JMI Blog: Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady – A Case Study by Andrew Garton

by Andrew Garton – Jazz Composition lecturer


Charles Mingus’s “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” (Mingus, 1963) was recorded and released in 1963 and is one of his most extended and unified works that is “remarkable for the richness of its harmonic texture and for the tension that it sustains over a forty-minute series of modal explorations” (Saul, 2005, p. 193). The composition of the piece, its performance and subsequent editing of the recording all demonstrate careful consideration and integration of the contribution of the members of the ensemble, so that the work is truly performer-centric in all aspects. As such, this case study will discuss this work from the perspective of its final released form which entails the material composed prior to the recording session, the recorded performance itself and the editing process.

The musicians chosen to be involved in this work are vital to its existence and it includes particularly singular performances from Charlie Mariano (alto saxophone), Jaki Byard (piano), Quentin Jackson (trombone) and Mingus himself (double bass and piano). This focus on composing music for the specific musicians involved follows from the example of Duke Ellington, and Santoro (2001) notes that “[t]he ensemble work woven from separate lines rather than blocked chords, the luminous harmonies, the predominance of deep-toned horns, the lovely winding melodies, the extended format all deliberately evoked Duke” (p. 210). In discussing his general compositional process, Mingus said

Each man’s particular style is taken into consideration. They are given different rows of notes to use against each chord but they choose their own notes and play them in their own style, from scales as well as chords, except where a particular mood is indicated. In this way I can keep my own compositional flavor… and yet allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos. (Mingus, 1956)

Saul (2001) calls Mingus’s groups “a form of radically participatory democracy” (p. 395) and it is from this perspective that we can begin to see the importance of his work and its unique approach to composition.

The framework for this case study

This case study explores four basic elements:

  • the preconceived material (composition)
  • the communication of the preconceived material (notation)
  • the performance of the material (improvisation)
  • the direction of the material during performance (direction)


Upon first listening “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” appears to be a complex multi-section work in which Mingus “sought to create variety by splicing pre-composed themes with a kaleidoscopic range of instrumental backgrounds, textures that the solos spread over and abraded against” (Saul, 2003, p. 193). But as can be seen in the table below, the work itself can be easily broken into sections that fall into the following categories: loops, ballads, unaccompanied improvisations, interludes, and other elements such as a blues form, short punctuating incidents and the ending of the work. A complete chronological summary of the structure of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” can be found in Appendix A.

Table 1: Summary of section categories of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Element Number of sections Total Time % of time
Loops 9 0:22:45 58%
Ballads 4 0:05:38 14%
Unaccompanied improvisations 12 0:07:55 20%
Interludes 2 0:00:27 1%
Other 4 0:02:44 7%

As this table demonstrates, the majority (58%) of the performance of the work is made up of repeated “loop” sections. There are nine of these sections (with variations on these nine loops) and one iteration of each loop is very short (between 1 and 4 bars) and allows for significant freedom of interpretation of the pre-composed material by the performers. Griffith (2015) says that with this type of material “that allowed indeterminate interplay on a few chords, for example, [Mingus] could prepare players for following his more extended forms, where frontline improvising went on until a signal (changing a harmony or rhythmic groove) to jump back into the original form” (p. 80).

These loop sections are generally made up of a small number of chords (often two) and some form of written material for each player. Performers are clearly free to interpret this material in a way which develops the loops as they progress. Saul (2003, p. 200) describes one such section “where a seesaw one-two rhythm speeds up over muted trumpet and trombones and in the twelfth through seventeenth minutes of the fourth movement, where the Workshop accelerates three times at a breakneck pace away from an original tempo, then throws itself back.” As such, these repeated sections are often used to build tension which can be alleviated by changing to another section (for example one of the ballad sections) or to build to what Griffith (2015) refers to as an “ecstatic event”. This is essentially a point at which tempo or tension cannot be built any more and “[o]nce The Black Saint starts heading into one of its many lengthy accelerando passages… you can be assured that the Workshop will not stop accelerating until is has reached the asymptotic point where acceleration is futile” (Saul, 2003, p. 199).

