Sunday 26 July 2020

Jazz Giant: Charles Mingus


Expanded Book Review of: 
(1971, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 
1975, Penguin Paperback ISBN 0-14-00-3880-9)

 Charles Mingus: 22 April 1922-5 January 1979 

As a kid buying music papers, there were the Rock pages in which new Stars and Pop-groups were introduced on a weekly basis, and the Jazz pages in which learned and very serious journalists mourned the deaths of aged New Orleans pioneers. The dichotomy thus presented itself to me as Rock = youth-energy. Jazz = senility-death. A decade and a half later those doing the dying were musicians to whom I’d developed a particular affinity – Roland Kirk, Charlie Mingus, and I found myself in the paradoxical situation of feeling a need to justify this affinity to a largely uncaring posterity who, if they listened to Jazz at all, preferred the electronic droodling of Chick Corea or the fusion-Funk of Herbie Hancock.

So why remember Charles Mingus? I can think of four immediate reasons.

(One) To those with a literary orientation it should be noted that Mingus was probably the most poetically referenced musician of his generation. Adrian Henri thefted the Mingus title “Tonight At Noon” for one of his best-known poems. For Pete Brown, parties were incomplete without ‘a live octopus in the sink, trying to swallow a record by Charlie Mingus,’ while Philip Larkin was moved to praise the Mingus ‘hell broth ensembles’. Mingus himself worked in experimental spoken-word projects with wordsmiths such as Kenneth Patchen – performing jointly at the New York ‘Living Theatre’ during March 1959, and he went on to write one of the most exhilaratingly freewheeling ‘spontaneous bop prose’ tracts to come out of Jazz, the tactile autobiography ‘Beneath The Underdog’ (1971).

(Two) For those with a socio-historic orientation it should be noted that during the birthing process of Black Awareness, Mingus was a constant presence. He was born 22 April 1922 in Nogales, Arizona, but after the death of his natural mother the family moved to 1621 East One-Hundred And Eighth Street, in the Watts district of Los Angeles. He was black, and colour was significant, but there were degrees of blackness. He recalled that his father ‘taught race prejudice to his children – said they were better than others because they were lighter in colour.’ The lesson stuck, and later, whenever he looked in the mirror ‘he thought he could see a number of strains – Indian (Native American), African, Mexican, Asian and a certain amount of white (German) from a source his father had boasted of. He wanted to be one or the other, but he was a little of everything, wholly nothing, of no race, country, flag or friend.’ As a child, ‘big and clumsy, with a tendency to bow-legs and pigeon toes’ he experienced the racial injustice of the 1930s which sparked off a sense of acute justified anger that remained with him until his death in January 1979. Watts was a black no-exit catchment where becoming King Pimp was the ‘closest thing to one of our kind becoming President of the USA.’ His was the bitterness of an intelligent sensitive kid ‘subjected to the galling rules America inflicts on negroes.’ The kind of bitterness that culminated in the Watts riots of the sixties which tore the city apart.

Jazz historian Nat Hentoff wrote of black musicians who ‘do not see mirages of Jim Crow as Mingus frequently does. Nor, when they do scrape against its real manifestations do they hit out as wildly and with as uncontrollable a hurt as Mingus’ (in ‘The Jazz Life’, Panther 1962). For he was a vulnerable, proud musician, unable to mask his intellect with demeaning vaudevillian self-deprecation, dismissing the likes of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong – with whom he played from 1941-1943, as ‘Tomming’, telling Jazz archivist Marshall Stearns ‘it’s time we negroes quit crying the blues.’ Stearns interpreted this as symptomatic of a racial ‘real hunger for the musical and intellectual culture of the white community’ (in ‘The Story Of Jazz’, Mentor Books, 1956). More perceptively, poet Jeff Nuttall detects that it is within the work of musicians such as Mingus that ‘the authentic pulse of violence was first felt’ – quoting the Mingus dictum ‘two four six eight, I want to teach you to hate’ (in ‘Bomb Culture’, MacGibbon and Kee, 1968 and Paladin, 1970).

