“..., viewed cumulatively, Mingus's efforts from the late 1950s represent a landmark accomplishment. His mature style had now blossomed into full-fledged artistry, and was evident in the music's exuberance, its excesses, its delight in the combination of opposites. Here, the vulgar rubs shoulders with royalty: a stately melody is bent out of shape by sassy counterpoint lines; a lilting 6/8 rhythm is juxtaposed against a roller-coaster double time 4/4; the twelve-bar blues degenerates into semi-anarchy; tempos and moods shift, sometimes violently.”
Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, p. 328
Whatever the format – CD compilation, book or TV documentary – why in the world would anyone attempt a history of Jazz?
At minimum – as producer Ken Burns found out when he did his PBS documentary on the subject – one is certain to be excoriated by Jazz fans as much for what one leaves out than for what one includes in such a survey.
I ask myself this question each time I pick up
Ted Gioia’s superb book, The History of Jazz, and each time I come away amazed at his concise, yet comprehensive treatment of the subject.
Take for example the excerpts that make-up the following feature on the career and music of bassist, composer and arranger, Charles Mingus.
I can think of few subjects that are more significant in the history of Jazz than Charles and his music. I can also think of fewer still that are any more complicated and convoluted.
But after reading the section that Ted’s book devotes to him, one comes away with a detailed understanding of, and appreciation for, Mingus and his music.
Ted’s writing on the subject of Jazz makes for brilliant reading.
In a recent correspondence, Ted indicated that a revised and expanded Second Edition of The History of Jazz would be available from Oxford University Press [OUP] in May/2011. You can locate information about how to pre-order the 2nd Ed. of the book by going to Amazon.com via this link.
Ted along with his editor and publicist at OUP have graciously allowed JazzProfiles permission to use the expanded and revised chapter on Charles in the following profile.
The photographs of Charles that populate this feature are not included in the original text.
At the end of this piece is a video tribute to Charles and his music developed by the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz
The sound track is Charles’ composition Gunslinging Bird.
It was recorded by The Metropole Orchestra at its “Mingus Tribute” concert which took place in the Muziekgebouw aan‘t IJ,
, The Netherlands on Amsterdam April 25, 2009.
John Clayton was the guest conductor and Randy Brecker [tp], Conrad Herwig [tb] and Ronnie Cuber [bs] were guest soloists. Martijn Vink is the drummer and the arrangement is by Gil Goldstein.
Sue Mingus was also on hand to provide background and commentary for each of Charles’ compositions that were performed that evening.
She emphasized that Mingus would have been especially pleased ay the inclusion of strings in the presentation of his music.
Reprinted with permission from THE HISTORY OF
JAZZ by TED GIOIA published by Oxford University Press, Inc. © 2011 Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition.
“Like many jazz bandleaders who came to prominence in the 1950s, Charles Mingus drew inspiration from the hard-bop style, albeit transforming it into his own image. He drew heavily on the same ingredients that had proven successful for Blakey and Silver: an appreciation for African American roots music such as gospel and blues; a zest for hard-swinging, often funky playing; a rigorous schooling in the bebop idiom; a renewed emphasis on formalism and the possibilities of jazz composition; and a determination to exploit the full expressive range of the traditional horns-plus-rhythm jazz combo. Despite these similarities, few critics of the period saw Mingus as part of the hard-bop school. Yet his mature musical explorations rarely ventured far afield from this ethos. Had Mingus recorded for Blue Note and drawn on the services of other musicians affiliated with that label, these links would have been more evident. As it stands, he is typically seen as a musician who defies category—more a gadfly, skilled at disrupting hegemonies rather than supporting the current trends in play. Mingus is remembered as a progressive who never really embraced the freedom principle and a traditionalist who constantly tinkered with and subverted the legacies of the past. Yet for all these contradictions, his ouevre has stood the test of time and has grown in influence while others more easy to pigeonhole have faded from view.
