This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2021 show PLEASERE TURNCART SHERE featuring the photographic works of Nicholas Seitz.
There is a story that goes around jazz circles about the violent temper of legendary bassist and band leader Charles Mingus. To say it is a story is a slight stretch, because there is something about that term that signifies it may not be true. This story is most definitely true.
Everyone knew Mingus to have a temper; no one confused him for a kind man or someone with eternal patience. He was a composer and bandleader, which meant he knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew exactly when he wanted it. When someone messed that up, they paid. Usually it was getting screamed at, but there were a few instances where folks got their fingers nearly broken (How you doing, Toshiko Akiyoshi?) or had their embouchure ruined from a fist to the mouth (Glad it finally got better, Jimmy Knepper!).
In fact, Knepper got hit twice by Mingus, the first time being during a rather disastrous concert in Philadelphia; the very same one where he tried to crush Akiyoshi’s fingers. After hearing the story of this crazy concert several times, I still can’t wrap my head around it. The first time I heard the story, I just thought Mingus was a crazy guy prone to fits of rage, but as I have gotten older, the story has slightly morphed in my mind. While it’s still a terrible thing, there is a passion at play from an artist who knew exactly what he was doing and wanted his work to be performed exactly as he intended.
Charles Mingus was a musical genius, and he will forever be in the top tier of jazz musicians that have ever walked the earth. His ideas of music stretched the boundaries for how musicians understand rhythm and even time. He spoke about music having a pulse and being a living thing that you lived with and experienced in real terms, not just as some passing fancy. Music wasn’t about some strange homogeneity, even though everyone works with the same notes. There was never a chance for music to get boring or monotonous because its base parts could always be explored deeper and deeper.
Music was a whole world to drop into if you had the patience to sit with it, to hear it, and to know that all the territory hadn’t yet been explored. It seemed, for Mingus, that music was about making those ordinary notes and scales come alive by forcing the listeners’ ears to work harder.
In his memoir, Beneath the Underdog, Mingus elaborated on some of his ideas about how the music drifted around a beat, sometimes hitting just right, and other times feeling extremely elusive:
There once was a word used — swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse, and that’s very restrictive. But I use the term “rotary perception.” If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle, you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three or four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat — each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle, but the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed. If one in the group loses confidence, somebody hits the beat again. The pulse is inside you. When you’re playing with musicians who think this way, you can do anything.
When I listen to Mingus, I have to work, just like anyone does when approaching dissonance, freneticism, and something a bit more than they may have ever experienced before. There are very few pieces that are radio-friendly, and I would be amazed to see anyone dancing to most of his compositions. But that’s not what you come to Mingus wanting or expecting. That’s likely why my father didn’t introduce me to Mingus when he introduced me to Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck or Thelonious Monk. Most of the folks I learned about early in my jazz education had pieces that got stuck in your head, that spent a little time on repeat as a solid earworm. I’ve never thought that about any of Mingus’ pieces.
The photographic works that I enjoy the most are similar to Mingus’ music because they aren’t easy to get into, and they don’t get stuck in your head like a pop song. Sure, there are iconic images we all remember, but good art is something you have to sit with for a bit, something you explore, and something you let explore you. Good art hits differently. It’s easy in a culture where everyone has a camera in his or her pocket to get desensitized to the power and intrigue of a captured image, but good photography makes you work.
When I used to teach graphic design, I had a project involving Charles Mingus and his monumental piece Haitian Fight Song that made my students work a bit. The entire piece is roughly eight-and-a-half minutes of jazz legend, but most listeners will duck out in the first two minutes as the raucous and seemingly disjointed sounds blur into a frenzied search for harmony and purpose. Mingus brings the tune to life with a bass solo to clear the room: a drum on a battlefield announcing intention. Just a touch after the two-minute mark, a clarion saxophone call comes in and clears room for what most ears define as melody. Over the next six minutes the melodies from the early riot come back and build more with the individual voices beating each other back for brief solos. A bit after six minutes Mingus returns to replay the opening cadence. The voices enter again, this time a bit more tame but still urging each other to crescendo in violent glory not letting the saxophone call them into submission. It’s an amazing piece of music.
The words don’t do it justice, and that is why I would have my students sit silently in our classroom with Mingus turned up to eleven, while we listen to this one song on repeat for at least an hour. At the end of day one, their charge was to design a poster based on the structure and logic of the piece. They had to search for what made it music and made it exist. On day two, unbeknownst to the students, they came back into the classroom for another round of silent listening. This time, their charge was to design a poster based on the emotions that came through.
For me, this was one of the most entertaining projects because I got to see the change in the students as they listened to a difficult song nearly twenty times in two days. When I presented the project on day one, there were always a few eyerolls or suspected choking victims as they audibly hated me for what I was asking. Most of the students were happy to drift into comas as they consumed Drake bouncing around a colored cube while awkwardly dancing to saccharine beat-driven algorithm crap. The music they knew was easy, so they discounted the awkwardness of dissonance, writing it off as confusing and not worth their time.
As the project continued, usually after at least four of five rotations of the music, students began to actually hear things. I could see them visibly anticipate parts of the music that had just been noise a half hour prior. By day two it was even more so: students would be taking notes, hearing specificity, following a single melodic voice throughout a single listen, picking apart the noise and seeing the harmonic structure. It is not easy to listen to the same song for two hours, especially when the song is hard to hear, but the listening always prevailed. What had been foreign and unimportant a few days earlier actually had enough life to evoke other works of art.
