When we talk about jazz, and famous jazz musicians, and we listen to and examine trios, quartets, and even larger groups, discussion usually centers on the pianist, the horn players, or drummers. Forced to take a back seat are the bass players, yet they are often the anchor that holds the group together.
I took an unofficial reader’s poll in last week’s #BlackMusicSunday piece on Thelonious Monk, asking which instrument to cover this week, and much to my surprise, the bass got the most votes. So today, and next Sunday, bassists will be making their bows, though not often picking up their bows. We’ll start with “Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, with his fingas, on the bass,” which is a line from a poem about Charlie Mingus, which I heard performed by New York poet performance artist T. Rasul Murray many years ago.
Given what we have been going through with an open white supremacist ensconced in the White House and refusing to leave, I thought it would be apt to open with Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” which was his take on the staunch segregationist governor of Alabama, Orval Faubus.
In 1957, Faubus forced the use of federal troops to desegregate Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School.
The lyrics speak for themselves.
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone who's ridiculous, Dannie.
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won't permit integrated schools.
Then he's a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremacists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)
Name me a handful that's ridiculous, Dannie Richmond.
Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate.
Were Mingus still alive today, I’m sure he’d have some music to indict Trump, his clan, and his racist gubernatorial and senatorial enablers.
Mingus was born on April 22, 1922, and died Jan. 5, 1979. The Charles Mingus website maintains his legacy; content includes a biography and Mingus’ complete discography.
One of the most important figures in 20th century American music, Charles Mingus was a virtuoso bass player, accomplished pianist, bandleader and composer. Born on a military base in Nogales, Arizona in 1922 and raised in Watts, California, his earliest musical influences came from the church—choir and group singing—and from "hearing Duke Ellington over the radio when [he] was eight years old." He studied double bass and composition in a formal way (five years with H. Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and compositional techniques with the legendary Lloyd Reese) while absorbing vernacular music from the great jazz masters first-hand. His early professional experience, in the 1940s, found him touring with bands like Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and Lionel Hampton.
Eventually he settled in New York where he played and recorded with the leading musicians of the 1950s—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Duke Ellington himself. One of the few bassists to do so, Mingus quickly developed as a leader of musicians. He was also an accomplished pianist who could have made a career playing that instrument. By the mid-50s, he had formed his own publishing and recording companies to protect and document his growing repertoire of original music. He also founded the Jazz Workshop, a group which enabled young composers to have their new works performed in concert and on recordings.
Mingus soon found himself at the forefront of the avant-garde. His recordings bear witness to the extraordinarily creative body of work that followed. They include: Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, Tijuana Moods, Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Ah Um, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, Let My Children Hear Music. He recorded over a hundred albums and wrote over 300 scores.
Mingus’ story is also told in the documentary, Triumph of the Underdog—a title which echoes the title of his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog.
Charles Mingus--Triumph of the Underdog is the first comprehensive documentary about jazz bassist, bandleader, and composer Charles Mingus. Mingus led a tumultuous life filled with trauma and frustration, joy and creativity. Not light enough to be considered white and not dark enough to fit into the black community, he was an outcast in American society who charted his own path. Likewise, his legacy as a 20th century composer reaches far beyond conventional jazz idioms.
Mingus apprenticed with people like Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Charlie Parker before going out on his own and becoming a musical force for more than a decade. When interest in his music waned at the height of the rock era in the mid-1960s, and one of his closest collaborators, Eric Dolphy, died, Mingus was institutionalized due to psychological problems. Upon his return to the music scene, he began playing more concerts and his record sales zoomed. This golden period of recognition ended when he contracted Lou Gehrig's Disease and his muscles began to deteriorate. He died in 1979.
His autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, made waves when it was first published in 1971.
Bass player extraordinaire Charles Mingus, (was) one of the essential composers in the history of jazz, and Beneath the Underdog, his celebrated, wild, funny, demonic, anguished, shocking, and profoundly moving memoir, is the greatest autobiography ever written by a jazz musician.
It tells of his God-haunted childhood in Watts during the 1920s and 1930s; his outcast adolescent years; his apprenticeship, not only with jazzmen but also with pimps, hookers, junkies, and hoodlums; and his golden years in New York City with such legendary figures as Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. Here is Mingus in his own words, from shabby roadhouses to fabulous estates, from the psychiatric wards of Bellevue to worlds of mysticism and solitude, but for all his travels never straying too far, always returning to music.
You will either love this book or hate it. It is raunchy, gritty, honest, sex-laden, and sad in many ways.
Probably one of the most interesting biographical takes on Mingus, the man and his music, is more recent: Nichole Rustin-Paschal’s The Kind of Man I Am: Jazzmasculinity and the World of Charles Mingus Jr., which was published in 2017.
Nearly four decades after his death, Charles Mingus Jr. remains one of the least understood and most recognized jazz composers and musicians of our time. Mingus's ideas about music, racial identity, and masculinity―as well as those of other individuals in his circle, like Celia Mingus, Hazel Scott, and Joni Mitchell―challenged jazz itself as a model of freedom, inclusion, creativity, and emotional expressivity. Drawing on archival records, published memoirs, and previously conducted interviews, The Kind of Man I Am uses Mingus as a lens through which to craft a gendered cultural history of postwar jazz culture. This book challenges the persisting narrative of Mingus as jazz's "Angry Man" by examining the ways the language of emotion has been used in jazz as shorthand for competing ideas about masculinity, authenticity, performance, and authority.
As a person who has taught gender studies, this book piqued my interest, since Rustin-Paschal not only addresses Mingus, but also the erasure of women in jazz like Hazel Scott, who I wrote about in October.