This convergence of conflicting influences was a product of Mingus’s development as a musician. His early biography is the history of a heterogeneous series of allegiances to a variety of styles. Known as a steadfast advocate of modern jazz, Mingus had actually been late to the party. Under the sway of Ellington, the younger Mingus had denounced bebop, going so far as to claim that his friend Buddy Collette could play as well as Bird. But when he changed his mind, he did so—in typical Mingus fashion—with a vengeance. “Charles Mingus loved Bird, man,” Miles Davis later recalled, “almost like I have never seen nobody love.”20 Later Mingus passed through a phase where cool jazz was a predominant influence, and even aligned himself for a time with the Tristano school. His relationship with the free players was even more complex, with Mingus vacillating from disdain to extravagant praise. These various strata were underpinned by Mingus’s early study of classical music, diligent practice on the cello, and rapt listening to Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, and Strauss, among others. This was an odd musical house of cards, in which Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration and the Duke’s “
Toodle-oo” were precariously balanced against one another. East St. Louis
The miracle of Mingus’s music was that he could develop a coherent and moving personal style out of this hodgepodge of influences. A generation later, such eclecticism—the “style without a style”—would increasingly become the norm in the jazz world. Jazz players would aspire to be historians, using the bandstand as a lectern, the bells of their horns quoting a series of textbook examples. Alas, only a fine line often separates these histories from mere histrionics: hearing many latter-day players struggle to tie together the various strands, most often serving only awkwardly to regurgitate the past, makes it all the more clear how extraordinary was Mingus’s ability to ascend and descend through the various roots and branches of the jazz family tree. Then again, Mingus had the advantage of learning these styles firsthand—he was among a select group who could boast of having worked as sideman for Armstrong, Ellington, and Parker, the three towering giants of the first half-century of jazz, not to mention having served alongside Tatum and Powell, Norvo and Hampton, Dolphy and Getz, Eldridge and Gillespie. This was jazz history of a different sort, imbibed directly and not learned in a school or from a recording. Perhaps because of this training, perhaps merely due to his sheer force of personality, Mingus managed not only to embrace a world of music but to engulf it in an overpowering bear hug. Despite these many linkages to jazz history, his music sounded neither derivative nor imitative. Whether playing a down-home blues, a silky ballad, an abstract tone poem, a
two-step, or a freewheeling jam, his work was immediately identifiable, bearing the unique imprimatur of Charles Mingus. New Orleans
A few months after his birth in
, on Nogales, Arizona April 22, 1922, Charles Mingus lost his mother, Harriet, to myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. The child was raised mostly in the Watts neighborhood of by a prim and devout stepmother who advocated spiritual flagellation, and an abusive father, Sergeant Charles Mingus Sr., who simply handed out earthly whippings. Around the age of six, Mingus began learning to play a Sears, Roebuck trombone. Studies on the cello followed, and for a time Mingus performed with the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic. Lloyd Reese, who trained two generations of Los Angeles Southern California’s finest jazz talent, helped transform the youngster from a classical cellist into a jazz bassist; his efforts were supplemented by other teachers including jazz bassist Red Callender and classical bassist Herman Rheinschagen. With diligent practice and a clear goal—to be the world’s greatest on his instrument—Mingus developed quickly into a solid player in a Jimmy Blanton mold.