Mingus hit out at the ‘smallest hint of malice towards him, negroes, friends, Jazz, music, or the new African nations.’ But his reputation as a fighter was based on hard lessons he’d learned on the streets of Watts, that ‘if he doesn’t get in the first punch, the other man surely will.’ And lessons learned on the road, playing Jazz. From 1950 to 1951 he toured as bass-player with the Red Norvo Trio, a group made up of the white Norvo on vibes and Tal Farlow in guitar. They worked dates in the South under insulting segregation conditions, which Mingus endured, but he quit when Norvo agreed to replace him with a white double-bass player for a one-off TV slot – ‘they had sponsors who worried about the ‘southern market’ where ‘mixing’ was taboo.’

Mingus became a Hindu – his ashes were scattered on the River Ganges, but he avoided the hip affectations of other black 1940s musicians who professed similar spiritual convictions to Islam, preferring to target his message more effectively. In the early-sixties he was numbered with the ‘Newport Rebels’ protesting against the commercialism of the ‘Newport Jazz Festival’ – by setting up an ‘alternative Festival’ in a tent outside the grounds. And in the early seventies while Bob Dylan was writing paeans to jailed boxer “George Jackson” and John Lennon was angrily affirming his solidarity with the rioting victims of “Attica State” prison, Mingus titled one of his pieces “Remember Rockefeller At Attica”, making sleeve-note comment about the late Vice President’s decision to send troops into the Penitentiary to quell a riot – killing both prisoners and troopers. ‘Rockefeller’ he notes ‘is a very dangerous man.’ An earlier composition similarly snipes derisively at the racist Governor of Arkansas who presided over the Little Rock Crisis, in “Fables Of (Governor) Faubus”. The same awareness provoked other such inflammatory titles as “Free Cell Block F” and the pointed accusation “‘Tis Nazi USA”.

But his protests went beyond rhetoric. A ‘Beneath The Underdog’ conversation quotes Fats Navarro as saying ‘we (blacks) are just work-ants. He (whites) owns the magazines, agencies, record companies, and all the joints that sell Jazz to the public. If you won’t sell out and you try to fight they won’t hire you and they give a bad picture of you with that false publicity.’ So Mingus set about attempting to circumvent the machine. He taped a historic Toronto Massey Hall gig 15 May 1953 boasting a line-up of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker – masquerading as ‘Charlie Chan’ to avoid litigation from Mercury Records, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Mingus himself, playing so ‘right’ that it’s easy to forget he’s there at all – to the extent that he chose to later overdub his bass parts in the studio. It was a euphorically chaotic event – Gillespie clowning and moving offstage at intervals to check the latest developments of a Rocky Marciano boxing match, yelling out the crucial lyrical message ‘Salt Peanuts! Salt Peanuts!’ to the rafters, Bud Powell – fresh out of Long Island Sanatorium following Electric Shock treatment, drunk from the first number on, and Bird – who’d forgotten his horn, playing a white plastic alto lent by a sympathetic local music store.

Mingus salvaged the resulting soundtrack and put it out as the first release on his own ‘Debut’ record label. Although intended as a commercial venture the label quickly hit distribution problems and went bust, selling its masters to Fantasy-Prestige in Berkeley where they remain on catalogue, but not before it had lain foundations for subsequent projects in artist-control such as the 1966 ‘SRP’ (Self-Reliance Project) label founded by Milford Graves and Mingus-alumni pianist Don Pullen. Mingus even launched a second label himself, founding ‘Bethlehem’ in 1967 as a mail-order operation – releasing his fine ‘East Coasting’ album as Bethlehem BCP6019, until he was later forced to sell it to CBS.

