You know, it’s a funny thing to be dedicated to a particular genre of music and listen to all the misconceptions that someone on the outside of that genre firmly believes in. Punk rock, metal, and rap are just a few of the genres that are the victims of endless and tired stigmas. So who would have thought that jazz, a genre that has a tendency toward being upbeat and laid back, would be just as misunderstood as much as the aforementioned genres? Dull elevator music. Barry Manilow. The soundtrack to a cheesy soft-core porn movie. Sexy sax man. As funny as those labels can be, let’s face it, we’ve all written off jazz music with at least one of them, including myself. So look past the cheesy saxophone playing and take notice as I present to you Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, and Stan Getz; three of some of the most enthusiastically gifted musicians to ever grace classical jazz and who defy all convention.
1. Charles Mingus- Moanin’
Charles Mingus was a multi-talented bass player, pianist, band leader, and composer who was born on military base in Nogales, Arizona in 1922 and eventually grew up in Watts, California. Mingus’ influences for jazz came from being a part of church choir and singing alongside them. Mingus studied double bass and composition from H. Reinshagen, who was the key bassist for the New York Philharmonic. Eventually, he traveled and played in the 1940’s with bands such as Louis Armstrong’s, as well as playing and recording with such jazz legends as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington.
During the mid 50’s, Mingus created his own publishing and recording companies, as well as formed “The Jazz Workshop” which gave young, up-and-coming jazz musicians a chance to have their work performed and recorded. Over his career, he recorded over a hundred albums and made over three hundred scores, touring all across the world to regions like Japan, South America, and Europe. Toward the latter part of 1977, Mingus was diagnosed with Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis, a rare nerve disease which eventually led Mingus to be confined to a wheel chair. Incredibly enough though, with not being able to compose his works on the piano and on paper, Mingus was determined to not let his condition stand in the way of his passion as his last arrangements were sung into a tape recorder. On January 5th, 1979, Mingus died in Mexico and eventually had his ashes scattered along the Ganges River in India.
Since his death, New York City and Washington D.C. Have recognized January 5th as Charles Mingus Day. Charles Mingus’ legacy continues to live on as the Library of Congress was presented with The Charles Mingus Collection in 1993 which included such valuable items as photographs, interviews, and recording sessions. Who’s to say that jazz music can’t be dangerous or have an edge to it? Charles Mingus’ Moanin’ proves that jazz can be just that; a threat. The mood that is set in Moanin’ is comparable to being a witness to an exciting high speed chase for its entirety, whether it be on foot, by car, or anything else. It’s like a gang of saxophone and trombone players coming full throttle at you while the drummer, pianist, and of course Mr. Mingus himself on bass come at you with their smooth chops and rapid reflexes to set the stage for this fast paced thrill ride.
Honorable mention: Haitian Fight Song
2. Nina Simone- Sinnerman
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933.Waymon began playing piano at the age of three by ear, which led her to play piano for her mother’s church and becoming interested in classical music, studying composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Beethoven. A valedictorian at her high school, soon after graduating, the community in her town raised enough money for a scholarship so that Waymon could be able to study music at Julliard in New York City before applying to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. To her dismay though, she was denied admission on what she suspected for many years was racism.
In order to make an income, Waymon taught music to young students while in New York. Teaching was clearly not enough for her to get by however, as she made the vital decision to audition to sing and play piano at The Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, leading to her performing in other bars all along the East Coast. Since Waymon’s mother referred to performing in bars as “working in the fires of hell,” Eunice Waymon chose to make the transformation to become Nina Simone in order to conceal herself. “Nina” was a nickname that meant the little one in Spanish and Simone after actress Simone Signoret. By the time she was twenty four, Simone had already made a name for herself throughout the East Coast with her powerful performances that mixed classical, blues, and jazz styles, topped with her immaculate and powerful vocal range.