From the start, composition also fascinated Mingus. While still a teenager he wrote “Half-Mast Inhibition” and “The Chill of Death”—works he proudly revived and recorded decades later. He learned traditional jazz at the source, gigging with Kid Ory in 1942 and Louis Armstrong in 1943. His late initiation into the world of bop came, oddly, when he joined an LA band of white would-be boppers, including Parker’s most fanatical disciple, Dean Benedetti (who later gave up performing to trail Parker from gig to gig, a portable recording device in tow, aiming to capture the altoist’s solos for posterity). In time, Mingus was jamming with Bird and immersing himself in modern jazz. Yet his early recordings show that other jazz styles continued to be a source of inspiration. Tracing a lineage through these efforts is not easy: the shadow of Ellington looms over many early recordings (and would never entirely be absent from Mingus’s music); his trio work with Red Norvo and Tal Farlow from the early 1950s was, in contrast, bop of the highest order; Mingus’s ensuing projects for the Debut label also included noteworthy modern jazz sessions, but of a much different flavor, especially on the dazzling Massey Hall concert recording with Parker, Gillespie, Roach, and Powell; these efforts coexisted with a series of involvements with various cool players, ranging from Getz to Tristano. Indeed, the cool style, for a time, seemed like it might become a decisive influence. The bassist’s 1954 Jazzical Moods, for example, reveals a cerebral and restrained Mingus very much at odds with the hot-blooded extrovert of a few years later.
It was not until the late 1950s that these different allegiances began to be subsumed into a more distinct, personal style. These years constituted a prolific and exceptionally creative period for Mingus, as documented by a number of outstanding projects, including Pithecanthropus Erectus from 1956, Tijuana Moods, East Coasting, and The Clown from 1957, and Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um from 1959. Some of Mingus’s finest music from this period was not released at the time. As a result, his impact on the jazz world of the late 1950s may have been diluted compared to what it might otherwise have been. Yet, viewed cumulatively, Mingus’s efforts from the era represent landmark accomplishments. His mature style had now blossomed into full-fledged artistry, and was evident in the music’s exuberance, its excesses, its delight in the combination of opposites. Here, the vulgar rubs shoulders with royalty: a stately melody is bent out of shape by sassy counterpoint lines; a lilting 6/8 rhythm is juxtaposed against a roller-coaster double-time 4/4; the twelve-bar blues degenerates into semi-anarchy; tempos and moods shift, sometimes violently.
As a jazz composer, Mingus is often lauded for his formalist tendencies, for the novel structures of his works. Yet, just as pointedly, these are pieces stuffed to the brim with content. Even the name Jazz Workshop, which Mingus favored for his bands, evokes this image. The impulses of the moment are primary. Compositional structures change and adapt to meet the dictates of the here and now. The rough-edged counterpoint that sometimes takes over Mingus’s most characteristic music, a surreal evocation of Dixieland, often makes his approach sound like a subversive type of anti-composition.
Fans had at least one guarantee: Mingus’s work never was boring. A visceral excitement radiated from the bandstand at his performances and lives on in his recordings. Pieces such as “Better Git It in Your Soul,” “Jelly Roll,” and “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” may recall the jazz tradition, but do so in a way that is tellingly alive, that could never be reduced to notes on a page—hence it comes as little surprise that Mingus delighted in teaching his pieces by ear. “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” bore an all-too-fitting title. Mingus’s music was an aural equivalent of the sanctified church, delighting in a loosely structured give-and-take, electrified with evangelical zeal. This was a musical speaking in tongues, accompanied by hand clapping, shouts, exhortations, improvised narrative, and other spontaneous outbursts. Yet these unpredictable elements of a Mingus performance also had their dark side: there were songs cut short in midflow, sidemen fired and rehired on the bandstand, denigrating asides and intemperate outbursts. With Mingus, whether onstage or off, even the moments of gentle introspection often merely marked a deceptive quiet before the storm.
