Sunday 21 September 2008

Mingus (1968)

Directed by Thomas Reichmann

The jazz film is a funny beast - from the image-heavy retro (or contemporary) cool of 'Round Midnight', to the 'dangerous' edge of the music in 'The Man with the Golden Arm', jazz is often seen as much as lifestyle as music (as the title of a French Archie Shepp film from the 80s has it, "je suis jazz, ce'st ma vie" - "I am jazz, it's my life"). That's in terms of fiction films - the jazz documentary tends to be more prosaic (like much jazz journalism), concerned with annecdotes ("yeah, Miles sure was a great cat...sure was a fine dresser...sure was a fine boxer"), sprinkled with the wisdom of a few experts (musicologists, musicians, etc) who offer some technical analysis (but keep it brief, otherwise people might get lost), and kept lively with short clips of musical performances, thrown in to spice things up (and often to illustrate something of the musicians' life, rather than just as music - the jazz as lifestyle trope, again).

'Mingus', the 58-minute documentary by Thomas Reichman, is a little different: shot in grainy, obsevational, verite-style black-and-white, it makes no claims for its artist in portentous voiceover, and simply watches Mingus one night, at a club with his working group, and one night at his Greenwich Village apartment, awaiting eviction by the City of New York the next morning. Yet, more than many of the other jazz films, with their higher production values and greater scope, it gets to the heart of its subject. The music and the life ARE connected - Mingus' music in all its contradictory beauty and ugliness, like the man, standing out, standing up, iconoclastic, tempermental, but above all human. So here, we see Mingus pick up a rifle ("same gun that killed can buy these for $7") and shoot a hole in the wall. Disturbing? The actions of a disturbed man? Perhaps so - Mingus was going through a rough patch at this point, frustrated by the state of America and by the lack of recognition (outside the jazz world) for his work as composer and musician (not that I'm forgetting his ardent devotee, Gunther Schuller), and hit hard by the death of Eric Dolphy - Sue Mingus relates all this in 'Triumph of the Underdog', the 1997 documentary which utilises some of the choicest moments of this film as short clips. But to dismiss him is just another example of the way that the 'lone but tormented genius' tag is abused so that, in effect, we can dismiss those people we seem to be praising. As Amiri Baraka puts it in his essay 'Cuba Libre', "the rebels among us have become merely people like myself who grow beards and will not participate in politics. Drugs, juvenile delinquency, complete isolation from the vapid mores of the country, a few current ways out." To make Mingus this glamourised 'outsider' figure (in the same way that Clint Eastwood's 'Bird' or Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight' make Charlie Parker and the Dexter Gordon/Bud Powell figures the tragic hero-artist) always risks underplaying their role as social commentators, social critics - Bird through the criticism of his life, the tragic waste of a life and a talent in the drugs and drink which were the outlets on which a society that did not care led him to vent his energy and genius - Mingus through the searing truth of his poetry ("freedom for your mama, freedom for your daddy, but no freedom for me"), his pronouncements, his life and his music.

So, to emphasise the personal quirks that Mingus displays here is to underplay the way it shows his strenghts. Sure, he may shoot a hole in the wall. Sure, he may ramble vaguely about Jews and Kennedy, current affairs on which idly speculates (perhaps when the wine's started to flow a little more freely). But listen to him talk about the racism he encountered in the 'Nordic' countries (Swastikas on Eric Dolphy's door); listen to him accompany himself with falsetto vocals as he plays 'Peggy's Blue Skylight' on a beat-up piano, watched by his 5-year old daughter; listen to one of the many bass solos that pepper the film (Reichmann has a real feel for musical rhythm in his editing, chopping up the performances by Mingus' group in a club and the noodling in the apartment, but not in the haphazard way that jazz documentaries tend to have - the music serves as punctuation, as commentary, as interlude); watch as he goes on a peace march with Sue, while on the audio track he recites "first they came for the Communists...", or visits a diner, again with Sue, while 'Freedom' plays on the soundtrack; listen to him talk about his need for a 'soul-mate', man's need for woman ("I think most men are jealous of women..."). Reichmann's camera seems to just watch - the film's great virtue is its casual style, the way Mingus feels ready to just let spill, to talk, conversationally but with insight, the way that the camera focusses on pertinent details (a 1000 words), like Dannie Richmond's face, in the zone as he drums in the club performances, or, most poignantly, Mingus' bass, left alone on the sidewalk as he's evicted from the apartment in which he was trying to set up an artists' studio/school.

In the end, Mingus fills this documentary. The title is apt - just one word, 'Mingus'. A hero not because he was a romantic outsider (even if he was - a mixture of races and emotions, standing outside, in-between tradition and modernity, etc), but because he was willing to speak up about the injustices of what Baraka calls the "rotting carcass" of society, and was able to translate those feelings (the 'passions of a man') into the most sublime art (as Baraka continues, the "bright flowers" that grow up through the carcass). And by sublime art, I don't just mean what caused poet Jonathan Williams ( to comment: "It is incredible that Mingus can dredge out of the contemporary slough the potency and healing grace of his music." No, I also mean the music of his daily life, creating his life as he lived it; because that's we all do - and in that sense, we are all artists, making sense of what we have, or are given, as we can - picking up what falls into our lap and making do, making new, making mend. One senses that what is seen of Mingus in this film is, perhaps, a performance, and thus I'm on dangerous ground making the kind of claims I've just made, in relation to what I'm about to say: but, performative or not, there's something there as moving and impressive as 'Fables of Faubusu' or 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat' or 'Pithecanthropus Erectus' or any of the other masterpieces. So I'll leave things with Mingus, sucking on his unlit pipe, pausing for thought, then beginning, mildly, yet with all the bitternes of an unjust society built up into a burning and passionate intellect: "I pledge allegience to the flag...just for the hell of it" - and, as he potters around the apartment, among all the unpacked possessions ("I've got my life in these boxes"), singing, to himself more than for the camera: "My country 'tis of thee, great land of slavery..."