(Three) It was, however, as a composer and leader that Charles Mingus excelled. His ‘workshops’ were created from the same self-help ethos, and they had a flawless history of figuring in the careers of many forming jazzmen. Musicians such as John Handy, sax-player Shafi Hadi, Charles McPherson, Paul Bley, Jackie McLean, the excellent Booker Ervin, and others. Nat Hentoff who recorded Mingus as an A&R man in the early-sixties (with Eric Dolphy and Ted Curzon on the sessions), sleeve-noted that ‘Charles wants you to play what he writes, but he wants you to do it your way. He won’t stand for coasting, and he does not suffer careless mistakes lightly.’

While still living in Watts, Mingus had studied compositional theory with Lloyd Reese (who later instructed Eric Dolphy), working out his ideas on piano, and although he wrote the beautiful “The Chill Of Death” (1939) at seventeen, he had to wait three decades to get it onto record (on his ‘Let My Children Hear Music’ LP, CBS 64715). Instead, his first recorded composition was “Mingus Fingers” cut for Decca under the auspices of the Lionel Hampton group in 1946 (he played with Hampton 1946 to 1948). The first Composers Workshop was founded at Brooklyn’s Putnam Central Club. And the ‘Workshop’ project coincided with his swing from ‘pencil (written) composition’ to spontaneous improvisations with the workshop experimental groups. Learning that ‘a wrong note doesn’t completely throw me. I can make something out of it that’s right. In a way, there are no wrong notes.’ And despite his fierce racial pride he openly acknowledged influences ranging from Arab to Spanish music. A 1954 Realm album ‘Jazz Composers Workshop No.1’ – featuring ex-Julliard tenor-player Teo Macero, later a CBS staff producer for artists such as Miles Davis, betrays ‘Mingus love of polyphony in embryo’ – as detected by Philip Larkin, while he was simultaneously experimenting with fingering and chordal notions picked up while studying Segovia records. All of the influences came together into Mingus Jazz Quintets playing the Café Bohemia at the Greenwich Village Eighth and Ninety-Second Street intersection throughout 1956, and the YHMA sponsored Music Of Our Time street concerts.

His first album to achieve real Jazz acceptance – ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’ (1956, Atlantic 1237, reissued as 587-131), was a quintet Jazz tone poem in four movements. A hauntingly impressionist piece. A career turning-point on which Mingus inspired saxophonist Jackie McLean to produce a ‘wild and blue voice within the ensemble playing.’ The improvisational basis of Jazz has proved problematic for writers and arrangers since its inception – scores from those of the Paul Whiteman to the Mike Westbrook Bands are meticulously charted with spaces of finite duration for improvised passages, a kind of premeditated still-life spontaneity. Duke Ellington, by contrast, wrote his scores around the known abilities of his familiar soloists. Mingus had first heard Ellington – and his influential double-bass player Jimmy Blanton, on the radio when he was thirteen, telling writer Richard Williams ‘I turned on the radio and heard something that I loved, and followed it until I found out where it was’ (‘Melody Maker’, 12 August 1972).

He got to work briefly in the Ellington band in 1953 but was ‘asked to quit’ after a violent dispute with an arranger after Mingus raised his solo an octave above that specified, so the ‘bass isn’t too muddy’. His respect for Ellington remained untarnished despite this glitch – and later appeared on the Duke’s ‘Money Jungle’ (1962, United Artists UAJS15017) album, while listing his personal pantheon as ‘Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Duke, Bird and Art (Tatum)’. Mingus went on to tribute Ellington in compositions “Duke’s Choice” and “Pussy Cat Dues” before, and “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” after Duke’s death, while the thumbprint of Ellington’s influence is that most readily identifiable in his own compositional style. The difference in attitudes was that Mingus scored with the soloists often-unrealised potential in mind, not their known limitations, hence the quality of discovery in McLeans playing on ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’. Mingus utilised spontaneous composition, wrote scores on ‘mental charts’, giving sidemen general rundowns of his requirements orally – or often as not hollered across the stage!, leaving them considerable freedom in the selection of phrases played during ensemble passages, while setting and directing the mood of his soloists by regulating what went on around them.

