The Jazz.com Blog
April 21, 2009 · 6 comments
Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon, shares his thought-provoking (and sometimes just plain provoking) commentaries here on a regular basis. Say what you will about Alan (and, more or less, it has already been said), but give the man his due: he doesn't forget birthdays.
In honor of Charles Mingus's birthday (April 22), Kurtz looks at the "Mexican" connection between this larger-than-life bassist and the equally supersized director Orson Welles. Both found inspiration in the border town of Tijuana at almost the same moment, but what these two artists did with it couldn't have been more different. T.G.
Bassist/composer Charles Mingus was born April 22, 1922, at an Army base in Nogales, Arizona, along the Mexican border. He died less than 57 years later in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Between those two events, Mingus recorded Tijuana Moods, an album inspired by his 1957 visit to yet another Mexican locale. That same year, actor/director Orson Welles filmed Touch of Evil, the story of a police investigation into the planting of a bomb in a car as it is about to cross from Mexico into the U.S., where the vehicle's unsuspecting occupants are killed by the ensuing blast.
Touch of Evil is set in a make-believe border town called Los Robles, obviously a stand-in for Tijuana—although the film was actually shot in West L.A.'s Venice district. In a 58-page preproduction memo to Universal-International Pictures, Welles declared that sound in all its aspects, including music, would be vital to the director's vision. His "intricately worked out" sequences of "closely related scenes" were "meant to be a tour de force in the rather sadly neglected dimension of the soundtrack."
Welles's soundtrack is a tour de force, alright, but mostly in the rather sadly neglected dementia of what constitutes appropriate music. For the opening sequence, as the camera roves Venice's Mexican streets, Welles wanted to evoke "passing one cabaret orchestra after another." Only the cosmopolite Orson Welles could suppose that entertainment in what he called "honky-tonk districts" would be provided by cabaret orchestras. "The special use of contrasting 'mambo-type' rhythm numbers with rock 'n' roll," Welles added, "will be developed in some detail."
Oblivious to Mexico's rich musical heritage, Welles decreed that border-town honkytonks in 1957 were hotbeds of Cuban ballroom dancing and American rock 'n' roll. Since his own exposure to Latin American culture had more to do with the grand casinos of Havana than the seedy cantinas of Tijuana, it was easier for Welles to indulge this elitist conceit than to, Dios prohíbe, actually investigate Mexican music. (Revealingly, Welles onscreen portrays a corrupt police captain who's spent 30 years as a border cop yet refuses to speak Spanish and even forbids others to do so in his presence.)
Compounding matters, Universal assigned an unsuitable staff composer to score the film. Since Henry Mancini had previously provided music for such cinematic heavyweights as Abbott & Costello, Ma & Pa Kettle, and Francis the Talking Mule, the studio deemed him a natural match for Orson Welles. As insensate as Orson to Mexican traditions, Mancini's ersatz Afro-Cuban numbers are surpassed in their phoniness only by his would-be rock 'n' roll. (The specter of 1950s Hollywood studio musicians, as uniformly attired in white shirts and ties as accountants, studiously committing "rock 'n' roll" is almost too horrific to contemplate.)
So what do you get when a border-town story, shot by a cosmopolitan filmmaker in a metropolis 140 miles from the scene, is scored by an unimaginative studio-bound composer? A movie with no sense of place. For all its grubby realism (apart from the music), Touch of Evil could've been set in the back alleys of Welles's birthplace: Kenosha, Wisconsin.
It would be up to a jazzman to make a definitive artistic statement about Tijuana in the mid-'50s. And he didn't need a 58-page memo to explain it. He did so in 75 words or less. Tijuana Moods "was written during a very blue period in my life," confessed Charles Mingus. "I was minus a wife, and in flight to forget her with an expected dream in Tijuana. But not even Tijuana could satisfy. After finding myself with the sting of tequila, salt and lime in my mouth and burning my nostrils, I decided to benefit musically from this experience and set out to compose and re-create what I felt and saw around me."
Orson Welles and Charles Mingus were oversized men with oversized talents and egos to match, who never fit comfortably within their respective industries. But there the common ground ended. When they separately examined Tijuana in 1957, their contrasting vistas had less to do with the intrinsic differences between movies and music than with the engagement (or lack thereof) each man had with his subject.
By his own admission, Welles took on Touch of Evil not because he was gripped by the material, but to exercise his directorial chops. "I have to take whatever comes along … or accept the alternative, which is not working." Mingus, by contrast, submersed himself in the experience of Tijuana and expressed his reactions through art, not exercise. The upshot? Whereas Welles dismissed Touch of Evil as the "sort of picture for which I can pretend to no special interest or aptitude," Mingus felt no such indifference to his own work, promoting Tijuana Moods as "the best record I ever made."
Musically, the album closes a tragic circle from Africa to the New World and back again. After monarchs Ferdinand & Isabella granted permission in 1501 to abduct blacks to Spain's Caribbean and Latin American colonies, the trade flourished until its abolition in 1886, during which time an estimated 2 million Africans had been so enslaved. Perhaps the only good that came of this evil was that African folk forms influenced Spanish music, as manifested in the Andalusian Latin/Gypsy/Moorish/Jewish polymorph called flamenco. From an unsatisfying binge around Tijuana's streets and bars, Charles Mingus brought home a hard-won hangover of his heritage and a trophy of triumphant acculturation, expressed most notably in the track "Ysabel's Table Dance." It's a stunning souvenir, and listening to it is a splendid way to celebrate Señor Carlos's birthday. But, then, who needs an excuse to enjoy Mingus?
This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.