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The Multilayered Music of Charles Mingus

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Charles Mingus’s music is like a raucous house party. The walls burst with shouting, laughing, singing and dancing. There are heated arguments about books, philosophy, history and current events. A couple gets romantic in one corner while a fight breaks out in another. Chairs and glasses are knocked over and smashed with a fist or two slammed through a wall. Someone cries out in agony, while another sobs quietly with a broken heart. A few more raise their voices in ebullient prayer while barking dogs run from room to room.

That scene reflects the outsized and often conflicting and chaotic image of one of jazz’s most imposing icons and gargantuan personalities. Mingus was both a tempestuous bully and gentle, sensitive artist; a self-aware showman and visionary composer; a violent tyrant and a vulnerable romantic; a traditionalist and a genre-busting innovator. Mingus transformed his personal tangle of human desires, hopes, struggles, strengths and weaknesses into remarkable music. 

Mingus was one of the greatest composers in jazz, and second only to his idol Duke Ellington in the construction of extended, complex multi-layered works. But Mingus wasn’t a composer who sat alone jotting down notes on manuscript paper. He taught his musicians compositions by singing the parts or playing them on bass or piano until they memorized them by ear. Because nothing was written down, this encouraged greater spontaneity and individual expression from the players in Mingus’s bands, which he called his Jazz Workshop. He trusted his musicians would take his twisting themes and contribute something of their own. This approach brought a sense of risk and danger. In this swirl of controlled chaos, Mingus pushed his music to the edge of its breaking point.

Charles Mingus was born in Arizona 100 years ago, April 22, 1922. He grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles where he and his two older sisters were encouraged to learn music as part of becoming educated people. His father took his children to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had a staid worship style, while his stepmother sometimes took young Charles to the much livelier Pentecostal Holiness church. He was excited by the call-and-response between the preacher and congregation. The wild, rocking and uninhibited sounds laid the foundation for the music Mingus created in his adulthood.

When he was about six, he took up the trombone after seeing it played in his stepmother’s church. It was around this time that he first heard the Duke Ellington band on the radio. He fell in love with the sounds he heard, and Ellington had a lasting influence on Mingus’s development and approach to jazz. 

After struggling with the trombone, he switched to the cello. But when a friend needed a bass player for his band, he was encouraged to take up the string bass. Although he’d become proficient on the cello, his heart wasn’t really into it. But the bass became the core of who Charles Mingus was as he pushed the bass into a stronger solo and leadership role in jazz.

Mingus established his reputation as a bassist in WWII-era Los Angeles, playing in local bands and making his first records as a bassist/composer/bandleader for poorly distributed independent labels. Those records weren’t heard by many people, so it wasn’t until he joined vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in 1947 that he received any national exposure. Hampton also helped enhance Mingus’s stature as a composer when his band recorded Mingus’s bop-infused, avant-garde, virtuosic bass feature “Mingus Fingers.”

The bassist’s next high-profile job came two years later when he joined the trio of another vibraphonist, Red Norvo. The chamber group featured one more developing jazz great like Mingus, guitarist Tal Farlow. The trio was a commercial and critical success and showcased Mingus’s bass virtuosity but didn’t feature any of his compositions.

After making his break from Norvo, he played with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Max Roach and even joined the Duke Ellington orchestra  a job that ended prematurely after Mingus got into a tussle with Ellington’s knife-wielding trombonist Juan Tizol.

By the mid-50s Mingus had relocated to New York City and formed the first of his Jazz Workshop groups. Mingus’s technique of eschewing written scores in favor of teaching music by ear wasn’t for everybody. His compositions developed on stage, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to stop the performance and berate his musicians as well as the audience. His bands had a revolving door of personnel with some musicians chafing under the strife of working with the demanding, tyrannical and unpredictable Mingus and staying for only for a gig or two, with others thriving and sticking around for a couple years. 

Mingus prized musicians with their own unique, personal approach who could fit their musical personalities into his music. This was like Ellington who also found idiosyncratic voices to support, enhance and interpret his musical vision. Those leaving a lasting impact included saxophonists Jackie McLean, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, pianists Horace Parlan, Roland Hanna and Jaki Byard. 

And as if it wasn’t enough of a challenge for musicians to meet Mingus’s musical demands, there was also the occasional danger of physical violence. He threw a punch at Jackie McLean and the saxophonist retaliated with a knife. Jimmy Knepper suffered the most from Mingus’s temperamental outbursts when the bassist punched the trombonist in the mouth, breaking a tooth and robbing Knepper of his upper register. (When Knepper threatened legal action, Mingus retaliated by attempting to frame the trombonist by mailing him a package of heroin.) It’s perhaps surprising, and maybe a credit to Mingus and the power of his music, that neither incident ended forever the two musicians’ collaborations with Mingus.

The one constant was drummer Dannie Richmond, who served as not only Mingus’s rhythmic co-conspirator, but also a friend and confidant. It was another parallel with Ellington who relied on the enduring presence of baritone saxophonist Harry Carney. Richmond was a 20-year-old former tenor saxophonist who’d been playing the drums seriously for just half a year when he first met Mingus. He became an indispensable ingredient in Mingus’s sound and was the anchor keeping the music from getting swept away and sinking in the torrential storm Mingus conjured on the bandstand or in the recording studio. 

