be expected of the 89-year -old Tony Bennett or the film that explicitly claims to be primarily biographical. Yet, it is detrimental to jazz music as a whole when its most significant appearances are only eulogies of the past. One close exception is the movie Whiplash, as it portrays jazz musicianship as being vigorously alive (and frighteningly draconian). The film does explore the obsessiveness and elusive contentment that characterizes musical artistry, and indeed it is loosely based upon director Damien Chazelle’s experience in Princeton High School’s jazz band. Yet, as Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker, “Certainly, the movie isn’t ‘about’ jazz; it’s ‘about’ abuse of power.” In considering its place in Whiplash, jazz music is only supplemental to the film’s plot, and so its real contribution to jazz is minimal.
Has jazz then faded away? A spirit left adrift in the smokey, opiate visualizations of Parker, Coltrane, Brubeck and other legends past? It can be considered functionally absent in pure form from the world of popular culture. For the time being, however, it thrives in a somewhat “underground” forum of musicians and fandom. Despite burgeoning audiences and musicians, the Mingus Big Band and smaller groups continue to perform at clubs and venues around the world. In the studio, artists like Robert Glasper continue to develop jazz, synthesizing it with elements of hip hop on albums like Black Radio.
Perhaps the most profound contemporary occurrence of jazz exists in less formal settings. For example, if one were to wander into Washington Square Park on a pleasant afternoon during August, it is completely possible, and indeed likely, that one would stumble upon a combo of jazz musicians playing for any who will listen. This case is the finest example of jazz’s creative power. The improvised melodies and limited harmonic confines that characterize jazz music are dialectic in nature. This offers jazz musicians an intrinsic satisfaction not reliant upon the exposure of popular media. This musical “discourse” has spread to the contemporary genres that have come after it. In this way, jazz is less a genre as it is an institution, or a technical, melodic, and even spiritual method of approaching music. If recognized jazz music were to fade to relative obscurity, its effect on music is still lasting and profound.
Nick Swan is a freshman in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Swan’s Song