The four ballad sections of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” have relatively slow tempos and are composed in a linear (i.e. not repeating) way. These sections are more strictly composed and interpreted than the loop sections and make up 14% of the total performance. The ballads act as oases of peace, luscious contrasts to the frenzied tension of the loop sections.

Another significant structural component of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” is the use of unaccompanied solo, duo and trio sections, making up 20% of the performance. With these sections, Mingus achieves a significant variation in texture from the rest of the work, a great sense of space, and also gives the soloists the responsibility to actively contribute to progression of the performance. These sections demonstrate that “[i]n Mingus’s music, composition is therefore performative: it is a staged process that is influenced by each performer of the composition and subject to continual change” (Dunkel, 2011, p. 231).

These loop, ballad and unaccompanied sections make up 92% of the performance and this clearly demonstrates the primary material of the work, but it is in putting these pieces together that “Mingus upped the ante… in that he intended The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady not as a series of episodes (suite form) but “first of all as a continuous piece” (Saul, 2003, p. 198). This is clearly achieved through some degree of preconceived structure but also the structure that was created in the editing, splicing and overdubbing process that occurred after the recorded performance. Santoro (2001) says that “[i]t was ambitiously edited and overdubbed… For Mingus, the studio was another instrument”  (p. 210) and Priestley (1983) contends that “The Black Saint marks the first occasion in any field where the combination of overdubbing with creative editing actually determined the nature of the product” (p. 147). When observing the full structure of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” in Appendix A, it can be seen that sections of loops, ballads and unaccompanied improvisations are balanced carefully across the performance, and thematic material is repeated at various points to tie the work together. Whether this balance was achieved in the phase of composition prior to the performance or afterwards in the editing of the recording is hard to assess without access to the original scores used at the recording session (see the “Notation” section of this case study below), but it is clear that both of these processes contribute to the structure of the final released product and as such are both considered to be important parts of the composition process for this work.


While one of the most striking aspects of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” is the freedom with which the performers are allowed to present their contributions, it is clear that the work contains a significant amount of notated material composed prior to the recording session. Producer Bob Thiele recalls “much confusion with arrangers and copyists prior to and during the actual recording” (Priestley, 1983, p. 145) and it is understandable that such tension might occur in trying to arrive at a definitive notated score, given that inherently “[m]usic scores tend to keep a composition fixed and inflexible – qualities that Mingus was strongly opposed to” (Dunkel, 2011, p. 231).

The Library of Congress holds the scores and parts used at the recording session of “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” and these materials were not available in time for writing this case study. Thus, the analysis in this section is limited to observing that notated material was certainly used, probably to a greater extent than the aural methods often purported to be used by Mingus. For example Griffiths (2015) says “[i]n his charts, the level of instruction might be sketchily outlined, remaining open to the interpretive powers and contributions of the players” (p. 79). But Mingus appears to have broken out of the constraints of strictly notated material with instructions written onto the parts, for example “[t]he score instructs [Quentin] Jackson, for instance, to “rest up butter you preach shortly,” and to improvise around a B-flat minor chord with a flatted fifth “and anything elese [sic] you need to preach” (Saul, 2003, p. 197). The use of notation in “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” is clearly an area that demands further research.


“The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” is an intriguing work, atypical in the realm of jazz, particularly when considering the role of improvisation in the recorded performance. As has been noted, improvisation is present in the freedom of interpretation allowed to the ensemble, but there are also sections which feature a soloist or duos and trios of soloists, as well as the alto saxophone overdubs of Charlie Mariano.

The summary of the work in Appendix A shows that almost all instances where a soloist or multiple soloists emerge from the tapestry of the ensemble are contained in either loop sections or unaccompanied moments. (The single counterexample is the soprano saxophone solo over the Bb minor blues form starting at 4 minutes 13 seconds.) This demonstrates one of the primary driving forces behind the structure of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” – that of non-linear development of material. Nothing is less linear than an indefinite repeated accompaniment or no accompaniment at all. Instead of being built on the progression of chords to achieve movement and expansion, Priestley (1983) noted that “the basic simplicity of the materials and their polyrhythmic development, the structural use of passages with accelerating tempos or no tempo, the fact that all the improvised solos are modal (many of them based on the favourite “Spanish scale”) – these show how far the work is a product of Mingus’s own experiences and experimentation” (pp. 145-146).

