Category Archives: history of jazz

Charlie Mingus discusses his compositional methods in a note about Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956)

On the album sleeve of Pithecanthropus Erectus (The Charlie Mingus Jazz Workshop, 1956) Charlie Mingus discusses his methods of composition.  There are four pieces on the album:

1. Pithecanthropus Erectus, Charlie Mingus

2. A Foggy Day, George & Ira Gershwin

3. Profile of Jackie, Charlie Mingus

4.  Love Chant, Charlie Mingus

… a jazz composition as I hear it in my mind’s ear – although set down in so many notes on score paper and precisely notated – cannot be played by a group of either jazz or classical musicians.  Secondly, jazz, by its very definition, cannot be held down to written parts to be played with a feeling that goes only with blowing free.  A classical musician might read all the notes correctly but play them without the correct feeling or interpretation, and a jazz musician, although he might read all the notes and play them with jazz feeling, inevitably introduces his own individual expression rather than what the composer intended.  It is amazing how many ways a four-bar phrase of four beats per measure can be interpreted!

My whole conception with my present Jazz Workshop group deals with nothing written.  I “write” compositions – but only on mental score paper – then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians.  I play them the “framework” on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling with the scale and chord progressions to be used.  Each man’s own particular  style is taken into consideration, both in ensemble and in solos.  For instance, they are given different rows of notes to use against each chord but they choose their own notes and play them in their own style, from scales as well as chords, except where a particular mood is indicated.  In this way, I find it possible to keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet to allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos.

I have often been accused of being “way out” compositionally.  True or false, my ideas have not changed – only my method of producing them.  In this particular group it is something of an asset to have musicians like J.R. [J.R. Monterose, tenor saxophone] and Jackie [Jackie McLean, alto saxophone] whose styles of playing (J.R. from the Rollins school, and Jackie from the Bird school) are already familiar to listeners.  I could tell you, by way of explanation, that I have super-imposed scales within chords and replaced bars with “cues” but their familiar lines played on my perhaps heretofore unfamiliar framework should serve to “explain” my ideas in extended form better than I can.

[The album note continues with a note on each piece.  The beginning of the note on Pithecanthropus Erectus is quoted below.]

PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS.  This composition is actually a jazz tone poem because it depicts musically my conception of the modern counterpart of the first man to stand erect – how proud he was, considering himself the “first” to ascend from all fours, pounding his chest and preaching his superiority over the mammals still in a prone position.  Overcome with self-esteem, he goes out to rule the world, if not the universe, but both his own failure to realize the inevitable emancipation of those he sought to enslave, and his greed in attempting to stand on a false security, deny him not only the right of ever being a man, but finally destroy him completely.  Basically the composition can be divided into four movements: (1) evolution, (2) superiority-complex, (3) decline, and (4) destruction…

Charlie Mingus, sleeve notes for Pithecanthropus Erectus (The Charlie Mingus Jazz Workshop, 1956).