What’s Everyone Got Against a Legend? : In his lifetime, Charles Mingus was a rebel and a true giant of jazz. Now the Library of Congress has acquired his works and he’s gaining new prominence. So how come nobody plays his music?
Onstage at the Time Cafe, the Mingus Big Band was pumping out a spirited blend of the lush harmonies and boisterous blues sections, interwoven ensemble passages and sudden tempo shifts that made the late bassist Charles Mingus one of the most challenging and celebrated artists in jazz. Every now and then, yet another element entered the arrangement--the rumble of the subway trains passing underneath the Manhattan club.
Somehow the extra subterranean voice didn’t seem like an intrusion--more like the spirit of Mingus dropping by to keep an ear on things.
But the Mingus Big Band didn’t just play a formal set of pat, polished arrangements--one piece was repeated, another was stopped in mid-song to iron out a rough spot, a third found the musicians groping through an arrangement they were seeing for the first time. Mingus would have approved--it was a continuation of the workshop concept of turning the bandstand into a laboratory that he developed during the late 1950s to keep his music alive and evolving.
“Charles’ music was so continually surprising and unexpected--like he was as a human being,” reflected Sue Graham Mingus, the artist’s widow, recently in her Manhattan apartment. “You’d never know if there was gonna be a crash landing and it’s this exciting, unexpected music that just breathes and lives in front of you.”
Mingus left an indelible imprint on jazz as an innovative player, bandleader and composer. He was a virtuoso bassist who expanded the instrument’s role in jazz beyond a merely supportive one.
His bands were a training ground for a host of well-known players--Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, Yusef Lateef, Jaki Byard, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Handy, Mal Waldron, Dannie Richmond, Jimmy Knepper, Clifford Jordan, George Adams, Don Pullen, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Randy Brecker among them.
As a writer, Mingus is often ranked with Duke Ellington. His compositions ran from beautiful ballads for small groups to big-band works to extended pieces for large ensembles such as “Epitaph,” a two-hour piece for 31 musicians.
He incorporated techniques drawn from European classical composers, deep-rooted gospel and blues influences, the whole jazz tradition from stride through swing to be-bop and beyond--often in the same piece and always delivered with a fiery, distinctively raucous elan.
“He was a giant as a bass player and, as a composer and bandleader, he was really stimulating and challenging,” said soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, a contemporary of Mingus’ on the New York jazz scene 35 years ago. “I think Mingus is in the process of turning into a classic whereas (Thelonious) Monk is already a classic, so maybe it’s just a matter of time.”
There is no question that Charles Mingus is one of the giants in the history of jazz. And his legend continues to grow. In June, the Library of Congress acquired a collection of his work, including music scores, recordings, memorabilia, correspondence and the 1,000-page original manuscript of his autobiography, “Beneath the Underdog.” Over the next few months several compilations of his music will be reissued, and public television will show a documentary on him Aug. 27.
However, unlike his contemporaries Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis or predecessors Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, you don’t often hear a Mingus piece on a recording or played in a club. Only “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a ballad tribute to saxophonist Lester Young, could be considered a widely known and performed standard.
“Even in jazz, there are things that are accessible and those that are in a place that is hard for people to deal with,” said Branford Marsalis, who recorded Mingus’ “Scenes of the City” on his first Columbia album in 1984.
“Mingus’ stuff was organized, but the way it was organized was very spontaneous, and people don’t like spontaneity, even though they claim they do. Mingus was wild--that’s what I love about him, and a lot of people wanted jazz musicians to be reserved and stately.”
James Newton, the jazz flutist, composer and professor of music at UC Irvine, says that the sweeping range of Mingus’ music and its roots in all facets of the jazz tradition give it a multilayered depth that scares off many musicians.
“He really made me think about playing music from your own perspective but at the same time trying to honor what has gone before,” Newton said. “I think Mingus did that better than just about anyone else--you can hear the whole range of the tradition in the music.
“It goes against the grain--it did during (his lifetime) and it does now. It goes against the grain of people’s conception of acknowledging and upholding the (jazz) tradition because it’s stretching it at the same time.”
Mingus’ volatile, tempestuous personality certainly did go against the grain. He was emotional, politically outspoken and full of attitude--so unapologetic about being himself that he didn’t much care if he alienated people inside or outside the jazz world.