The other primary improvisational component that shapes the piece is the alto saxophone solos overdubbed onto the recorded ensemble material by Charlie Mariano. Mariano recalls that Mingus said

“OK, when I point to you, start playing and, when I wave at you, stop. And, when I point, start again.” And that’s how the whole last thing was made. Because there wasn’t any alto jazz written in that thing at all, it was all dubbed in a week later. (Charlie Mariano interviewed by Steve Allen, BBC Radio, 9 October 1966, in Priestley, 1983, p. 147)

So we see that improvisation is vital to every step of the performance: in the interpretation of the written material, in the initial performance of the material (the solos at the recording session) and in the overdubs of Charlie Mariano which were used by Mingus as part of his editing process to tie the entire performance together into the final release of the work that is “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”.


While it is hard to know exactly how Charles Mingus physically directed the performance of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”, it is clear that his role as bandleader shaped the work in many ways. In all of his ensembles “Mingus was able to forge relationships with players, mentoring and demanding individual contributions in creating composed melody and countermelody, group and solo improvisations” (Griffith, 2015, p. 93). He chose musicians with unique sounds and who could genuinely contribute something new to the performances, in the Ellingtonian tradition of building a band sound (Saul, 2003, p. 197).

Mingus also “focused on ‘drawing out’ the latent emotions of his Workshoppers, practicing the art of instigation with on-the-spot musical cues as well as extra-musical eruptions” (Saul, 2001, p. 389). Such cues would have been necessary in the performance of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” as we have seen that the loop sections that make up more than half of the piece obviously required guidance to end and move onto the next section. It is also apparent that Mingus was able to guide and control the sudden changes in tempo and dramatically shape the performance from his role as bass player, along with the verbal encouragement that is found throughout his recorded output. Griffith (2015) notes that “[f]or Mingus, the directorial style of commanding with his personality worked to elicit emotional responses from his players” (p. 78) and this is particularly apparent across the entirety of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”.


“The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” is particularly vital because its heavy reliance on short repeated sections as its base material implores the musicians to develop the simple composed material to achieve a compelling performance. Dunkel (2011) says

Musicians playing with Mingus were encouraged to not just solo over a familiar tune, or to play the changes, but to actually co-compose. At the same time, the process of composing was moved from a usually private realm to a public space – it became part of the show. (p. 230)

The contrast of these loosely interpreted parts with more strictly performed ballad sections provides a great feeling of balance to the work, and the use of unaccompanied improvised interludes allows the performers to be very literally involved in connecting the work together. Charles Mingus also used the editing of the recording as part of the composition process, shaping the piece and adding to it (in the form of Charlie Mariano’s alto saxophone overdubs) to reach the final incarnation of the piece.

Hence, “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” shows a method of performer-centric composition that occurs before the performance, during the performance and also after the performance, a truly universal approach to the process of composition.


Dunkel, M. (2011). Charles Mingus and Performative Composing. Word and Music Studies, 12. 229-242.

Griffith, J. (2015). Mingus in the Workshop: Leading the improvisation from New Orleans to pentecostal trance. Black Music Research Journal, 35(1). 71-95.

Mingus, C. (1956). Pithecanthropus erectus [sound recording]. Atlantic Records.

Mingus, C. (1963). The black saint and the sinner lady [sound recording]. Impulse Records.

Priestly, B. (1983). Mingus: a critical biography. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.

Santoro, G. (2001). Myself when I am real. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Saul, S. (2001). Outrageous Freedom: Charles Mingus and the Invention of the Jazz Workshop. American Quarterly, 53(3). 387-419.

