© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Born 100 years ago this month, bassist Charles Mingus created music that was singularly bold, beautiful and original.
The following appeared in the April 19, 2022, Wall Street Journal.
—Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian Institution. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” (Pearson).
“In a musical genre known for its outsiders and nonconformists, bassist-bandleader Charles Mingus cut a larger-than-life figure with his stocky frame, forceful independence, and volcanic temper. He was known for stopping performances to scold a musician or upbraid a loud audience. He could turn violent, once knocking a tooth out of his trombonist. “He was a man of excess,” said his widow, Sue Mingus.
However colorful Mingus’s life, it’s not the sensational aspects of his story that make him endure. Like singer Billie Holiday and saxophonist Charlie Parker, what makes Mingus matter is his music. The musical polymath Gunther Schuller called him “one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.” But even that encomium doesn’t adequately encompass him.
Born April 22, 1922, in Arizona and raised in Los Angeles, Mingus studied trombone, then cello, and finally switched to the bass. His stepmother took young Charles to her Holiness church, whose tambourines, handclapping and call-and-response left a big impression on the youngster, as did the classical music he heard at home. But when he encountered the music of Duke Ellington, it was his Road to Damascus moment.
Mingus polished his playing in Los Angeles and went on the road with the big bands of Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. In 1951, he settled permanently in New York. In 1953, he performed in a legendary Toronto concert with bebop masters Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and joined the orchestra of his idol Duke Ellington, who nevertheless fired him after a week or two for unruly behavior.
By this time, he was a virtuoso jazz accompanist and soloist who freed his bass from providing harmonic underpinnings so he could play melody and countermelody.
Mingus increasingly became driven to compose—notably, beginning in 1955, as the maestro of his own Jazz Workshop. He was deeply influenced by Ellington’s music. Like his hero, Mingus didn’t write for anonymous trumpets, trombones and saxophones, but rather for his own pool of musical personalities, each with his own soundprint. “The seeming paradox of Mingus,” wrote critic Nat Hentoff, “is that so forceful a personality can create situations which so irresistibly propel his sidemen to be so fully themselves.” Like Ellington, Mingus wrote almost exclusively for his band, initially a quintet. He delighted in surprising listeners with sudden changes of tempo, meter and key.
But while Ellington was wont to rely on written scores, Mingus liked to introduce his musicians to new tunes by singing or playing the parts on bass or piano. His method worked because he honed his own brilliant ear and because he chose players with superb aural recognition and recall. Sometimes leading from only a half-completed score, Mingus went beyond Ellington in challenging his players to render emotional effects and to play with a high degree of spontaneity and unknowns (what’s the structure?), which he called “organized chaos.” His pieces have no fixed form and could vary markedly from performance to performance.
His music covers a wide range, from love to protest, from three-minute gems to 30-minute album sides. The aggressive “Haitian Fight Song,” like much of Mingus’s work, doesn’t politely invite you to listen; it grabs your ears and insists. A highlight of his 1959 masterpiece album, “Mingus Ah Um,” the electrifying “Better Git It in Your Soul” offers a driving 6/8 beat, collective improvisation and raucous gospel shouting that’s also part of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.” There are also the sensuous Flamenco rhythms of “Ysabel’s Table Dance,” the warmth of “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” and the Harlem rent-party fun of “Eat That Chicken.”
Angered by profound racial discrimination, he became a fierce civil-rights advocate. His “Fables of Faubus” mocks Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who in 1957 ordered National Guard troops to block the integration of Little Rock’s public schools. In one version of “Fables,” Mingus and his longtime drummer Dannie Richmond cry out caustic lyrics, calling Faubus a fool, ridiculous and sick.
Mingus ingeniously blended improvisation and composition as well as tradition and innovation. Keenly aware of jazz history, he wrote pieces honoring such legends as composer-pianist Jelly Roll Morton and saxophonist Lester Young, the latter through the slow, haunting “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which became a standard and is included on “Mingus Ah Um.”
His provocative 1971 autobiography, “Beneath the Underdog,” written mostly in the third person, mixes fact and fantasy and remains a riveting read. At the time of his death in 1979 — at 56, of ALS — he was working with singer Joni Mitchell on an album, “Mingus,” featuring her lyrics set to his music. Musicologist Andrew Homzy discovered “Epitaph,” Mingus’s magnum opus for 32 musicians, and Gunther Schuller conducted the two-hour work in 1989. For decades, Sue Mingus has worked tirelessly to keep his music and spirit alive, masterminding three ensembles: Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Orchestra and Mingus Big Band.
Because of its originality, boldness and beauty, there’s nothing like Charles Mingus’s music.”