Following the album’s success Mingus formed a more permanent group for touring and recording purposes, including long-standing drummer Dannie Richmond, an ex-R&B tenorist and occasional Rock drummer, the Texan Booker Ervin (tenor) whose raw emotional playing was an early influence on the Jazz-Soul of the sixties, Eric Dolphy who played bass clarinet on John Coltrane’s proto-Indo-Jazz fusion set “India” (1963), but who died of a heart attack in West Berlin in 1964, plus pianist Don Pullen who reached his widest audiences through the Mingus groups. Inevitably, other musicians passed through. Small-group albums emerged, ‘Tijuana Moods’ (1957, RCA 7514, LSA 3117), a move into Latin Americanisms with hoarse vocal encouragements from Mingus himself, ‘Blues And Roots’ (1958, Atlantic 1305/ K50232) with Ervin’s sax burning through “Moanin’” and “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, and ‘Tonight At Noon’ (1964, Atlantic 1416) with Roland Kirk guesting, followed by a period of experiments with large-scale compositions such as ‘The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady’ (1963, Impulse! A35) – one long 39:25-minute piece divided into six ‘movements’ described by Philip Larkin as ‘a furious pretentious plumcake of sound’, including “Hearts Beat And Shades Of Physical Embrace” vaguely based around the ‘Tristan And Isolde’ love duet, plus various recordings of the 22:48-minute “Meditations On Integration” (1964), done live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and in Paris as part of the posthumously-issued ‘Revenge!’ (1996, Revenge 32002) album.

Such ventures saw Charles Mingus gaining recognition as a composer, acquiring a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and graduating a year later to lead a twenty-three-piece orchestra for special performances of his more ambitious pieces at the Philharmonic Hall, or as part of the 1972 Newport Festival. His early music had predicted much of what was to be achieved by the BeBop revolution, and he was just as aggressive in his pursuit of the New Wave avant garde, utilising hair-raising neck-snapping tempo shifts and accelerations, volcanic climaxes, multiple simultaneous soloing, dissonance and counterpoint, yet stopping short of the brink of total free-form by retaining melodic anchors sunk deep into Ellingtonia. Never quite abandoning bar-lines and harmonic sequences, the tempo changes were always unexpected – but supremely logical.

He wrote the score for John Cassavetes poorly-received Beat Generation movie ‘Shadows’ (1959) which dealt with racial issues, and incidental music for a London-based noir movie version of ‘Othello’ called ‘All Night Long’ (1962) with Tubby Hayes, John Dankworth and Dave Brubeck. His final movie score was for Elio Petri’s political drama ‘Todo Modo’ (1976, aka ‘One Way Or Another’), this ‘fantasia’ adapted onto the ‘Cumbia And Jazz Fusion’ (1977, Atlantic) album. It was as a composer that he hoped to gain real recognition, with individual stand-out pieces such as “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” for Lester Young, “Celia” for his then-wife, “Reincarnation Of A Lovebird” for Charlie Parker, plus “Alice’s Wonderland”, “All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother” – with a cryptic dedication to ‘all mothers’, and “No Private Income Blues” which all form a significant and durable catalogue of his music on vinyl.

(Four) His influence as an instrumentalist is more difficult to gauge, particularly as the double-bass has since lost ground in favour of the electric bass – but his legacy can still be felt in the freedom extended to this – traditionally, part of the rhythm section. At the age of eight he got a Sears Roebuck trombone which his father traded in for a cello after some non-productive lessons. He was taught by a door-to-door part-conman part-musician, despite which he achieved a level of proficiency that enabled him to join the Jordan High School Symphony Orchestra, and play Beethoven with the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic Orchestra – getting beaten-up after rehearsals by neighbourhood kids, but always dragged the cello behind him. It was Buddy Collette, a friend and local Swing Band musician who enlightened him to the realities, saying ‘you’re black. You’ll never make it in classical music no matter how good you are. You want to play, you gotta play a negro instrument.’ So he switched to double-bass, rapidly developing amazing speed and skills on the instrument despite the then-pervasive idea that it should only be used to ‘keep time’. Ellington’s bassist Jimmy Blanton had pioneered its ‘liberation’, but Mingus aimed ‘at scaring all the other bass players’, driving himself relentlessly to become a virtuoso by eighteen.