Saul, S. (2003). Freedom is, freedom ain’t: jazz and the making of the sixties. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Appendix A – Structure of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

The table below outlines the structure of “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” in chronological order. The “section” column divides the work into parts based on their content (loop, ballad, solo/duo/trio, interlude, or short elements). Numbering is used to show where material is repeated with slight changes (for example Loop 2.0 changing to Loop 2.1). The “length” column shows the total time of the section in minutes and second, and featured soloists who emerge from the ensemble are noted in the “soloists” column. The “alto saxophone overdub?” column indicates the presence of Charlie Mariano’s overdubbed saxophone. The “key” column shows the predominant key centre of the section.

Section Length Soloists (excluding alto overdub) Alto saxophone overdub? Key
Loop 1.0 0:00:49 Alto saxophone No Bb-
Loop 2.0 0:00:18 Baritone saxophone No Bb-
Loop 2.1 0:01:29 Baritone saxophone No Bb-
Ballad 1 0:00:39 No Bb- to Db
Loop 1.1 0:00:18 No Bb-
Loop 3.0 0:00:18 No Bb-
Loop 3.1 0:00:22 No Bb-
Blues 0:01:24 Soprano saxophone No Bb-
Loop 3.2 0:01:07 Soprano saxophone No Bb-
Loop 4.0 0:00:52 Piano No Db
Loop 4.0 0:00:17 Piano No Db
Ballad 2 0:00:51 No Db
Loop 5.0 0:01:10 Trumpet, trombone No Bb-/E
Loop 5.0 0:01:06 Trumpet, trombone No Bb-/E
Duo 0:00:30 Trombone, drums No Bb-
Loop 1.2 0:01:03 Trombone No Bb-
Interlude 1 0:00:08 No Db
Loop 1.3 0:00:13 No Bb-
Ballad 2 0:00:35 No Db
Solo 0:00:38 Piano No Bb-
Element 1 0:00:14 No Bb-
Solo 0:00:42 Piano No Bb-
Loop 6.0 0:00:18 No Bb-
Solo 0:00:45 Piano No Bb-
Loop 6.1 0:00:14 No Bb-
Trio 0:00:34 Alto saxophone, guitar, bass Yes F7
Loop 7.0 0:01:05 Piccolo Yes F7
Loop 8.0 0:00:22 Bass Yes Bb-
Loop 8.1 0:00:14 Yes Bb-
Loop 8.0 0:00:10 Bass Yes Bb-
Loop 8.1 0:00:15 Yes Bb-
Loop 8.0 0:00:11 Bass Yes Bb-
Loop 8.1 0:00:42 Baritone saxophone Yes Bb-
Loop 8.2 0:00:09 Yes Bb-
Loop 8.3 0:00:09 Yes Bb-
Loop 8.2 0:00:13 Yes Bb-
Loop 8.3 0:00:05 Yes Bb-
Solo 0:00:22 Yes F7
Element 1 0:00:14 No Bb-
Solo 0:00:08 Bass No Bb-
Ballad 3 0:01:17 No Bb- to Db
Solo 0:01:18 Guitar No D7 to F7
Interlude 2 0:00:10 No Ab7 to F7
Loop 7.1 0:00:11 No F7
Loop 7.2 0:01:08 Trombone, trumpets No F7
Element 2 0:00:04 No Ab7
Element 1 0:00:11 No Bb-
Solo 0:00:17 Piano No Ab7 to F7
Loop 6.2 0:00:14 No Bb-
Solo 0:00:36 Piano No F7
Loop 6.2 0:00:14 No Bb-
Solo 0:00:28 Piano No F7 to Ab7
Ballad 4 0:00:29 No Ab
Ballad 3 0:01:18 Yes Bb- to Db
Duo 0:01:37 Guitar (a little bit of marimba) Yes D7 to F7
Interlude 2 0:00:09 Guitar Yes Ab7 to F7
Loop 7.3 0:01:24 Trumpets, trombone Yes F7
Element 2 0:00:02 No Ab7
Ballad 4 0:00:29 No Ab
Loop 9.0 0:01:32 Trombone No Eb
Loop 9.1 0:01:46 Trombone No Eb
Loop 9.2 0:01:58 Trombone Yes Eb
Loop 1.2 0:00:49 Alto saxophone No Bb-
Ending 0:00:35 Yes F7

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