Charles Mingus and the Renegade Film


In 1977 Charles Mingus arrived in Rome to create the soundtrack for the film All Mode, directed by director Elio Petri, starring, among others, Gian Maria Volonté and Marcello Mastroianni. The choice to call the American musician was probably due to the convergence between his reputation as an anti-system character and the content of political denunciation, even if staged in a dreamlike and at times grotesque manner, of the film based on the novel of the same name by the writer Leonardo Sciascia. In fact, Todo Modo recounts the dysfunctions of power within the major Italian party of the time, the Christian Democrats, placing itself in the genre of cinema of political and civil commitment born during the turbulent seventies, the so-called "years of lead“. In truth, Charles Mingus was not new to this type of cinematographic experience, at the end of the 1950s he had participated in the composition of the music for another independent film of social denunciation, Ombre (Shadows), by director and actor John Cassavetes. This propensity on Mingus' part to embrace burning and uncomfortable issues for the time was in harmony with his figure as a musician and composer in the field of African-American jazz, creatively overflowing, restless, combative and problematic, so much so as to place himself beyond outside the usual cataloging of musical genres and styles.

In the 1940s Mingus proposed himself as one of the proponents of the be bop, but at the same time he does not allow himself to be caged in the narrow framework of that artistic movement, immediately seeking his own very personal way of understanding and interpreting the jazz lexicon. His music is influenced by the countless influences of the American musical tradition, gospel song and free improvisation, and of the European one, chamber, symphonic and Spanish music. The double bass player's natural tendency to continuously and tirelessly overlap different expressions, more often than not brought to the limit of paroxysm, can be correlated to his condition as the son of a black man and a woman who is half Indian and half Chinese. , in the context of “white” America. In short, Mingus was many elements present in the same person, halfway between tradition and experimentation; elements made by him, with a valuable technique applied to the double bass, elaborated and more often than not denied. It is therefore not surprising that, despite the fact that over the years he has been held up as a forerunner of the free jazz, he himself never felt part of that musical current, perceiving the protagonists of that movement "completely foreigni”, pur anticipandone “lto vibrant protest, passionate social commitment and predilection for discordant collective improvisations...”∗. The presence in his records of typical elements of the language of what would be the "new jazz" of the Sixties and Seventies does not escape the most attentive listener: the continuous musical development, the sophisticated collective improvisation and the explicit and corrosive messages of political and social denunciation of the unequal racial and segregationist system in power in the United States in those years.

In the final part of the Seventies, when he arrived in Rome, Charles Mingus was in Europe for a series of concerts. During the stay in the capital, despite watching some scenes filmed on the set All Mode, in just a few days he composed music that was dark and, as in his style, at certain moments indecipherable, which aroused contradictory reactions in the listener. So much so that Elio Petri, despite the insistence of the producer Daniele Senatore, ultimately decides not to use the material composed and recorded by Mingus, considering it not suitable for the film. The director, thus, relies on the Maestro's timely and qualitative contribution for the final realization of the soundtrack Ennio Morricone, urgently called to replace the American musician. The film, upon its release in cinemas, was opposed by critics and the bodies of power, both by the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party, until the film was seized a month after the first screening. The kidnapping and murder of the President of the DC, Aldo Moro, which occurred a few months later, not explicitly predicted in the film, establishes his definitive oblivion for years.

Of those days spent by the legendary double bass player and composer in Rome for the recording of the soundtrack of All Mode, despite his proverbial aggressive and often violent excesses of mood, remains his close friendship with Pepito Pignatelli, owner of the Franco Fayenz and Enrico Cogno, where he performs together with his group and often plays the piano until late at night, in front of a few bystanders, “digressing between ancient standards taken mostly from Duke Ellington's songbook, one of his myths”∗. The soundtrack written by Charles Mingus for that film rejected by critics and political bodies will not be lost, the double bass player will publish it as the B-side of one of his albums from 1978∗, with the explanatory title of “Music For Todo Modo“.

Paolo Marra

Arrigo Polillo (Jazz – The story and the protagonists of African-American music – Mondadori, 2015)

Marco Molendini (Pepito Il principe del Jazz – Minimum Fax, 2022)

∗ Cumbia & Jazz Fusion (1978 – Atlantic)

In the picture: Charles Mingus at the Music Inn in Rome during the interview with journalist Gianni Minà

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