He played High-School dates with Red Callender, jammed with Art Tatum, played with Lee Young – Lester’s brother, and eventually pacted with Lionel Hampton, making his first trip to New York with the band – although ‘all he saw of it was underground.’ From pure technical dexterity he began to emphasise emotion and empathy, evolving an almost vocalised tone, reaching perhaps the apex of his innovatory creativity on the Atlantic sessions, touring Europe with his groups in 1960, then 1964, 1970 and 1972. His style is difficult to pigeonhole, as befits a man who – at various stages of his career, had shared stages with as diverse musicians as Kid Ory, Roland Kirk and Charlie Parker – appearing in Bird’s disastrous 1955 ‘come-back’ at ‘Birdland’, ludicrously and beautifully described by Ross Russell in the ‘Bird Lives’ autobiography (Quartet Books, ISBN 0-704-33094-6). A determinedly eclectic musician, he resolved styles and periods to create something inimitably his own, sometimes thoughtful and romantic, but just as easily sharp and audacious with a controlled ferocity. He told Nat Hentoff that ‘some of them say I have no soul. Maybe I have a different kind of soul. I don’t want to act any parts, to worry myself about being hip. I’m only concerned with communicating what I feel.’

Charles Mingus was a large man physically and intellectually. A man shot-full of human contradictions. Physically impressive enough to dominate any stage he was dropped down onto, playing music of almost classical purity, he never lapsed into the confectionary nature of the more acceptable ‘chamber Jazz’ or ‘Third Stream’ ventures. His music never became commodity – even to the extent that Duke Ellington’s became commodity – none of his albums sold more than 50,000 copies, with sales averaging out around 15,000 per disc. He was a man whose hatred of racial stereotypes didn’t stop him playing up the Black sexual athlete mythos in his autobiography – a man capable of fucking twenty-six Mexican whores in a single two-and-a-half hour debauch, and fusing the incident – related in an unusual third person form, intro one of the most intense accounts of the Black experience since Eldridge Cleaver’s ‘Soul On Ice’ (1968). Exposing the vulnerability beneath the thin skin of bravura.

In the music press around the time Mingus’ death was being written up in the Jazz pages, the more garishly sensational death of Sid Vicious was not only being splashed lavishly across the Rock pages, but across the tabloid dailies too. The exact contemporary equation has yet to be formulated.

Research material also includes:

Jazz Masters Of The Fifties’ by J Goldberg (MacMillan, 1965) chapter on Mingus

Melody Maker’ (12 August 1972) Mingus interview by Richard Williams, plus various ‘Melody Maker’ reviews

The Jazz Scene’ by Francis Newton (Penguin, 1959)

Jazz’ by Arrigo Polillo (Paul Hamlyn, 1967)

‘The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Jazz’ by Brian Case and Stan Britt (Salamander Books, 1978)

with selected Discography that includes:

Jazz Composers Workshop’ (1954-1955, Savoy) combining two earlier albums, ‘Moods Of Mingus’ with sessions released on the ‘Wally Cirilli And Bobby Scott’ LP

Improvisations For Piano, Bass And Drums’ (1956, Vogue ten-inch LP LDE) as by Paul Bley, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey, originally issued in 1954 as ‘Introducing Paul Bley’ (Debut Records DLP7) with ‘Spontaneous Combustion’, ‘Split Kick’, ‘Can’t Get Started’ etc

