Charles Mingus: Composer, Iconoclast, Native Son.

There’s an ongoing tussle in the jazz community about what is real and what is fake.  You’ve heard all the indictments.  Smooth jazz is antiseptic noodling around.  Glenn Miller’s band was a sanitized-for-your-protection caricature of a “real” orchestra.  The more pious among us defiantly proclaim that an individual conception is the hallmark of an actualized player, yet we mark time by stringing together clichés, more concerned with style over invention.  I’d point you to the lyrics of Dave Frishberg’s song “I’m Hip” for more explanation.  “I’m hip.  I’m in step.  When it was hip to be hep, I was hep.”

Jazz requires constant forward motion to thrive.  The legends of our music are those who shove it down the righteous path in a personal way, shattering preconceptions about what it could be.  I don’t mean to imply any disrespect to those who contributed mightily to the body of our music but didn’t manage to affect a sea change.  Jazz wouldn’t be the same without middle weight contenders like saxophonist Hank Mobley and pianist Red Garland.  Still, the study of jazz requires that we understand the contributions of its transformative figures. 

Composer, bassist, and pianist Charles Mingus is a jazz iconoclast and a central figure in the development of our music.  He’s also a native son.  Born in Nogales Arizona in 1922 and raised in Watts California, Charles Mingus soaked up the music of the church and Duke Ellington.  Later Mingus formally studied composition and double bass with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic.  By the time Mingus hit his
mid-twenties he’d worked with Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Red Norvo, and Lionel Hampton.  After landing in New York full time, Mingus became the seminal contemporary bassist of the ‘50’s, recording with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie.  Check out the famous “Live at Massey Hall” concert to hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Mingus, and Max Roach in action.  This is required listening for any jazz fan and a high water mark for recorded bop.    

Though Mingus was a contemporary of the bop musicians, he would integrate older styles of jazz into his compositions and playing throughout his life.  It would be a mistake to say that he belonged to one genre or the other.  Mingus played Mingus music.  Often his compositions would feature startling contrasts in styles.  One soloist might play a stridently dissonant modern solo while another would play something akin to Louis Armstrong.  Pieces like “Ecclusiastics” move from off-kilter hymn to unhinged wail.  It’s music that makes you clap your hands, and scratch your head.  As a listener, I don’t always know what’s going on, but I like it and I can feel it in my gut.  Interestingly, Mingus liked to hire sidemen who combined old and new jazz styles.  Pianist Jaki Byard, whom you must hear, integrated stride piano, Art Tatum, and Chopin into his playing.  A Byard solo is like an amusement park ride through 300 years of piano history.  Roland Kirk mixed New Orleans funeral dirges, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker into his saxophone sound, often simultaneously playing three saxophones along with any number of whistles, kazoos, and flutes.  

Categorizing Mingus is a waste of time.  He’s Mingus, and that’s enough.  Still, everyone comes from somewhere, and for Mingus, Duke Ellington is the most logical antecedent.  Ellington was Mingus’s hero, and the bassist expanded on many of Ellington’s best practices.  Both men hired players on the strength of their individual sounds and wrote parts designed to extract that uniqueness.  The entire group was the instrument of the composer. 

As a bassist, Mingus is the logical extension of another Ellington alumnus, Jimmy Blanton.  Mingus had a huge sound and the ability to coax a vast array of colors out of the big fiddle.  He bass lines generated a fierce sense of swing that pushed the ensemble right to the edge of coming unglued.  Check out Boogie Stop Shuffle or Haitian Fight Song for proof.  In these compositions, the bass is not a supporting player, but the boss.  Mingus weaves counter melodies among the solos in a way that set the scene for the later inventions of bassists like Ron Carter and Scott LaFaro.  I can’t name one bassist who hasn’t been influenced on some level by his work.                      

History tends to reward its iconoclasts and innovators, even if the recognition is belated.  It’s been said that the loneliest age for a jazz musician is 40, since he’s no longer a “young lion” and not yet a “living legend.”  In fact, I’m pretty sure that a drug arrest and a religious conversion are necessary to achieve the latter.  It’s not easy being a revolutionary figure, even in a music that values change.  Every time the music turns a corner, disagreement rages about the authenticity and legitimacy of each new phase.  Despite all this grumbling and disagreement, when someone brings up the subject of Charles Mingus, we’re all on the same page.  Mingus was Mingus.  He embodies the restlessness and impudence of jazz at it’s most risky and rewarding.  If we all agree that jazz is about forward motion, risk tasking, and self expression, then Charles Mingus is an inspiration to us all.  If Mingus were here, I’m sure he’d enjoy the argument that would ensue.


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