Mingus was increasingly returning to the early roots of jazz music during this period. As with his idol Ellington, Mingus found the twelve-bar blues to be an especially fertile departure point. While most jazz musicians typically treat the blues form as a generic set of blowing changes, Mingus transformed the twelve-bar choruses into true compositions. Only a handful of jazz artists—Ellington, Morton, Monk—were his equal in this regard. Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” was an early indication of this approach, with “Pussy Cat Dues” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” from Mingus Ah Um standing out as especially brilliant examples, the latter following a twelve-bar form that evokes a minor blues while deviating far from the standard progressions. All in all, Mingus’s 1959 recordings for
present some of the most fully realized works of his career. But once again, the label hid Mingus’s light under a bushel, holding onto much of this material and releasing it in piecemeal fashion over a period of many years. Columbia
The early 1960s found Mingus standing on the outside of the free jazz clique, staring at it with a mixture of curiosity, envy, and disdain. Mingus’s roots in the jazz tradition and his impulses as a composer prevented him from fully accepting atonality and open structures, yet his fondness for new sounds motivated him to find some common ground with the avant-garde movement. His group with Eric Dolphy from this period was one of the most daring of his career, and the band is in especially fine form on a live recording made at the 1960 Antibes Jazz Festival and on the release Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. “What Love,” an early Mingus composition revived during this period—in part because Dolphy noted its similarity to Ornette Coleman’s work—exhibits the bassist engaging in intricate free-form dialogues with Dolphy’s bass clarinet. The piece is loosely based on “What Is This Thing Called Love,” but the deconstruction is so complete that even composer Cole Porter may have failed to recognize the linkage.
The traditional side of Mingus’s music resurfaced the following year when his band featured, for three months, multireed player Roland Kirk (later known as Rahsaan Roland Kirk). Kirk was an ideal sideman for Mingus. A stellar soloist, he could play with authenticity and forcefulness in any jazz style, from trad to free, and on a host of instruments—not just conventional saxes and clarinets but pawnshop oddities such as manzello, stritch, siren whistle, and nose flute. Kirk’s arsenal of effects was seemingly endless, ranging from circular breathing to playing three horns at once. This versatility came, in time, to be a curse. Had he focused on a single instrument, he would have been acknowledged as a master. Instead he was too often dismissed as little more than a jazz novelty act. While with Mingus, Kirk invigorated the 1961 Oh Yeah release with a handful of penetrating solos, including an extraordinary “old-timey” outing on “Eat That Chicken.” A dozen years later, Kirk rejoined Mingus for a Carnegie Hall concert and stole the show with his sly maneuvering inside and outside the chord changes. The small body of recordings featuring these two jazz masters in tandem is a cause for much idle speculation as to what might have been had they collaborated more often.
Mingus’s recordings for the Impulse label in the early 1960s continued to find him in top form. His 1963 The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady stands out as his strongest and most structured extended piece. Mingus apparently composed many of his works in snippets, with some of the bits and pieces (such as the bridge on his early “Eulogy for Rudy Williams”) showing up in several different efforts. With The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Mingus was able to fine-tune the composition after it was recorded, using splices and overdubs, to create a more unified artistic statement. Not all of Mingus’s efforts from this period held together so well. His 1962 Town Hall Concert is most often remembered as one of the great fiascos in the history of jazz. Scores were still uncompleted at curtain time, with two copyists continuing to work after the curtain was raised. Years later Gunther Schuller would struggle valiantly to realize Mingus’s original vision for the Town Hall concert, but despite his best efforts, the music remained a series of fragments, only loosely tied together.
This is no criticism of Mingus. Fragmentation was a recurring curse as well as a blessing of the twentieth century. After all, this was an age that began with physicists contending that continuity was merely a statistical illusion—a premise that artists of all sorts quickly embraced. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot proclaims toward the end of “The Waste Land.” “I cannot make it cohere,” announces Ezra Pound near the conclusion of his massive Cantos. These assertions, with their measured fatalism, could stand as mottos for the modernist agenda in jazz as well. In fact, Mingus was the closest jazz has come to having its own Ezra Pound. And as with Pound, Mingus’s life too often mimicked the dissolution of his art. Psychological troubles plagued him throughout his career. In 1958, Mingus even tried to refer himself to the
mental hospital. In naive fashion, he had knocked on the door. Looking only for counsel, he soon found himself confined. Bellevue
This was the same man who enlisted his analyst to write liner notes and who named a song “All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.” The 1960s were tumultuous years for the bassist. Before the Town Hall concert, Mingus’s temper exploded during a meeting with trombonist Jimmy Knepper, who was working as a copyist. Mingus punched Knepper, who eventually took him to court on assault charges. The most memorable moment from the documentary Mingus, filmed in 1966, was not of music making, but of the movie’s subject being evicted from his apartment for nonpayment of rent. When the Mingus at Monterey recording was released a short while later, it included a personal note from the bassist, soliciting donations to compensate for “the misfortunes I have suffered.” But such was the instability in Mingus’s life that, by the time the record hit the stores, he could no longer be reached at the post office box listed in the liner notes. By the close of the 1960s, Mingus was barely visible in the jazz world, performing rarely, recording not at all.
