Treble 100: No. 37, Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Charles Mingus Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

“In other words I am three” begins Charles Mingus’ surrealistic, introspective autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Mingus is explaining to his psychiatrist the three dueling personas—”Mingus One, Two, and Three” as they are later termed—that cause him such anguish. Through his exhaustive self-examination, Mingus finds a passive observer, calm, unemotional, analytical; a passenger to his more erratic selves. There is a “frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked”. And there is the final Mingus, a self-concept that will be most familiar to fans of the much-mythologized “Angry Man of Jazz.” This man is intensely sensitive, trusting, “over-loving,” but prone to intense rage when such traits are taken advantage of. Wives, accompanists, audience members, agents, and studio executives would at various points find themselves at the receiving end of such infamous eruptions. When his psychologist asks which of these versions is real, he replies: “They’re all real.” For Mingus, no facet of his experience was denied or repressed. All of his conflicting selves, his many volatile temperaments, were worth expressing and investigating, vital and irrepressible facets of his being. 

His music functioned in much the same way. As Nat Hentoff wrote in the liner notes for 1956’s The Clown, Mingus “tries harder than anyone I know to walk naked.” Throughout his long career, Mingus’ compositions ran the gamut from romantic, swooning blues to joyous, driving gospel to dissonant, tumultuous, avant-garde experiments, occasionally within one track.

All of these tendencies come together on the astonishing four-piece suite, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. There are few pieces of music that capture the sense of emotional eruption on Mingus’ 1963 release. Audiences aren’t given the courtesy of subtle transitions between moods, there are no apologies for the stark shifts in emotional tone and even instrumental palette; rather Mingus is letting go, untangling his psychology on stage. In his own words, “what do I care what the world sees, I’m only trying to find out how I should feel about myself.”

The result is indefinable, an inextricable tangle of genre, emotion, and tone. Biographer Janet Coleman once wrote of Mingus’ position within a racially divided America: ”You had to see how difficult it was to cram himself into the confines of black or white American society. It was like putting a circus into a bathtub.” The same can be said of the music on Black Saint. The exercise of categorisation, of pigeonholing sound into genres and sub-genres, was the job of critics—a group Mingus had a visceral distaste for. (His liner notes on Black Saint constitute an incensed, frenzied takedown of these salaried tastemakers). If he had to label it, Mingus would settle on the suitably ambiguous phrase “ethnic folk-dance music.” He was right to do so. There is simply too much—instrumentally, compositionally, emotionally—within Black Saint for it to be adequately defined or analysed. Given the psychological depths Mingus considered his music to emerge from, he suspected that the only person suited to reviewing his work was his psychologist, Dr. Edmund Pollock, who handles the rest of the liner notes.

It must have been a nigh-on impossible task. Covering the music on just one of Black Saint’s tracks is a daunting exercise. What begins with a simple marching snare pattern expands into so many phases it can be hard to keep track of, the listener constantly playing catch up to Mingus’ rapid compositional mind. With an 11-strong big band, Mingus crafted a bewildering odyssey through every inch of his psyche. 

On “Track A – Solo Dancer,” claustrophobic repeating horn tones soon give way to a swinging, bluesy swagger. Before long we emerge into a slower romantic passage, Charlie Mariano’s alto sax seductively draws the listener in before leading them down a darker alleyway. Urgency returns, the romance has soured, dissonance rears its head again, this time a cacophony of squawking horns.

“Track B – Duet Solo Dancers” embarks on a similar dance between Ellingtonian romance and haunting malignancy. The flowing, blissful piano that begins the piece finds itself usurped by stomping horns intent on crushing any prior lustful aspirations. The sound of gentle courtship is violently supplanted by the sound of a bull in a china shop, or more accurately, a bull in a shop of caged parrots. After all has collapsed at around 4:14, the bull calms from exhaustion, its rage dissipating into quiet shame. Returning to his autobiography’s self-conceptions, it’s hard not to find parallels in the music: “When he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t—he goes back inside himself.”  

What comes next is one of the more surprising moments in jazz history. Midway through “Track C – Group Dancers” Mingus finds a suitable, if unlikely, expression of his turmoil. Blues, gospel, and classical had fed into Mingus’ work throughout his career, provided a sweeping lexicon, but now he would step further afield, enlisting classical guitar maestro Jay Berliner for fiery Spanish flourishes. It figures that flamenco, with its unashamed rawness, its irrepressible emotional maximalism, would attract Mingus. The inclusion marks a first for popular jazz and a remarkable example of Mingus’ refusal to be imprisoned within one idiom.

Side 2—a medley of three movements—is too complex, too frantic to adequately describe. There is an album’s worth of motifs, themes, tones, and colours within one track, a bewildering quick-fire voyage through the record’s many moods. Writers can certainly help elucidate a work of art, open it up to further inspection, unearth a plethora of interpretations and meanings, but some music can only be felt. A work as dense and uncompromising as Side 2 certainly warrants such an approach, forces a surrender to that mysterious, visceral, experiential side of art. Thus, I’ll concede to The Angry Man and abandon any attempt to define, summarise, or elaborate on such expansive music. 

Another remarkable—if easily forgotten—element of Black Saint can be found in the record’s sonics. No jazz album sounds as considered and crisp as this. The placement and resonance of the reeds, the sharp, growling timbre of Don Butterfield’s contrabass trombone, the enormous size of the recording. Engineered by Bob Simpson and produced by Bob Thiele, Black Saint gave the big band a texture that has rarely—if ever—been replicated in jazz. The compositions are breathtaking, the breakneck pace of the album riveting, but it’s the sound that immerses you in Mingus’ world. 

Elsewhere, Mingus used overdubbing for Mariano’s alto sax—a rarity in contemporaneous jazz recordings—and, most unusually, employed extensive splicing in editing the piece. As Bob Thiele recollected in a 1964 interview, “There were literally 50 splices to be made after the date – all in Charlie’s head.” So much writing on ’60s music is dedicated to the myriad studio innovations of The Beatles and most prominently The Beach Boys, but Mingus’ use of these then-nascent techniques was equally as remarkable. Just like Brian Wilson, George Martin, and later Teo Macero, for Mingus and his collaborators, the studio was an indispensable instrument.

So much more can be said about The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. One could run endless tangents into its many corners—the powerful piano solos by Mingus and Jaki Byard, the flaming individual performances of the 11 players, the dance between Ducal big-band and a kind of proto-free jazz, the towering orchestration and arrangement from Bob Hammer. All of it adds up to something that is, shockingly, more than the sum of its parts, a whole inner world exploding outwards. The most accurate and beautiful encapsulation of the geyser that is Black Saint is perhaps Mingus’ own. The subtitle of the record’s final movement reads “Of Love, Pain, and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved, ’til It’s Freedom Day.”

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