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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 387-419
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Charles Mingus and the Invention of the Jazz Workshop
University of Virginia
Where Did the "Free" in Free Jazz Come From?
The music was arguably born on 30 January 1956, a well-nigh apocalyptic moment when jazz composer Charles Mingus set in motion a novel but durable experiment in musical orchestration and simultaneously unveiled a menacing critique of modernist authority. Mingus had assembled his Jazz Workshop in the Atlantic studios to record "Pithecanthropus Erectus," a "jazz tone-poem" that was simple in the primordial sense. An allegory of Promethean ambition and slave revolt, "Pithecanthropus" was intended to illustrate the rise of the first man, the bloating of his ambition, his rule over his fellow men, and then--most extendedly--his downfall at the hands of a mass insurrection. It was a ferocious version of the plot that, as sociologist Paul Gilroy has remarked, is central to African American modernism: the "interrogation of the concept of progress from the standpoint of the slave," this time voiced by a 33 year-old composer and bass virtuoso whose ambitions had so far swelled larger than his commercial accomplishments. "Pithecanthropus" was his Workshop's major label debut as well as his most groundbreaking work to date. 1
Yet it was not simply the plot that transformed "Pithecanthropus" into the sourcebook of postbop jazz. More strikingly, Mingus found a license for freedom in the mechanics of the tone-poem, just as his modernist model Richard Strauss had introduced new dissonances in [End Page 387] his fin-de-siècle tone-poems like Also Sprach Zarathrustra. Mingus's music needed to stretch musical form and reach for an embattled dissonance if it was to summon the power necessary to overthrow such a primordial master--a figure Mingus aspired to be yet also loved to defeat. In the second module of "Pithecanthropus," geared to represent the force of collective will, Mingus's Workshop refused to be bound by customary guidelines or measure-by-measure formulas of improvisational length; his soloists persevered simply until a spontaneous verbal cue initiated a new section. Likewise, the Workshoppers swerved away from a well-tempered sound in favor of percussive pounding and saxophone blats, wails, and screams. "Pithecanthropus" marked a new harnessing of collective energy in jazz, a new language of seemingly unbounded melodrama. 2
I will return later to "Pithecanthropus," but as a tortuous drama of deliverance it serves as an apt starting point for my central argument here: Mingus's Jazz Workshop gave "freedom" a different meaning than the one assumed in dominant Cold War paradigms, which linked freedom to free enterprise and parsed the world into the Free West and the Unfree East. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement more generally, Mingus brought the fight for "freedom" onto home territory for the sake of unfinished business. Marked by its volatility, Mingus's music suggested that freedom had to be seized through struggle--a struggle that engaged African Americans with one another and posed them against their audience. This struggle was bound up in a fatal uncertainty: the Jazz Workshop, by reevaluating the role of the rhythm section in jazz, occupied a middle ground between the unpredictability of direct action and the rule-bound character of games. Disciplined and liberating, it broke down the presumed antithesis between individual freedom and social order. Mingusian freedom was a democratic event, not a hoped-for ideal; it was messy and participatory, not rationalized or private. For these reasons, its modus operandi was close to the Civil Rights Movement's strategy of provocation through nonviolence: both Mingus and the Movement tested principles in the heat of instigated group conflict. Both were part of the high democratic drama that novelist Ralph Ellison, referring sometimes to intellectual exchange and sometimes to democratic politics, fit under the rubric of "antagonistic cooperation." 3
This essay will look first at the general working methods of the Jazz Workshop--how the Workshop embodied a radical alternative to Cold [End Page 388] War understandings of...