It comes as little surprise that Mingus had such trouble summing up his chaotic life in a proposed autobiography. When a publisher contracted him to write his life story, Mingus intimated that he was putting together a fifteen-hundred-page manuscript. When Beneath the Underdog finally appeared in 1971, it was only a fraction of that length. And those looking for a point-by-point exposition of Mingus’s career as a musician were likely to be disappointed by the text. Musical activities play a subsidiary role in the proceedings. Instead, the work is a patchwork of braggadocio, real or fantasized sexual exploits, pop psychology, fanciful dialogue, and odd anecdotes. Mingus the man, like his alter ego the musician, appeared to be an accumulation of the most disparate fragments. All the same, the book makes for compelling reading, brimming with excesses even in its abbreviated state.
On the heels of this literary effort, Mingus saw his musical career rejuvenated. He signed with
, and—in a telling irony—recorded “The Chill of Death,” a piece that same label had shelved back in 1947. Mingus’s 1970s band with saxophonist George Adams and pianist Don Pullen, joined by longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond, was a powerful unit that could hold up under the inevitable comparisons with earlier Jazz Workshop ensembles. This was also one of the most energized bands Mingus had ever fronted: Pullen’s slashing piano style combined dissonant tone clusters, percussive chords, and biting single-note lines; Columbia Adams’s tenor offered a sheets-of-sound approach analogous to Coltrane’s. Both were capable of playing inside or outside of the structural foundations Mingus laid down on the bass. This band is well represented on a series of recordings for the Atlantic label, including Mingus Moves, Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, and the two volumes of Changes. Mingus’s compositional skills continued to shine in diverse works, ranging from the constantly shifting “Sue’s Changes” to the unabashedly traditional swing ballad “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.” Three or Four Shades of Blue from 1977 found Mingus joined by electric guitar and leaning, ever so coyly, in the direction of jazz-rock fusion. Mingus was reportedly upset at the label for pushing his music in a commercial direction but softened his criticism after the release turned out to be the biggest seller of his career.
Around this time, Mingus sought medical treatment for a recurring pain in his legs. When in public, he could be seen using a cane. Toward the end of 1977, the doctors diagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—known more commonly as Lou Gehrig’s disease—a humbling disorder marked by a gradual loss of coordination and mastery over one’s body. Mingus continued to compose, singing into a tape recorder when he no longer had control over his fingers. He initiated projects, including one with pop diva Joni Mitchell, that he did not live long enough to see through to completion. In his final days, Mingus was feted as became a jazz legend: his fifty-sixth birthday was celebrated with a performance of his Revelations by the New York Philharmonic; a few weeks later he appeared at the White House as part of an all-star gathering of jazz musicians during the Jimmy Carter administration. His last days were spent pursuing alternative medical therapies in
, where he died in Mexico on Cuernavaca January 5, 1979. His music continued to flourish posthumously. The Joni Mitchell tribute recording, Mingus, came out a short while after his death, introducing the bassist’s music to legions of new fans. A tribute band featuring former sidemen performed under the name Mingus Dynasty, while a similar continuation of the bassist’s influence was seen in a combo led by George Adams and Don Pullen. And over a decade after his passing, Mingus’s unwieldy two-hour long Epitaph—drawn from the music of the 1962 Town Hall concert described above—was pieced together by Gunther Schuller and performed and recorded to much fanfare.”