With his strange ideas about music and his potentially violent way of communicating, Charles Mingus was a hard man to deal with. And he made hard art. His jazz isn’t the easy stuff you hear late at night on NPR, and it is understandable why the uninitiated may want to just skip any song of his that comes across on shuffle, but the joy of someone like Mingus is that the work he put in asks the listener to be a part of that work as well. He invites you in, asking you to stay awhile, to put away your ideas of what you are used to hearing, and actively listen to the thing in front of you. You aren’t free to be detached when listening to Mingus.
Maybe photographs ask the same of us sometimes.
These four books hold more images of a cart corral than you likely ever assumed you would see in your entire life. Just like a lot of shoppers do, there may be a desire to just ignore it altogether and not put the work in to really understand what this body of work provokes in you as a viewer. Maybe you even think that it’s just a bunch of photos. No big deal, right?
This laissez-faire attitude about art is a detriment to the viewer and the maker. By pushing things aside as unimportant or by not engaging because the work is hard or seemingly esoteric, we lose out on all fronts. The truth is: all quality art always asks more of us than we are willing to give. It asks for more time, more attention, more space, more return visits. It asks more than a stroll by during an afternoon at the museum or a little window shopping at the local gallery.
As an artist, I always shudder a bit when I hear someone equivocate equipment with skill. “I have a camera, so I am a photographer.” “My neighbor’s kid has Photoshop, he’s a designer.” “She likes to draw, she’s an artist.” There may be a bit of truth in these statements, but they ignore the thought and work—hard work—that goes into being an artist. I can put on a Kobe jersey, but I don’t think I’m an elite athlete. I can drive a car, but it doesn’t make me ready for Talladega.
We only say these sorts of condescending statements with art; in fact, we’ve mostly normalized them. In any other field it would be laughable. For me, this way of thinking always signals that we, as a culture, don’t think of artists as professionals. We don’t think they do real work, or at least we don’t think it is valuable. It’s a tough pill to continually swallow since I, and many others I know, support our families, pay our bills, enhance our communities, and teach future generations through art and design. Art and design practice involves a great deal of professionalism, work ethic, and the ability to be looked down upon by other fields. We grow used to academics sniggering at our chosen major, cerebral-types staring down from their ivory towers at us as they shake their heads disapprovingly, nosy aunts asking if we are still fooling around with that art stuff.
The 840 images in these books say something else, and they don’t take the naysayers’ easy way out. These images were not accumulated easily. They required real work to exist. Anyone can take one image and pass it off as decent. A great sunset doesn’t need your skill; it is already testifying its beauty without your phone pic. A decent camera and a bunch of Lightroom actions can create an army of photographers, but does that equal a world full of imagery that makes you ask questions or strain for understanding, or is it just one more cluster of pixels bound for Pinterest?
Mingus made music with a work ethic and passion that made a hit to the face make sense. He was not casually throwing out notes in some drunken haze. He was working and reworking the raw aural materials of the world around him to create something larger than the sum of the notes. That work, that intention, that importance: those are what made the fists fly. I can’t condone the actions he took, but I can understand what it means to fight for something you believe in, so there is room in my mind for grace and forgiveness for Mingus. His music behaves as he did; it forces you to take notice, even if it feels like a hit in face sometimes.
These 840 images openhandedly reject the idea of swing, just as Mingus himself did. There is nothing linear about this grouping. And just as it would be asinine to dissect a song into its individual notes, these images are one complete unit, one song, complete with riffs and solos and slightly-on-and-slightly-off beats. These images are one of the best examples of rotary perception that I have seen. Each visit to the corral was dictated by a particularized photographer: a version of a person with experiences, ideas and thoughts based on the day and world around him. The same man, but a different photographer. Each of these photographers were in conversation, some hitting the beat and some just outside. Some images showing a loss of confidence and others picking up the slack to reignite the visual melody with a bit more oomph. Separate they may be indiscernible, just another lost note in a noisy world, but together they have their riots and cacophony, their sonic cohesion and their melody. It is a work, and it asks the same from you.
Anyone could just shoot 840 photos, just as anyone could just write notes on a few bars of staff. But these random actions do not make art. The joy in jazz doesn’t come from a structure of a specific style for me, it comes from watching someone with great skill play among the materials of their trade. The joy exhibited in a musician who knows notes and tempo so well that he or she is able to simultaneously make, break, and follow pre-established rules can be palpable. But only if I the viewer allow the artist to make, and only if I allow myself to be absorbed into the work.
Charles Mingus fought for the “pulse” in music that was so important to him; this elusive thing beneath the veneer of sound and tempo was real to him. The pulse was not individualized, it was not expressionistic, it was something outside of him or notes or tempo. It was before the work and held it up it up at the same time. When the pulse was shared by the folks on stage, everything became bigger and the world—it seemed, for a moment—was changed, too. Curtains were drawn back and everything else faded. You can see it in Charles Mingus’ face during concert clips. Something was revealed. New ears, new eyes, new abilities.
I see the same idea in these images. This random corral doesn’t hold any sacred value, it does not have some heightened existence, it is as normal and mundane as any other cart corral you have ever seen in your life. That’s why the work is hard; everything in you says to look away, to devalue. But don’t take that easy way out. There is something beneath this object, there is something about this space shown over and again that is larger because the subject holds true 840 times. There is a pulse that Nick hits with every shutter click and the fact that it took 840 images to feel remotely close to documenting this thing should say something about that pulse.
It hits. It hits. It hits.