Virgil and Mingus, Maybe | By Ian Ganassi
I studied Latin for about seven years, all told. It lay fallow for a decade, but in 1994 I decided to try a translation of an excerpt from Virgil’s Aeneid. It was accepted by NER and I was encouraged to persevere.
A sidelight of my renewed involvement with Latin was the discovery that the great jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus seems to have dabbled in Latin, based on his occasional use of Latin in song and album titles. These include “Hora Decubitus,” Mingus Ah Um and Pithecanthropus Erectus, among others.
The album title Mingus Ah Um takes its cue from the fact that his name recalls the Latin adjective magnus, meaning “great,” the feminine and neuter endings of which are a, um. He also no doubt knew of the verb mingere, to urinate, and it perhaps occurred to him that a Latin adjective mingus would mean something like “pissy” (although strictly speaking it would not take the form mingus). Given Mingus’s famous temper, “pissy” is one possible description of his personality.
The tune “Hora Decubitus,” which translates as, essentially, “bedtime,” is oddly named; far from being a lullaby, it is one of Mingus’s up-tempo, driving pieces.
Some musical analyses have perceived a “Latin tinge” (a paraphrase of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge”) to Mingus’s music. Two obvious examples are “Adagia Ma Non Troppo” from the album Let My Children Hear Music and “Trio and Group Dancers” from the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which actually uses flamenco guitar. In addition, the Mingus Big Band made an entire album titled Que Viva Mingus, which consists entirely of Mingus pieces based on Latin music. Also, various Latin musicians have recorded Mingus tunes.
However, this “tinge” in Mingus is not only connected to music like Flamenco, Latin Jazz, Mambo and Salsa (especially Mambo), but also to the Latin language.
The common thread in these diverse elements could be exemplified by the Spanish word clave. There’s some disagreement about its etymology, but the likelihood is that it ultimately comes from the Latin word clavis, meaning “key.” The Spanish word also means “key,” but in a metaphorical or figurative sense (as in the keystone of an arch), with the word llave carrying the more mundane meaning. The word “clef,” which helps identify the tonal range of a piece of music, also comes from clave. Finally, and most important, clave is the Spanish name for a West African rhythmic pattern that underlies both West African and much Latin music (especially Mambo and Salsa). It is the “key” to the music’s rhythmic structure. Interestingly, many of Mingus’s compositions, such as “Moanin,” “Hora Decubitus,” and “E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too,” could be heard as being “in clave” (rhythmically, at least), a phrase more commonly used with reference to Latin music.
To quote the poet Mark Strand:
I have a key
so I open the door and walk in.
It is dark and I walk in.
It is darker and I walk in.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Ian Ganassi’s translations from the Aeneid have appeared in NER on numerous occasions. Images from a collaboration with a painter friend can be found at www.thecorpses.com. He lives in New Haven, where he works as a percussionist and teacher.