Mingus's parable of death-by-need-to-please feels both timeless and historical. Timeless, because the archetype of the artist dying (figuratively and, occasionally, literally) for the crowd's love goes back to the Roman Coliseum and before. Historical, because Mingus's generation was the first in jazz to cop a self-conscious position toward art above entertainment. Miles was aloof (although the stories of him turning his back to the audience are likely apocryphal); Monk was detached; and Mingus was a volcano, spewing lava every night. These musicians' personal, and not always audience-friendly, approaches had a lot to do with the artistic maturation of the music and a lot to do with fighting the history of white audiences objectifying black entertainers, but I wonder if it wasn't also a universal defense mechanism—a retreat from the crowd's most savage gaze.
Mingus's "Clown" has been on my mind ever since the animator and saxophonist Allen Mezquida sent me the latest installment in his Smigly web series. Smigly's stance toward his audience is more Mingus than Clown, but the crowd still plays a role in his end. Mezquida told me that the video is "an homage to the cats in the trenches," and it features a supple sax solo from the man himself.