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Tom Reney’s writings delve into the history and mystery of jazz, blues, and beyond. The Jazz à la Mode Blog has plenty to stimulate your interest and curiosity in American music.

The Charles Mingus Centennial

Charles Mingus in New York City on July 4, 1976.
Tom Marcello
Creative Commons
Charles Mingus in New York City on July 4, 1976.

The closest I ever came to meeting Charles Mingus was when I followed him up the stairs of the Jazz Workshop in Boston on a wintry Sunday afternoon in 1972. He’d just finished his matinee set, and as he headed out to Boylston Street in a belted, butterscotch-brown leather coat, he slipped on the icy sidewalk. My friend Nic and I scrambled to support him, but Mingus regained his balance on his own. The ensuing moment did not seem right for an admiring line of introduction from either of us, so we moved on in wonder over what we'd just witnessed on the bandstand and off.

I saw Mingus a few times afterwards, but that afternoon at the Workshop was the most memorable, and it was the finest from a musical standpoint as well. On that occasion, the pianist arrived late, so the show began with Mingus at the keyboard. Dannie Richmond was on drums, Lonnie Hillyer on trumpet, Charles McPherson on alto, and Bobby Jones played tenor and clarinet. Once the pianist, John Foster, arrived looking harried in a jacket that resembled a Boston bus driver’s, Mingus played bass from a stool at the front of the bandstand, though he stopped the music and returned to the keyboard a couple of times to illustrate something he wanted the pianist to play.

I was two years underage at the time, but my 6’2” height and a pair of sunglasses that I wore indoors got me through the door. From there I was served the most expensive drink I’d ever purchased, and in the intimate space of the Workshop, I gloried in the experience of seeing this musical giant only an arm’s length away.

(Here's Mingus in 1964 with pianist Jaki Byard, trumpeter Johnny Coles, bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, and drummer Dannie Richmond.)

As significant as it was seeing Mingus in person, had I come to know him, like I know Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, only through recordings, I’ve little doubt that he would have been an important figure in my life. Mingus arrived at that moment when my adolescent instincts toward rebellion and individuation needed a galvanizing figure, and he was it.

Jackie McLean, who began playing with Mingus when he was a 24-year-old, said “Mingus gave me my exploration papers." In an interview I conducted with Harold Bloom in New Haven in 2003, I was surprised to learn that the renowned literary critic enjoyed a friendship with Mingus. Bloom said of him, “Mingus doesn't break with the tradition, but he's really trying to turn the whole tradition into Mingus.”

I reveled in the challenge presented by Mingus’ music, which fascinated me with its deep blues expressiveness, its use of dissonance and atonality, shifting time-signatures and sudden changes in tempo, and its experiments with form. Mingus' music conveyed a wide array of moods and emotions, the lyrical juxtaposed with the sardonic in the political "Fables of Faubus," and in outlandish works like "Eat That Chicken.”

I identified with the intense personal cry at the heart of his music; his outspoken opposition to racism and the war in Vietnam; and his efforts to address the inequities of the world, which in his case often revolved around disputes with the music business.

As if his music weren’t enough, Mingus was also a psychological open book. Through his liner note essays, his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, and the documentary, Mingus in Greenwich Village, which I've watched numerous times, I learned of his emotional volatility, and the archetypal way he tended to frame his vulnerability.

For instance, Beneath the Underdog begins with Mingus likening himself to the Trinity.
“IN OTHER WORDS, I AM THREE. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there’s an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t—he goes back inside himself.”

April 22 is Charles Mingus’ 100th birthday anniversary. I’ve been heartened by how prominent his music has remained since his death in 1979, largely through the work his widow Sue Graham Mingus has undertaken to perpetuate his legacy. Graham established Mingus Dynasty around 40 years ago, and subsequently formed the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Orchestra. These ensembles have kept Mingus’ music alive on record and bandstands, and the Big Band appeared weekly for over a decade at the Fez Café in New York. Graham has seen to the release of numerous concert recordings by Mingus as well. The latest is a 1972 performance at Ronnie Scott’s in London that’s been released in a lavish volume by Resonance Records. Every artist should have such a guardian.

Gunther Schuller was a champion of Mingus' music and an occasional conductor of the Mingus Orchestra. The paucity of fanfare the Mingus centennial has garnered reminds me of a 2005 interview with Schuller in which he said, “Far too many people do not know that [Mingus] is one of the greatest jazz composers.” In other words, beyond the bands dedicated to his legacy, too little of Mingus’s music is played by other jazz artists, and it’s completely absent from the repertoire of symphony orchestras, notwithstanding such accomplished through-composed works as “The Chill of Death,” “Revelations,” and “Half-Mast Inhibition.” Ellington’s “Harlem” and “Black Brown and Beige” may be little played, but they’re in the symphonic canon, even if only for Black History Month. But it's not so yet with Mingus.

Schuller considers Mingus second only to Duke Ellington in the realm of jazz composers, but while Duke’s compositional output dwarfs Mingus’ in number, Mingus’ music often feels more personal and encompassing of a wider emotional and topical range than Duke’s. In Tom Reichman’s film, MINGUS IN GREENWICH VILLAGE, which documents Mingus’ eviction from his New York loft in 1966 and includes footage of his quintet playing at Lennie’s-on-the-Pike in Peabody, Mass, the bassist carries on a monologue about his frustrated efforts to open a music school and other matters relating to sex, race, guns, and Nazism. At one point, he offers an insight into his own cosmological ambitions when he says that “people go to Mass so that they can touch death-- in life.”

Mingus touched on death and the weighty matters of the human condition in works such as “Epitaph,” “Passions of a Man,” “Weird Nightmare,” and “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too.” But no matter how complex and ambitious his music got, he didn’t stray too far or too long from the vernacular of the blues, the music of the Pentecostal churches of his youth, and the swing that fueled his passion to play music in the first place. This is not apparent in everything he composed, but sooner or later he returns to these first principles, and it gives his subjective vision its universal resonance. And it’s kept me coming back to his glorious music for over 50 years. Long live what he asked us to call it: Mingus Music.  

Tom was honored by the Jazz Journalists Association with the Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Award for Career Excellence in Broadcasting in 2019. In addition to hosting Jazz à la Mode since 1984, Tom writes the jazz blog and produces the Jazz Beat podcast at NEPM. He began working in jazz radio in 1977 at WCUW, a community-licensed radio station in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tom holds a BA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he majored in English and African American Studies.