It’s all about sex at NCO’s orgy of great Mingus in London Jazz Festival

mingus_black_saint_sinner_lady

On Friday 22 November, the Nu Civilisation Orchestra will be in the Purcell Room at Southbank Centre as part of the 2013 London Jazz Festival, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the release of what is widely regarded as Charles Mingus’ finest work and one of the best albums of all time: The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady. (Book tickets)

Described in The Guardian by music writer, Richard Williams as ‘…one of his most enthralling works. The album (with liner notes shared between Mingus and his psychiatrist) modifies the traditional blues and folk materials of jazz by bold, rhythmic variations, stark contrasts between dense, low-end harmonies and […] soaring alto sax, collective improvisation, and dissonances swept up into soulful resolutions.’

Reading the liner notes for this album, Artistic Director Gary Crosby has always had a strong sense of a proverbial elephant in the room, so he invited Naomi Selig – a clinical psychologist – to take a quick peek and give us her view.


The liner notes for Charlie Mingus’ album, The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady were written by his clinical psychologist, Edmund Pollock, who declared to his patient that, while competent enough as a psychologist, he had only the average person’s interest in music and no technical knowledge. I am similarly qualified – a Jewish clinical psychologist like Dr Pollock, but utterly incompetent when it comes to commenting on music.

However when Gary Crosby approached me to comment on the liner notes for this album, he asked me to focus on the question of why Dr Pollock failed to mention what seems obvious to most listeners of this fabulous suite.

To a large extent the music reflects its title – The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady – and track subtitles, such as Hearts’ Beat and Shades in Physical Embraces, Of Love and Pain and Passioned Revolt. Surely any self-respecting New York psychologist knows that what is being referred to here is sex. But psychologists like to interpret – psychoanalysts may regard sex as implicit in much of our thoughts and actions (although even Freud said a cigar is sometimes just a cigar). But here Mingus is being explicit.

As Stephen J. Chandler comments in Highbrow Magazine, “the album’s opening movement [Solo Dancer] begins tentatively, slinks forward like a curious cat before mews and howls of ecstasy and agony are let loose”. Referring to Hearts’ Beat and Physical Embraces, Chandler says the music is “teetering the line between anticipation and climax – not quite sexuality, there’s a dangerous sensuality” pervading this music. But surely the music is profoundly sexuaI? In Hearts’ Beat and Physical Embraces you can hear the rhythmic pounding of the tuba, starting slow and getting faster, pounding away until the climax. Perhaps not?

I think the answer to why Dr Pollock did not refer to this aspect of the music can be found in a therapy session cited in Mingus’ book, Beneath The Underdog when he says:

“Don’t bulls**t me. You’re a good man Charles, but there’s a lot of fabrication and fantasy in what you say. For instance, no man could have as much intercourse in one night as you claim to have had”

“The hell he couldn’t…”

“You’re changing the subject my friend. I was asking about the Mexican girls. Why are you so obsessed with proving you are a man? Is it because you cry?”

“I am more of a man than any dirty white c**ksucker! I did f*** twenty-three girls in one night including the boss’s wife. I didn’t dig it – I did it because I wanted to die and I hoped it would kill me…..”

It seems to me Pollock understands that Mingus’ voracious sexual appetite or sexual  fantasy life belies a terrible sadness and death wish which they are exploring together in therapy. Perhaps for Pollock it would be an over-simplification, reductive, collusive and an unhelpful indulgence to make much of this in the public arena of liner notes.

Naomi Selig
BA Hons, MSc. CPsychol., AFBPsS


BOOK TICKETS to see Nu Civilisation Orchestra perform 
The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady
Friday 22 November at 7.45pm in the Purcell Room @ Southbank Centre, London

Have a listen to The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady on Last FM

Take a look:

Beneath The Underdog by Charles Mingus 

Richard Williams article on Mingus/Black Saint in The Guardian 

Stephen Chandler article http://highbrowmagazine.com/2274-many-moods-charles-mingus

Edwin Faust article http://www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/on_second_thought/charles-mingus-the-black-saint-and-the-sinner-lady.htm

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