Even the titles of his pieces were outspoken and provocative. Two come to mind: “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers” and “If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.”
This dominating personality may be one reason why many jazz artists would rather pay lip service to his music than tackle his pieces.
“Charles was such a huge presence in his lifetime and his music was so personal that I think he kind of dominated his music and people stayed away from it. I think they (are) intimidated by it,” said Sue Graham Mingus.
“Mingus is one of the most human composers we’ve had in the 20th Century,” added Newton. “In the course of a performance or an album, you’re going to hear 95-97% of the huge range of emotions he felt at the time. He doesn’t subdue them--he does put everything he felt in your face.
“His music really had to do with the heart and soul and what it was like to be an African-American in a racist society. But he’s still a person that treasured love because there’s so much love in his music.”
But beyond his personality there is the work itself. It’s complex, difficult music that confronts the musicians and demands constant, on-the-spot invention that goes well beyond jazz’s improvisatory norm.
“Mingus’ music isn’t about the notes--it’s about the emotional content of the music to a much larger degree than almost any other musician,” said trombonist Sam Burtis of the Mingus Big Band. “If you write down Mingus’ music, you only have an eighth of it--you have to have the played music to understand how it was.”
Mingus constantly provoked his musicians to be creative and designed complex structures that all but forced them to play something fresh. His small group pieces often contained ensemble parts that don’t fit a standard jazz quartet format in the manner of a Charlie Parker or even a John Coltrane tune.
“Mingus’ music is hard to interpret, especially if you use that very linear approach that most jazz musicians are used to,” said Marsalis. “You can hear the be-bop influence, but he put the piano in a position in his band where it wasn’t really a seminal instrument. It was merely a color, and he really changed the sound and scope of his music with that.”
Casually calling off a Mingus tune on the bandstand can be a recipe for disaster because there’s little margin for error. Mingus fans are the first to acknowledge that when the music isn’t played right, it sounds terrible.
“Randy Brecker and Lew Soloff, who are both trumpet players, were saying that Charles wrote like Stravinsky,” said Sue Graham Mingus. “He wrote notes you’re not supposed to play on your instrument--they’re too high, too difficult. So you’re taking a risk. You get a different kind of playing when you don’t know if you’re going to be able to hit the note.”
The constantly shifting, high-wire nature of the music is one source of its enduring value. Mingus is anything but jazz on auto-pilot for musicians or listeners.
For all the beauty, sophistication and complexity of his work, Mingus produced some of the most flat-out exciting jazz ever. It rocks, it swings, it seduces, it roars, it whispers, it swaggers . . . and sounds every bit as contemporary today as it did when it was recorded.
“Mingus was transcendental fun--it’s fun but it’s deep too,” said Jack Walrath, who currently leads the 7-piece Mingus Dynasty, another group assembled by Sue Graham Mingus to keep her husband’s legacy alive. “He was one of the guys who shows you that a great artist can be very entertaining and have different moods besides serious.”
Mingus was born in Nogales, Ariz., and his family moved almost immediately to Los Angeles, where his mother died when Charles was 6 months old. His father, a retired Army sergeant, remarried, and Mingus’ stepmother introduced him to European classical music and the impassioned, improvised music of the Holiness gospel church--an influence that remained unusually prominent in Mingus’ music.
Mingus first played trombone and cello but switched to bass in high school. Red Callender became his first important bass teacher and later suggested that Mingus polish his technique with symphony bassist Herman Rheinshagen.
His primary early influence was Duke Ellington, particularly the recordings featuring the groundbreaking bassist Jimmy Blanton. Another key came in lessons with local teacher Lloyd Reece, who introduced Mingus to piano and music theory and spurred him to continue sketching out his first pieces.
He became part of a loose group of young players, including Dexter Gordon, Britt Woodman and Buddy Collette, who took the Red Line street car from Watts to soak up the fertile Central Avenue scene of the 1940s in Los Angeles. Mingus worked in a wide variety of groups--including stints with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton--up and down the West Coast until he moved to New York City in 1951.
Mingus started up his own Debut label and Jazz Workshop publishing company the following year. It was the first of several attempts he made over the years to bypass the normal record industry channels and exercise control over his music.
