Charles Mingus: “Haitian Fight Song”
From the album The Clown (Atlantic)
Charles Mingus had many things to say, and he used his mouth, his pen, his fists, and mostly his music to say them. Of the myriad words that describe Mingus, passionate would trump all others. Mingus cared—deeply. Of the many compositions that could be chosen to define him, “Haitian Fight Song” endures as the best articulation of the inequities that consistently inspired his best work. The song is, of course, about everything (as is pretty much all of Mingus’s music), but it is mostly about the tensions and turmoil inherent in the lives of the dispossessed. Not for nothing was his autobiography entitled Beneath the Underdog. The momentum of the song (after a snake-charming sax solo from Shafi Hadi) stops in its tracks when Mingus breaks it down and, as the band slowly drops out, deconstructs the theme with only his bass, then goes on to say some of the things that needed to be said in 1957. And for anyone who understandably does not wish to analyze or sterilize music that can easily account for itself, let’s cut to the chase: “Haitian Fight Song” is one of the most angry yet eloquent, ardent yet erudite and—this is the key—most jaw-droppingly swinging and kickass compositions ever. It is a statement that speaks volumes and not a single word is spoken. Significantly, this was quite a few years before artists’ statements regarding racial strife became commonplace or mainstream. But this is just one of many instances where Mingus was ahead of the crowd. Mingus led several big bands later in his career, but listening half a century later to the sheer force of sound this quintet made remains a revelation. It is a hurricane that blows through your life and changes everything.
John Coltrane: “Alabama”
From the album Live at Birdland (Impulse!)
Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of Coltrane’s enduring and devastating performances. Recorded with the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass), Coltrane, already considered one of jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, managed to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane also conveyed the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also, miraculously, managed to hint at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. If Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” in part predicted the turmoil around the corner, “Alabama” was directly inspired by an actual event that demanded an outraged reaction. As only he could, Coltrane crafted a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.