Thursday, 3 January 2013

JAZZ ICONS #6: Charles Mingus


For God’s sake, rid this society of some of the noise so that those who have ears will be able to use them some place listening to good music. When I say good I don’t mean that today’s music is bad because it is loud. I mean the structures have paid no attention to the past history of music.  Nothing is simple. It’s as if people came to Manhattan and acted like it was still full of trees and grass and Indians instead of concrete and tall buildings. It’s like a tailor cutting clothes without knowing the design, it’s like living in a vacuum and not paying attention to anything that came before you.
from the liner notes for
Let My Children Hear Music, 1971


As a young man growing up in the black Los Angeles neighbourhood of Watts, Charles Mingus dreamed of becoming a cellist and performing with one of the world's great symphony orchestras.  It was the classical world's loss and the jazz world's gain that colour prejudice prevented him from following this unorthodox career path.  He went on to become a virtuoso of the double bass and one of the most uncompromisingly original American composers of jazz or of any other style of music of all time. 

Charles Mingus Jr was born on 22 April 1922 on a US army base in Nogales, Arizona.  His father and step-mother relocated to Watts when he was still very young and this was where he attended school and discovered what, by his teenage years, had become his life's ruling passions – the cello, the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach and Claude Debussy, gospel music and jazz.  Like his future role model Duke Ellington, much of what Mingus composed and recorded was an attempt to combine the 'high art' of classical music with the down home, blues-based 'soul' of black jazz and gospel music.  Rhythmically driving and melodically complex, his music was also intense, demanding and, at times, heartbreakingly tender.  Playing it, either live or in the recording studio, continually challenged him (and the musicians he hired) to push harder and dig deeper, venerating the jazz tradition even as he occasionally sought to question and subvert it.

Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting (1959)
CHARLES MINGUS [bass]; JACKIE McLEAN, JOHN HANDY [alto saxophone];
BOOKER ERVIN [tenor saxophone]; PEPPER ADAMS [baritone saxophone]
From the 1959 Atlantic LP Blues and Roots

At the age of six Mingus began to learn the cello, but was hampered in his study of the instrument by uncooperative teachers who felt it pointless to devote too much time to a black student who, in the pre-Civil Rights era, had virtually no chance of going on to pursue a successful concert career.  As a consequence of this openly prejudicial attitude, he was not taught to read music properly and allegedly had to teach himself to do so, further limiting his chances of gaining acceptance as a classical performer.  This lack of formal training did not, however, prevent him from composing his own music.  By the age of twenty he had already composed several highly-sophisticated pieces of so-called 'concert music,' including the piece Half Mast Inhibition which he would later record, with Gunther Schuller conducting, on his 1960 Mercury LP Pre-Bird.    

Some time in 1937 Mingus switched to double bass and began taking lessons from the legendary jazz bassist/tuba player Red Callender.  It was Callender who encouraged him to take further bass lessons from Herman Rheinschagen, former principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and composition lessons from LA-based jazz/gospel composer Lloyd Rees.  Callender also worked as a session musician for most of the leading black musicians of late 1930s and early 1940s – Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner and Nat Cole to name just a few – and under his tutelage Mingus went from being a promising if temperamental student to being a highly sought-after if often temperamental prodigy.    

In 1943, following a brief stint in the band of New Orleans legend Barney Bigard, he joined Louis Armstrong's big band –– a job which ended when the young bassist made it clear to his bandmates that he would definitely not be taking any racist crap from white people when the band toured the south.  This was far from being the last controversial statement that Mingus would make –– statements which, in later years, would earn him the enmity of concert promoters, impolite audiences and even uncommitted fellow musicians who refused to give him and his music the respect he felt they were entitled to.    

Mingus made his first record in 1945 as a member of Russell Jacquet's sextet and his second a few months later as a member of a band led by influential be-bop trumpeter Howard McGhee.  Perhaps frustrated by the lack of creative input that was the bane of being a sideman, he joined Lionel Hampton's band in 1947, contributing tunes and several fine arrangements to its repertoire until this too began to stifle him creatively.  (Hampton wanted to record his tune Mingus Fingers but would only do so, his wife told Mingus, if the bassist agreed to sign all his rights in the composition over to the bandleader in perpetuity.  It was a common practice at the time but one the ever-feisty Mingus resented and characteristically refused to accept.)  He continued to perform with a variety of small bands – sometimes led by other musicians and sometimes led by himself performing as 'Baron Von Mingus' – until 1950, when he joined a trio consisting of himself on bass, Tal Farlow on guitar and Red Norvo on vibes.  It was with this group that he firmly established his reputation as a bass virtuoso, astonishing club audiences and record buyers alike with his fluid, piano-influenced fingering technique and soulful, gospel-tinged phrasing.  He left the group in 1951 –– he got sick of it being boycotted by white club owners who failed to realize that, unlike Farlow and Norvo, he was black –– and moved to New York City.  