Although reluctant at first, Simone began to become a vocal force for The Civil Rights Movement, being spurred by specific events during that time. Her song Four Women bemoaned the 16th street Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama (a racially motivated plot carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan on September 15, 1963 which killed four young African American girls), while the controversial hit Mississippi Goddamn was influenced by the murder of Medgar Evers (an African American World War Two veteran and Civil Rights activist who was shot in the back of the head in his own driveway in Mississippi after returning from a NAACP meeting by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of The White Citizens’ Council and future Ku Klux Klan member). She was one of the few artists at the time to be brave enough to speak out about the horrors of racism and segregation toward African Americans in the United States. After her involvement within the Civil Rights Movement, Simone spent much of the 1970’s and early 80’s traveling around the world, living in places such as Switzerland, Barbados, Liberia, and Belgium. In the course of many travels and two failed marriages, Simone chose to finally settle down in Carry-le-Rout in Southern France. After cutting a slew of albums throughout the span of her career, Nina Simone passed away in her sleep in her home in Carry-le-Rout on April 21, 2003 at the age of 70.
Sinnerman is a uniquely haunting gem that showcases the versatility that Simone displayed and stretches the boundaries of what is considered jazz music. The song delves into a desperate man’s attempt to repent to God for a lifetime of sins committed, yet finds no solace, comfort, or pity whatsoever everywhere he goes. Simone’s deep, booming voice recounts the plight of the man more accurately than words ever could as the piano, drums, guitar, and clapping of hands move at a frantic pace, creating an increasingly restless and nervewracking feel to the song. The true brilliance of Sinnerman though comes through during the middle of the tune where it is reduced to just rapid claps. While it might seem like something as simple as clapping could limit the potential of the song, it does the exact opposite; it builds it back up. With a minute or so of fast paced clapping, each clap becomes more bold, more forceful, and more deafening as if to demand your attention toward reflecting on your own soul and the gaining momentum of The Civil Rights Movement at the time. Sinnerman steadily begins to rise back up as piano chords accompany the furocious claps, with Simone and the rest of the band kickstarting the song back up again. After a couple minutes of returning back to the song’s normal pace, the entire band abruptly halts as Simone cries out one of the most earth-shattering, breath-taking melodies that anyone has ever heard, lamenting the man’s pressing need for repentance and for his God. It’s no wonder that respected artists such as Talib Kweli and Felix Da Housecat have sampled and covered Sinnerman for their own songs.
Honorable mention: My Baby Just Cares For Me
3.Stan Getz- The Girl From Ipanema
Stan Getz was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 2, 1927 at St. Vincent’s Hospital. While first settling in Western Pennsylvania, Getz and his family eventually made their way to New York City, first living on the lower east side of Manhattan, then moving their way up to the Eastern area of the Bronx. By the time Getz reached middle school, he was immediately drawn to playing music, playing the harmonica at the age of twelve, gradually developing the ability to play songs that he had heard on either the piano or harmonica. Getz would even go so far as to conduct a make-believe orchestra while he listened to the radio.
As Getz’ passion for music climbed higher, it became increasingly apparent that he had a knack for it, possessing a photographic memory and a strong sense of rhythm and pitch. But it wasn’t until February 16, 1940 that the wheels were truly set in motion for Getz’ destiny as his father bought him an alto saxophone for $35.00 at the age of 13. As Getz’ talent for music rapidly accelerated, he was accepted into the All City High School orchestra of New York City in September 1941 at the age of 14. This acceptance gave Getz the opportunity to be tutored for free by Simon Kovar, a professional bassoonist who played for the New York Philharmonic. While playing with this talented group of high school students, Getz took it upon himself to play at as many events as possible, including bar mitzvahs, frat parties, and Saturday night school dances, getting paid three dollars a night — quite a decent amount at the time.With the encouragement of his father, Getz dropped out of high school at around the age of 16 and hit the road to perform for various band leaders all across the country and as far as California, getting paid increasingly more for his instinctive saxophone abilities.