Pithecanthropus Erectus’ (1956, Atlantic) with Charles Mingus (bass), Jackie McLean (alto saxophone), JR (Jr) Monterose (tenor saxophone), Mal Waldron (piano), Willie Jones (drums), with Tom Dowd recording engineer

Jazz Portraits: Mingus In Wonderland’ (1959, United Artists UA ULP 1004) recorded live at the NYC Nonagon Art Gallery, with ‘No Private Income Blues’, Mingus with John Handy (alto sax), Booker Ervin (tenor sax), Richard Wyands (piano), Dannie Richmond (drums)

Blues And Roots’ (1960, Atlantic SD1305) on the sleeve-notes Mingus writes ‘I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I’ve grown up and I like to do things other than just swing. But Blues can do more than just swing’, with ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’, ‘Cryin’ Blues’ and ‘Moanin’’

Mingus Ah Um’ (1959, Columbia) his first album for Columbia, issued in an art-abstract cover by S Neil Fujita, includes ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ for Lester Young, ‘Self-Portrait In Three Colours’ originally intended for the ‘Shadows’ soundtrack, and ‘Fables Of Faubus’

Mingus Dynasty’ (1960, Columbia CBS BPG 62261), includes ‘Gunslinging Bird’, intended as a warning to Charlie Parker copyists over the romanticised lure of drug addiction, originally titled ‘If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats’

Mingus Revisited’ aka ‘Pre-Bird’ (1961, Mercury SMWL 21056) a Mingus tribute to his pre-Bop influences, including Duke Ellington, produced by Leonard Feather, with Max Roach (drums), Ted Curson and Clark Terry (trumpets), Eric Dolphy (alto sax and flute), Booker Ervin (sax), Dannie Richmond (drums) and Paul Bley (piano)

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus’ (1961, Candid Records, America 30 AM6082) issued on writer Nat Hentoff’s label, recorded with spoken introductions although it’s a studio recording, and including politically explicit spoken-word call-and-response passages between Mingus and Dannie Richmond to ‘Original Faubus Fables’ that Columbia supposedly refused to permit on the ‘Mingus Ah Um’ version. Musicians are Mingus, Ted Curson (trumpet), Eric Dolphy (alto sax and bass clarinet), Dannie Richmond (drums)

Mingus, Oh Yeah’ (1962, Atlantic, London HAK8007) unusual in that Mingus plays piano throughout, and sings on three tracks, with Booker Ervin (tenor sax), Rahsaan Roland Kirk (flute, siren, tenor sax, manzello, strich), Jimmy Knepper (trombone), Doug Watkins (bass), Dannie Richmond, produced by Nesuhi Ertegün with Tom Dowd as engineer

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus’ (1964, Impulse A54), a Mingus collaboration with arranger Bob Hammer for large brass and sax ensembles, includes ‘Theme For Lester Young’ aka ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’ and a version of ‘Better Get Hit In Yo’ Soul’ from ‘Mingus Ah Um’

Mingus Moves’ (1973, Atlantic 50-040), re-united with dummer Dannie Richmond after several years, with ‘Canon’ and ‘Opus 3’ which harks back to ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’

Mingus At Carnegie Hall’ (1974, Atlantic 1667-0698), two long tracks, one per side, Duke Ellington’s ‘C-Jam Blues’ and ‘Perdido’ (by Juan Tizol), with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Don Pullen (piano), Dannie Richmond, John Handy (tenor and alto sax), Charles MsPherson (alto sax)

Changes One’ and ‘Changes Two’ (1974, Atlantic SD 1677/8) with ‘Rockefeller At Attica’, ‘Tis Nazi USA’ and ‘Free Cell Block F’, ‘Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love’, ‘For Harry Carney’

Mingus’ by Joni Mitchell (1979, Asylum Records) the final Charles Mingus project, recorded in the months before his death, is a collaboration with Joni Mitchell who adds lyrics to four Mingus compositions including ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ with musicians Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Jaco Pastorius

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