This Can't Be Love (1951)
TAL FARLOW (guitar); RED NORVO (vibraphone); 
From the 1951 Realm LP Move  

New York was where Mingus really came into his own as both a performer and as a composer.  He played with most of the city's best musicians, including Billy Taylor, Art Tatum and Stan Getz, and soon came to the attention of be-bop pioneers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach.  It was with them that he performed, on 15 May 1953, at Toronto's Massey Hall –– one of the most famous concerts in jazz history and one which was thankfully recorded for posterity by the new label, Debut Records, which Mingus and Max Roach had recently co-founded.  (Although their primary aim was to record the wealth of unknown and unrecorded African-American jazz talent, the two volume 10" set Jazz at Massey Hall would become Debut's biggest-selling release.)  Co-running a record label did not prevent Mingus from participating in New York's Jazz Composer's Workshop or starting his own workshop, which he simply called the Jazz Workshop, where he could test and rehearse his increasingly complex compositions with musicians –– white trombonist Jimmy Knepper and an up-and-coming young black saxophonist named Eric Dolphy among them –– whose musicianship was equal to what was, at times, a very demanding task. 1953 also saw him accept an offer to join the orchestra of his idol Duke Ellington – an 'experiment' which ended with him being fired following an on-stage argument with valve trombonist Juan Tizol.  He was reputedly the only musician ever to be fired in person by the bandleader, who normally preferred to leave such unpleasant tasks to his manager.    

Mingus himself was no stranger to the idea of firing musicians.  On several occasions he did so in the middle of performances, ordering them off-stage when they either could not or would not meet his musical expectations.  He once punched his close friend Jimmy Knepper in the mouth during an argument sparked by Knepper's refusal to take on more arranging work for an important concert he was planning.  The punch broke two of Knepper's teeth and permanently affected his embouchure, subsequently robbing him of the ability to play in the top octaves of his instrument.  He charged Mingus with assault, and while the incident and the suspended jail sentence Mingus received for it caused a rift in their friendship they continued to work together right up till Mingus' death in 1979.  

Violence, it seems, was as much a part of Mingus' life and personality as it was of his music, an outlet for the festering rage provoked by the racism he encountered – despite having English, Scottish and even Chinese ancestors – from whites and blacks alike (some blacks took issue with him for appointing himself their 'spokesman' when he was so light-skinned) and angrily refused to ignore.  This anger was reflected in many of the deliberately provocative titles he chose for his music –– Fables of Faubus (named after Governor Orval Faubus who tried to block the desegregation of Arkansas' segregated school system in 1957), Remember Rockefeller at Attica (named after New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who, in 1971, sent the State Police into Attica State Prison to end a prisoners' riot, killing thirty-nine people in the process) and Dear Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me (the meaning of which should be obvious). The flipside of his natural belligerence was a gift for irony and satire, reflected in titles like If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger, There'd Be A Whole Lot of Dead Copycats, The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers and All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother the latter perhaps an oblique reference to the period he spent 'under observation' in the psychiatric ward of New York's Bellevue Hospital.

 Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me (1962)
 CHARLES MINGUS [piano, vocal]; ROLAND KIRK [ tenor saxophone, flute, siren etc]
BOOKER ERVIN [tenor saxophone]; JIMMY KNEPPER [trombone]
From the 1962 Atlantic LP Oh Yeah

Mingus' career reached its peak between the years 1956 and 1963, during which time he recorded the bulk of what are now considered to be his classic albums for a variety of labels including Atlantic, Columbia, Impulse, Mercury and RCA.  Always prolific, he astonished fans and critics with the sheer quantity of material he managed to compose, record and release during this amazingly fertile period –– a period which gave birth to now-classic LPs like Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) The Clown (1957), Tijuana Moods (1957), Mingus Ah-Um (1959), Tonight at Noon (1961) and what many consider to be his dual masterpieces Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963) and its successor, the 'ballet for big band' titled The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963).  A trio album Money Jungle, recorded with Duke Ellington and Max Roach in 1962, proved to be another highlight (and incidentally featured some of the best and most compelling small group piano playing Ellington ever did).  