While Getz thrived off of the fast pace nature of touring with different bands, the lifestyle brought with it serious consequences as he delved into heroin, alcohol, and tobacco addiction. At the age of 19, Stan became married to his first wife Beverly Byrne, a vocalist who played for band leader Gene Krupa, on November 7, 1946 after meeting a year beforehand. While Getz merely tasted success while touring and playing, it wasn’t until July 1950 that Getz got to experience success firsthand, all due to a solo that he performed on the hit song Early Autumn off of band leader Woody Herman’s new record at the time. The resulting solo made Getz gain steady popularity amongst jazz listeners instantly, leading him to play alongside such illustrious performers as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Sarah Vaughan and receive an artist of the year award for Metronome Magazine and numerous poll awards for acclaimed blues and jazz magazine DownBeat over the years. However, Getz’ personal demons and tragedy began to catch up to him, which included such events as being caught with narcotics in Los Angeles, holding up a convenient store with a pretend gun in his coat demanding morphine capsules while going through heroin withdrawals (resulting in a failed attempted suicide from a handful of sedatives due to the shame of the incident and serving six months in jail with three years of probation), being in and out of rehab, and having his mother die of a stroke in the middle of Getz’ daughter’s third birthday. Yet despite the hardship brought from these incidents, Getz and his passion for the saxophone strove on.
Upon meeting guitairst Charlie Byrd, Getz was introduced to the catchy stylings of bossa nova, a fusion of jazz and samba music that was sought out by Byrd when he visited South and Central America during 1961. Getz was so impressed by the simple intricacy of bossa nova that he collaborated with a number of musicians, including Byrd, to create numerous songs, including The Girl From Ipanema with virtually unknown singer Astrud Gilberto in 1964. The song went on to win best single of the year for 1965, with the album Astrud/Gilberto winning album of the year and best engineered album, as well as Getz receiving a Grammy for best instrumental Jazz Performance. The stardom achieved by Getz’ relentless talent allowed him to become a favorite performer at The White House during Lyndon B. Johnson’s term, a trip to Bangkok to perform for the King and Queen of Thailand, and traveling to Johannesburg, South Africa, Israel, and Cuba to be a part of key performances. After being sought out by Stanford University, Getz chose to become the in resident artist for the school in 1986, going back and forth between traveling all over the world playing his signature brand of jazz and teaching six hours a week at the campus and running student workshops. Receiving news from doctors of a tumor the size of a grapefruit growing behind his heart on May 1st, 1987, Getz decided to move to Atherton, California with the constant comfort of family and friends. Although he miraculously overcame the tumors that had grown behind his heart and in his liver, he discovered in December of 1990 that his liver cancer wasn’t decreasing and the tumor had began to grow again. At 5 PM on June 6th, 1991, at 64 years old, Stan Getz passed away while staring out at the ocean in Malibu. Getz’ ashes were poured out days later from his saxophone case days later six miles off the coast of Malibu Beach by his grandson Chris.
The Girl From Ipanema is a shining example of what makes bossanova such an innovative and enjoyable form of jazz. You have the delicate guitar playing courtesy of Joao Gilberto strumming a samba-like rhythm, which is complimented by Getz’ rich, flavorful saxophone playing that is so full of pizzaz as they both join forces with the soft playing backing band singing of first Joao Gilberto in Porteguese, then his wife Astrud Gilberto in English, setting a pleasant, yet bittersweet tone through the entirety of the song. It’s the kind of tone that surely isn’t full of joy, yet isn’t necessarily depressing either, almost as if you have come to some inevitable, foreseable crossroad in your life. The Girl From Ipanema’s subject matter deals with a man who catches sight of a young, beautiful woman and falls head over heels for her, even though he doesn’t formally meet or introduce himself to her. Everytime she passes, he smile in the hope of catching the woman’s attention, yet, she never seems to take notice. You would figure with a story like that that The Girl From Ipanema would leave the listener feeling utterly hopeless. However, one of the reasons this song is so powerful is that despite the bleak story involved within the song, the song itself still leaves you filled with hopeful content that just maybe someday, that special heartthrob of yours will actually take notice.
Honorable mention: Samba De Una Nota
If those three classic jazz artists took you by surprise, tune in next time as I present to you three contemporary jazz artists who are taking the world by storm!