Starting in 1956 with Pithecanthropus Erectus, Mingus began a remarkably prolific run of masterpiece albums that has no equal counterpart in jazz. The great albums Mingus recorded over the course of seven years include The Clown, Tijuana Moods, Blues and Roots, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty, Oh Yeah and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. In between are some lesser efforts and live recordings that are also worth hearing as a part of the Mingus canon.

In an era when jazz traditions were undervalued by the more progressive musicians, Mingus reveled in the music of his forebears, particularly Duke Ellington, and transformed it through his own dominant personality while pushing the boundaries of jazz and foreshadowing future jazz developments. The past, present and future were all reshuffled and metamorphosized into a mélange of pure Mingus. 

Another insight into the mind of Mingus comes from the titles he gave his works. Many of the works were titled after the compositions were finished and don’t always have any direct relation to the music. They can be bizarre, witty, topical and thought provoking:  “All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother,” “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too,” “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me,” “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Just Some Jive Ass Slippers,” “Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi U.S.A.,” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.”

While respecting the music’s past and its early creators, Mingus was also at the forefront of jazz changes of the late 1950s and early 60s. His gospel-infused compositions like “Better Get It in Your Soul” were some of the first examples of the growing hard bop and soul jazz sounds. His melding of classical music and jazz, something he first explored as a young cellist and budding composer, was a part of the Third Stream school. “Pithecanthropus Erectus” was an early exploration of modal jazz. And his ideas of collective improvisation set the stage for the avant-garde and free jazz movement. Mingus was keenly aware of jazz history and his place in it and bristled at his perceived lack of recognition for his innovations while others received the credit and accolades for his pioneering efforts.

Mingus was also a political artist who frequently used his music to protest racism and social injustice. Amid the Civil Rights Movement, he composed his most explicitly political work, “Fables of Faubus.” It’s a musical protest against Arkansas governor Orval Faubus after he sent the National Guard to prevent the racial integration of Little Rock Central High School. The original instrumental recording from 1959’s Mingus Ah Um takes a mocking tone with Jimmy Knepper’s sarcastic trombone, while a second recording from the next year is a more direct and biting attack featuring a call and response vocal between Mingus and Dannie Richmond.

Mingus’s remarkable run came to an end with the release of his magnum opus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady in 1963. Following a turbulent but successful European tour the next year, Mingus seemed to implode.  A combination of marital, financial, health and mental issues led to a retreat from music. 

In the early 70s, he began a slow return, marked by the Columbia release of Let My Children Hear Music featuring brilliant orchestral arrangements of Mingus compositions, some dating back to the 1940s. His comeback continued with a pair of albums recorded in 1974 for Atlantic, Changes One and Changes Two, featuring saxophonist George Adams, trumpeter Jack Walrath and pianist Don Pullen. Neither sold very well, so Atlantic Records persuaded Mingus to add some electric guitarists for his next album, Three or Four Shades of Blues. Mingus hated the guitars, and they were a distracting, uncomfortable fit in Mingus’s band, but when the album sold much better than his previous records, his opposition softened.

Unfortunately, Mingus’s comeback didn’t last long. He was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and by 1978 was confined to a wheelchair and could no longer play bass. His final work was an unlikely collaboration with singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. Mingus taught Mitchell the compositions by singing into a tape recorder. She then added lyrics to the dying legend’s melodies – many of them inspired by Mingus’s self-mythologizing book, Beneath the Underdog. The resulting album, simply titled Mingus, came out a few months after Mingus died at the age of 56 on January 5, 1979.

Like his idol Duke Ellington and near-contemporary Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus didn’t fit into any defined jazz school or style. His music was, as Ellington would say, “beyond category.” It was simply Mingus Music. But unlike Ellington and Monk, Mingus’s works haven’t found much of a place in the jazz repertory. Ted Gioia’s book TheJazz Standards lists many compositions by Ellington and Monk, but only one by Charles Mingus: his elegy for tenor saxophonist Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” The only other Mingus composition performed regularly, and the closest he ever came to a jazz hit, is the 6/4 gospel romp “Better Get It in Your Soul.” Mingus wasn’t interested in writing popular songs like Ellington or tunes based on basic blues and pop song forms like Monk. Mingus’s compositions were complex, multilayered, often extended works that don’t provide an easy framework for open-ended small combo jamming.

In the wake of Mingus’s death, his widow Sue assembled Mingus Dynasty, a group of Mingus alumni that initially included saxophonist John Handy, trombonist Jimmy Knepper and, of course, drummer Dannie Richmond. In the early 90s, Sue Mingus created the Mingus Big Band, which has kept Charles Mingus’ legacy alive to this day and makes a strong, enduring case for Mingus as not only one of the greatest jazz composers of all time, but one of the greatest American composers.

Yet, these efforts still come up short in capturing the full brilliance of Mingus’s music. They showcase Mingus’s compositional genius, but they’re missing the key element of danger and risk; the feeling that tightrope-walking musicians could fall at any moment. Without the force of nature that was Mingus, they lack the daunting spirit that made Mingus’s music so exciting and death-defying. As Knepper said about Mingus Dynasty, “We’re playing his tunes; without Mingus there, you’re not playing Mingus music.”

But Mingus was such a tremendous force that his music, whether on his original recordings or in contemporary interpretations, still sounds alive with an enduring and transformative power. Nearly 40 years after his death, we still have Mingus amongst us.