Composition as Process: Charles Mingus’ “Folk Forms I”

What is the jazz “process” as it relates to spontaneous performance and improvisation? When does the process involved of creating improvised music become indistinguishable from what one would recognize as a preconcieved compositional product?

Charles Mingus is unmatched as an improviser, leader, and diverse musician that could create music relying on the artistry of a method often more so that compositions that used traditional preconcieved elements such as written melody and harmony. The art of Mingus’ mastery in this regard reaches a new creative peak beginning with the inclusion of Eric Dolphy in 1960, and notably on the album Mingus at Antibes, recorded July 13th, 1960.

The material documented with his working bands, especially those recorded live in concert, offer the best glimpse into Mingus’ mastery not only of composition, spontaneous arrangement, double bass virtuosity, but also a cumulative mastery of different expressive methods drawn from blues, folk, and gospel musics, and an ability to employ them in real time.  As Robert Palmer[1] summarizes:

This is one of the great Mingus albums. It was recorded live at the Antibes Jazz Festival in 1960 with a group many listeners feel was Mingus’s best, during one of the bassist/composer’s most productive and boundary-stretching periods. At a time when Ornette Coleman’s free jazz was just beginning to be heard and the avant-garde movement which would follow his example was still gestating, Mingus and his musicians, particularly the incandescent Eric Dolphy, proposing a brand of freedom built on the black folk forms and the skeletal remains of popular song structures. This album captures their freedom-with-order, which was to become a principal influence on Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the other structuralists of the Midwestern avant-garde almost ten years later, at the peak of inter active intensity. There is nothing quite like it in the rest of the Mingus discography.

While many later concerts actually do capture this freedom, and often a more intense, evolved form[2], the Antibes recording is the first live document of the Mingus quintet to feature Eric Dolphy with Booker Ervin, arguably two musicians who were essential to the realization of Mingus ensemble ideal.   It goes without saying that the contributions of drummer Danny Richmond are  irreplaceable and that the unprecedented rhythmic flexibility the bassist and drummer developed in the ensuing years is a milestone in the idiom.

The processes Mingus draws upon reflects the bassist’s extensive musical experience up to 1960, and the well documented personal, psychological, racial, religious, and societal forces that shaped the aesthetic of one of American music’s most dynamic figures. Where these elements start and stop are often difficult to measure, although sometimes they leap out of the music in a way that’s belies the complexity that lies beneath Mingus’s expression. As Palmer states:

Although his transmutation of Black folk music into modern Jazz must have been inspired, at least in part, by similar alchemy’s in Ellington works such as black, brown and beige, Mingus brought a profoundly original understanding of folk process to his Jazz workshop performances of this period. He preferred working orally to writing melody lines or even court progressions on paper, and together with his drummer, Danny Richmond, he developed an unprecedented rhythmic mobility. To judge from the sound of the music, he was seeking to duplicate within his groups the freely responsive relationship between black preacher and congregation or blue singer and audience, a relationship which allows for abrupt changes of tempo and meter, stop time, dramatic pauses, and other devices, according to the shared feelings of the participants in the sensitivity of the preacher/singer/group leader as a chancellor of collective energies.

The piece Folk Forms I epitomizes this approach, with nothing  pre-composed except for master musicians drawing upon various tradition of blues and folk music, the  emotional disposition of its composer,[3] the archetypal structures of the blues, and a reoccurring riff played by the drums:


Mingus’ approach to bass in this track is rooted in riffs and blues improvisation, flexible in all regards, and less concerned with any bebop-esque outlining of harmony or traditional execution of a regular quarter note pulse. Each musician draws extensively from this perspective as well, leaving out many of the devices that were characterisitc of the hard bop idiom prevelant at the time.  Mingus’ solo lines develop the aab phrase structure of the blues, and often take advantage of the sole role as a harmonic instruments to vary placement (and duration) of the I,IV, and V harmonies, while maintaining a strict 12-bar form. The groove becomes an amalgam of concurrent improvisations drawing from upbeat that has equal parts coming from New Orleans, Kansas City, and New York. The band begins with a minimal bass solo, building thorugh a layering of instruments and textures  in both orchestration and percieved tension. It flirts initially with releasing this tension before the tenor solo, but that release is denied. This ebb and flow of extreme amount of tension is released four times throughout the performance, and results in  intense and long crescendos, and sudden drops in dynamic as if the floor had just fallen out from beneath your feet.

The composition of this track is then rests in Mingus’ acute sensitivity and skill to create a spontaneous arrangements within a form, and the ability to create a spontaneous orchestration and dynamic arc built upon a minimal rhythmic idea, rather than a more traditional melody and chord progression. It is the process here that is preconceived; a series of crescendos, denied or resolved rhythmic tensions created by strategic fleeting eruptions of 4/4 swing in the rhythm section, the space for individual solos from everyone in the band, and the dynamic arc that reaches its ultimate climax in the out head of the performance. This arc alone is a singular example of one of the most challenging of jazz compositional elements. There are few examples in the jazz cannon of performers who can successfully create such an epic dynamic arrangement, exceptionally few who can do so out of an extreme minimum of “composed” elements.  The detailing of this arrangement is shown in the chart below.

The irony of this extreme level of ensemble freedom rests in the necessity of a strong (perhaps even authoritarian) bandleader who can make a moment to moment decisions within ear towards rhythm and dynamic, and the process of developing those as primary compositional elements. While the performance is virtue are obviously collective in its execution, this collective improvisational virtuosity stems from the singular direction of its strongest personality, and done so in real time.

“Folk Forms I” (Mingus) – 11:08

Charles Mingus, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums; Ted Curson, trumpet; Eric Dolphy, alto saxophone; Booker Ervin, tenor saxophone.

table 1

table 2

table 3

table 4

[1] Mingus, Charles. Passions of a Man: Complete Atlantic Recordings. Atlantic, 1997. Audio Recording.

[2] See Jazz Icons: Charles Mingus Live in ’64. Jazz Icons, 2007. Film.

[3] Also on display on the Candid Label’s version of the piece recorded later in the year: Charles Mingus. Presents Charles Mingus. Wax Time, 1960. Audio Recording.

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