He helped to organize and record a famous, all-star be-bop concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1953 featuring a quintet of Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and himself. With Max Roach, Mingus directly challenged the conservative booking policy at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, the most prestigious jazz event of that era, by staging an alternative festival in Newport featuring overlooked artists ranging from newcomer Ornette Coleman to veteran Roy Eldridge.
He had established himself as a bandleader by 1956 and recorded extensively for specialist labels Prestige, Candid and Impulse, as well as major labels Columbia and Atlantic during his career. His club performances on the New York jazz scene throughout its mid-'50s-to-early-'60s heyday became magnets for his musician peers who could watch the music take shape in public.
“The gigs back then at places like the Jazz Gallery used to last 10 weeks or so and I would be there almost every night to see what would happen because he was constantly challenging his musicians and himself and the form and the listeners,” recalled Lacy. “Most musicians, when they get something that works, they let it work and it builds up the audience that way.
“But Mingus would never leave well enough alone because it wasn’t well enough for him. He was always pushing things a little further, and that makes his music more challenging.”
Mingus was too powerful and singular a force in his life and music to fit any jazz norm--perhaps only Miles Davis rivaled him in that respect. To Sue Graham Mingus, he was just like a present day player who is also a leader in his chosen field : Charles Barkley.
“I fell in love with this persona of Charles Barkley,” said Sue Graham Mingus of the Phoenix Suns star forward after the recent NBA finals.
“Barkley is a scrapper, a loudmouth. He’s got this kind of clumsy body yet his determination and spirit. . . . I decided that Charles Barkley is exactly like Mingus, and Michael Jordan is elegant, graceful and even-tempered--exactly like Duke Ellington.”
The polished Ellington and the rough-and-tumble Mingus seem like polar opposites, yet Duke was one of Mingus’ idols. Like Ellington, Mingus wrote his music specifically for the particular musicians in his units. Lacking the Ellington Band’s fairly constant lineup through the years, Mingus went even further in encouraging the individuality of his musicians.
“Duke Ellington’s bands lend themselves to re-creation by people playing like the people who were in Duke’s band, and it works,” said Burtis of the Mingus Big Band. “With Mingus’ music, you have to play like yourself--if you have generic jazz players, it doesn’t work. It’s not about now we’ll have a tenor solo--it’s now we’ll have a Booker Ervin solo.”
Added Sue Graham Mingus: “In some ways Charles’ music is moving forward in a way that Duke’s isn’t because it’s so open. Charles had so much trust and faith in musicians--he really believed in the talents and gifts of musicians to take what he wrote and within that spirit bring their own personalities to it.”
Now, with its acquisition by the Library of Congress, Mingus’ provocative music shares something else with Ellington--recognition from a mainstream American cultural institution.
That makes Mingus--who died in Mexico in 1979 at 56, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease)--the first African-American composer at the Library of Congress and places him in the distinguished company of such American composers as George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa and Leonard Bernstein. The only other jazz artist similarly honored is Ellington, whose collection is housed at the Smithsonian.
“Mingus is one of the most original and unique figures in the history of our music,” said Jon Newsom, assistant chief of the music division at the Library of Congress. “His interest for the Library is that we do acknowledge he’s a major composer, and there are a lot of paper materials. He was a natural composer--like an architect who sees a very large scale of a piece, Mingus was very concerned with putting together the ideas he had in a larger framework.”
The recognition Mingus so ardently desired from the classical music world for his accomplishments as a composer in his lifetime may come belatedly via the Library of Congress acquisition. It’s one of several projects that Sue Graham Mingus has going to keep her late husband’s music alive.
She can draw on a pool of more than 120 musicians who have performed with the Mingus Big Band--and Mingus’ trademark workshop method she insisted on retaining--as the group approaches the second anniversary of its Thursday-night residency at the Time Cafe next month. The Mingus Dynasty, formed shortly after Mingus’ death, remains active and has released several albums for various labels through the years.
Sue Graham Mingus is also planning to start a label to release and undersell the bootleg Mingus recordings she regularly and openly takes from record stores.
“We can be polite, but that wasn’t Charles’ essence--he was interested in exposing and experiencing,” she said. “Charles wanted to live the spectrum of his personality, good and bad.
“It’s an artist’s approach to life, and the music reflects that. It’s got everything in it.”
What does she plan to call that new label?