Charles Mingus and the Third Stream

by Krin Gabbard

Among the many jazz movements in which Charles Mingus (1922–1979) participated, the most likely and the most unlikely was Third Stream Music.[1] Gunther Schuller (1925–2015) coined the term, describing Third Stream as “the fusion and Charles Mingus, New York, 1959. (PhotoDonHunstein©SonyMusicEntertainment)cross-fertilization of two musical mainstreams, classical and jazz.” Schuller—composer, performer, conductor, critic, entrepreneur, and occasional jazz musician—was responsible for a great deal of the music that emerged from the project during its brief moment in the sun, from approximately 1956 until 1961. A well-known and celebrated example is Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s reconceptualization of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez on the album Sketches of Spain (1960).

On the one hand, Mingus was right for Schuller’s Third Stream dreams. As a child, he played cello in the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic Orchestra. Many of his early recordings show a dedication to the art of the classical composer, both in his own music and in many of the recordings he produced for Debut Records, the company he co-founded with drummer Max Roach, New York, ca. 1947, by William P. Gottlieb. (Library of Congress)Max Roach. On the other hand, by the mid-1950s, Mingus had moved on from classical music. Although he always spoke highly of the European masters, his mature composing style bore little resemblance to theirs. When he rehearsed with his group The Jazz Workshop, Mingus would often sing a passage from a new composition or play it on the piano, expecting his musicians to then internalize it.

In addition, Mingus knew his way around African American rhythms and was immersed in the blues. Even as a child cellist, he had been moved by the intensely emotional music of the Sanctified Church where his stepmother occasionally took him. As a teenager, Mingus first became curious about forms of spirituality in religious traditions beyond Christianity. He knew of Vedanta Hinduism and Madame Blavatsky’s mix of religious philosophy and mysticism. Classical music, of course, has never had any use for the blues or the spirituality of the folk church, and certainly not for the kind of improvisation Mingus encouraged with his Jazz Workshop. Most importantly, Mingus refused to be pigeonholed. He was almost perverse in his resistance to formal constraints and to all separations thrown up between one kind of music or another.

Third Stream reached its zenith at a festival at Brandeis University in 1957.[2] In addition to Mingus, Schuller invited two other composers with roots in jazz, George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre. Russell was already foreshadowing Third Stream with his composition “A Bird in Igor’s Yard,” a tribute to Igor Stravinsky and the great bebop saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Before the Brandeis event Giuffre had already worked with Schuller when he composed Pharaoh for a Third Stream recording session in 1956.

Harold Shapero, 1948. (Library of Congress)As the representative of the academic side, Schuller himself wrote one piece for the event. He also commissioned Harold Shapero, the chair of the music department at Brandeis, and Milton Babbitt, a professor of music at Princeton. There was little “jazziness” in the music of the three classical composers, but because it was performed by accomplished jazz artists, their music did move a few steps beyond the classical.

Third Stream advanced an agenda that had been part of jazz discourse at least since the 1920s. Paul Whiteman famously sought “to make a lady out of jazz,” whether or not he knew that he could be charged with demasculinizing the music. Other musicians and many critics did not necessarily hope to feminize jazz, but they did seek to strip the music of its primitive roots in country blues, field hollers, and the groans and cries of the Sanctified Church. The “bodiliness” of early jazz, along with the emotional immediacy of black music and what Nathaniel Mackey has called “the telling inarticulacy” of blues artists was, at this time, working its magic for rock ’n’ roll. Even without Third Stream, the jazz of the 1950s had been cultivating a more refined and restrained clientele. Mingus himself played a kind of intellectual chamber jazz during his tenure with the Red Norvo Trio in 1950 and 1951.

Essentially, the six pieces that premiered at Brandeis had very little in common besides the composers’ stated intention of fusing jazz and classical music. On one level, this is surely what Schuller and the proponents of Third Stream had in mind—a new musical genre that could be stretched in many different directions by enterprising composers. Nevertheless, the music from the Brandeis festival was not well received. Jazz purists were put off, and classical critics were mostly confused.

Charlie Parker, New York, ca. 1947, by William P. Gottlieb (Library of Congress)Even before black people began putting their bodies on the line to achieve equality and jazz artists began playing with a new intensity inspired by the civil rights movement, Mingus had his own ideas about racism and the canons of the concert hall. In a letter to critic Ralph Gleason published in Down Beat in 1951, Mingus demanded cultural legitimacy for jazz, even suggesting that Charlie Parker improvised complex melodic lines as sophisticated as anything composed by Brahms or Tchaikovsky. At the same time, he insisted that “it’s all one music we’re playing,” and that there should be no real separation between jazz and classical.

In his 1951 letter, Mingus was also aware that the decline in popularity of the music of Parker and the beboppers had forced black musicians to choose between a classical world that disdained them, and a jazz audience that was drifting off toward rhythm and blues. His belief in the oneness of all music derived in part from his strong convictions about the absurdity of racial distinctions.

During the first two minutes of Mingus’s Revelations, we hear ominous rumblings from string bass and tuba sprinkled with accents from a triangle. The opening moments recall the chromaticism of Richard Strauss, Wagner, and Bartok. Soon the orchestra drops out to make room for a series of solo passages, bringing the music closer to jazz. When the orchestra returns, we hear the slow arrival of a walking bass and some brass crescendi. With the brief addition of a percussive sound suggesting bongos or African tribal drums, Mingus sends the recording off into a completely new direction by crying out, “Oh yes, my lord. Hmm mmm.” He has audaciously brought his music back to the Sanctified Church and to the “telling inarticulacy” of the blues. His cry is radically inconsistent with the Third Stream project of stripping jazz of its primitive roots. The cry is, however, completely consistent with Mingus’s immense appetite for all kinds of music and with his fascination for the spiritual. It may also be Mingus “Signifyin’,” having a joke at the expense of Schuller and the pretensions of Third Stream.

Mingus knew from his experience in the music industry that discrimination excluded African American musicians from pursuing jobs in the classical world. And he knew that the industry kept genres separate in order to sell records. The creation of Debut Records in 1952 was part of his effort not to be outflanked by the corporatization of music. A great deal of superb music was released on Debut, but it folded in 1957, the same year as the Brandeis Festival of Third Stream music. Revelations was in some ways Mingus’s solution to the decline of jazz that the demise of his record company reflected.

Although Mingus must have respected the efforts of Schuller and others to raise the cultural capital of jazz, ultimately he regarded Third Stream as just another attempt to separate one aspect of music from all the others. Because he refused to identify himself with a single, sanctioned style of jazz, he never gained the stature he deserved—or the pigeonhole that would have made him more marketable. During his entire career, he never had a hit record. But Mingus always understood that the need for genre boundaries was profoundly harmful to the music. In 1971 he wrote, “It’s too bad that so many musicians started separating themselves into ‘modern,’ old-time,’ and ‘bop’ camps. If we had all continued together, the music would have developed into a much richer language than it has.”

[1] This essay is adapted from a section of book, Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus (University of California Press, 2016).

[2] Recordings of the music from that event are collected on the SONY CD, Birth of the Third Stream.

Krin Gabbard is Adjunct Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia University. In 2014 he retired from Stony Brook University where he taught classical literature, film studies, and literary theory. His books include Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (1996), Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture (2004), and Psychiatry and the Cinema (2nd ed., 1999).

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