With each new project Mingus seemed to take everything he'd previously accomplished as a bassist and composer and build upon it, breaking new compositional ground as he boldly combined elements of flamenco and even mariachi music with jazz, gospel, extended spoken word recitations (often with a psychological or civil rights theme) and several of the more avant-garde elements of modern so-called 'art' music.  Many of his albums also featured striking new versions of Ellington material, including classic tunes such as Take The 'A' Train, Flamingo and Mood Indigo.  Mingus' love of and deep respect for the jazz tradition were also evident in the fine tribute pieces he wrote in honour of dead musicians like Lester Young and in pieces like My Jelly Roll Soul which saw him 'reinvent' 1920s jazz for a contemporary audience.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (1959)
CHARLES MINGUS [bass]; JOHN HANDY [alto saxophone]
BOOKER ERVIN [tenor saxophone]; SHAFI HADI [alto saxophone]
From the 1959 Columbia LP Mingus Ah-Um
MINGUS' tribute to tenor saxophonist LESTER YOUNG   

Unfortunately, the bassist's unwavering insistence on retaining his artistic freedom, plus several poor business decisions which saw his efforts to create and promote a 'musician managed' alternative to the Newport Jazz Festival fail due to lack of money and foresight, meant that he was in severe financial trouble by 1966 – trouble compounded by his failure to find a publisher for his (largely fictional) 'tell-all' autobiography Beneath The Underdog and his ongoing personal, psychological and weight problems.  (He was married five times, finally and most successfully to Sue Graham, who now runs the Jazz Workshop he started and has made it her life's work to ensure that his music is still regularly performed by contemporary ensembles like The Mingus Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty.)  While he continued to record into the 1970s –– the albums Reincarnation of a Lovebird and Let My Children Hear Music are two notable standouts from this era –– he was increasingly hampered by ill health, obesity and, from 1977 onwards, by the degenerative neurological condition known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Motor Neurone Disease or, in the US, as 'Lou Gehrig's Disease') which, by 1978, had robbed him of the ability to play the bass.      

His final project, which he did not live to complete, was a collaboration with folk/pop singer Joni Mitchell titled Mingus, featuring Mitchell performing her own lyrics to several of his most famous compositions.  The album was released in June 1979, six months after Mingus' death in Mexico on 5 January of that same year.   Thanks to the efforts of his widow and many of his former collaborators, his legacy did not die with him.  The performance of Epitaph at Lincoln Center in 1989 –– an inter-linked suite of nineteen of his most challenging pieces conducted by Gunther Schuller which appeared as a double CD the following year – marked the beginning of what has proven to be an ongoing revival of interest in his music.    

To say that Charles Mingus was a musician ahead of his time would be a gross understatement.  He certainly was that, of course, but he was also uniquely of his time and like any truly great artist –– be they a jazz musician or otherwise –– eternal.  He never bowed to fashion and vociferously insisted that the true purpose of music was to express emotion, not to make money or gain fame for its creators.  He never stopped trying to express his own emotions as honestly, and as passionately, as he could.      

He summed it up best in his self-penned An Open Letter to Miles Davis, published in the November 1955 issue of DownBeat

Just because I'm playing jazz I don't forget about me.  I play or write me the way I feel through jazz, or whatever.  Music is, or was, a language of the emotions.  If someone has been escaping reality, I don't expect him to dig my music, and I would begin to worry about my writing if such a person began to really like it.  My music is alive and it's about the living and the dead, about good and evil.  It's angry yet it's real because it knows it's angry.

MINGUS' autobiography Beneath The Underdog was originally published by Knopf in 1971 and has been reprinted several times.  It's still widely available and remains essential reading for anyone interested in learning what inspired his music, the struggle for black civil rights and the history of jazz between the late 1930s and the fusion era.  Be warned, however, that it's less a factual document than a sometimes fanciful exploration of its author's opinions, hang-ups, hopes and fantasies.  Mingus: A Critical Biography by BRIAN PRIESTLEY is one of the better known and still available 'straight' biographies.    

In 2002 SUE MINGUS published a memoir about life with her husband titled Tonight At Noon which you can read more about by clicking HERE –– a link that will take you to THE OFFICIAL CHARLES MINGUS WEBSITE she created to celebrate his life and promote his work.         

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.  

You might also enjoy:  
JAZZ ICONS #3: Andrew Hill  
JAZZ ICONS #1: Lester Young  
JAZZ ICONS #8: Krzysztof Komeda   

Triumph of the Underdog
a 1 hr 17 min documentary by DON McGLYNN about the extraordinary 
life and work of CHARLES MINGUS

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