Often acclaimed as the greatest jazz bassist, Mingus was and always will be a figure of controversy, as Adam Shatz wrote for The Nation in 2013.
It enraged him that Miles (Davis) and the hard boppers had been given credit for his innovations. It enraged him even more when Ornette (Coleman) blew into town with his plastic yellow saxophone, pianoless quartet and ideology of collective improvisation, launching the free jazz revolution and attracting nearly as many imitators as Charlie Parker. Ornette and his followers, Mingus complained to (biographer John) Goodman, were like surgeons who couldn’t retrace their steps: “if I’m a surgeon, am I going to cut you open ‘by heart,’ just free-form it, you know? … I’m not avant-garde, no. I don’t throw rocks and stones, I don’t throw my paint.” Still, Mingus knew a good idea when he heard one. His 1960 session Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus features a pianoless quartet that ventured even further from Mingus’s melodies than Coleman did from his, as if Mingus were bent on proving that he was more modern than the avant-garde. Whatever moved Mingus ended up in his music, whether it was the mariachi he heard on his trips to brothels south of the border and included in Tijuana Moods, recorded in 1957, or the experimental tape music of his 1962 self-portrait “Passions of a Man,” in which he overdubbed himself mumbling in an unintelligible made-up language while his band invoked half-remembered fragments of other Mingus compositions, taking us deep inside the funhouse of his unconscious. [...]
Mingus’s reverence for the tradition—and his mockery of free jazz musicians as unschooled dilettantes—made it easy to mistake him for a conservative: a “black Stan Kenton,” in the dismissive phrase of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), the high priest of black nationalist jazz critics. In fact, Mingus’s music was precisely the kind of vernacular modernism that Baraka had championed in his 1963 study Blues People, as well as a textbook illustration of his argument that black musical styles, however superficially divergent, were joined at the hip by a blues impulse that Baraka called “the changing same.” Like Baraka, Mingus viewed music as a surrogate church for black Americans. “James Brown was their church,” he told Goodman, “but they got a church in jazz, too. As long as there’s the blues.” Blues feeling saturates Mingus’s work: as Sy Johnson notes, “it’s always got its feet in the dirt.” His music immerses us in the blues rituals of black American life, while at the same time depicting them from a warm and playful distance.
Enjoy “Wednesday Night Prayer Service,” from 1960’s Blues & Roots.
As a person who was raised on (and loves) the poetry and short stories of Langston Hughes, it wasn’t until recently that I became aware of the fact that in 1958, Mingus collaborated with Hughes on an album.
Two years after Hughes read “Jazz as Communication” at the Newport Jazz Festival, he collaborated with Feather’s All-Star Sextet and Mingus and the Horace Parlan Quintet on an album first released as The Weary Blues. It has recently been re-released by Fingertips as Harlem in Vogue—22 tracks of Hughes reading poems like “The Weary Blues,” “Blues at Dawn,” and “Same in Blues/Comment on Curb” (top) over original compositions by Feather and Mingus, with six additional tracks of Hughes reading solo and two original songs by Bob Dorough with the Bob Dorough Quintet. (Mingus plays bass on tracks 11-18.)
Here’s “Double G Train.”
One of Mingus’ compositions that always touches me is his 1959 tribute to saxophonist Lester Young, known in the jazz world as “Prez,” whose sartorial signature was his hat.
In a 1963 re-release, Mingus renamed the song “Theme for Lester Young.”
One would not normally put the name of Charlie Mingus together with that of Joni Mitchell, and yet, toward the end of his life, he reached out to Mitchell, to initiate an unlikely collaboration: adding lyrics to the Lester Young tribute.
Jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote about the collaboration at the time for the Los Angeles Times.
Word reached her a couple of years ago that Mingus had something in mind for her to do. When she called him, Mingus told her that he had an idea for a piece of music based on an excerpt from TS Elliot's "Four Quartets," with a full orchestra, and overlaid on it a bass and guitar, with a reader quoting Elliot. "He wanted me to distil Elliot down into street language, and sing it mixed with this reader. "Though Mitchell was fascinated by the idea, and spent time reading the Elliot book, she decided that it was not feasible - "I called Charles back and told him I couldn't do it; it seemed like a kind of sacrilege."
In April 1977, Mingus called with the news that he had written six songs with her in mind, and wanted her to write words for them and sing them. "I went to visit him and liked him immediately. He was already sick and in a wheelchair, but still very vital and concerned. "We started searching through his material, and he said, 'Now this one has five different melodies.' I said, 'You mean you want me to write five different sets of lyrics?' He said yes, then put one on and it was the fastest boogie-est thing I'd ever heard, and it was impossible! So this was like a joke on me; he was testing and teasing me, but in good fun."
Mitchell made several visits to the Mingus home in New York, listening to some of the his older themes on records as well as discussing the newer works and his lyrical ideas for them. "Then, because he had become very seriously ill, he and his wife Sue went to Mexico, to a faith healer, and during that time I spent 10 days with them. At that point his speech had deteriorated severely. Every night he would say to me, 'I want to talk to you about the music,' and every day it would be too difficult. So some of what he had to tell me remained a mystery.
"Sue gave me a lot of tapes and interviews, and they were thrilling to me, because so much of what he felt and described was kindred to my own feelings. He articulated lessons that were laid on him by Fats Navarro, the trumpeter, and others."
Mingus ultimately succumbed to ALS in 1979.
Mingus was sheer genius, and whether or not he ranks as your favorite jazz bassist, he will always be regarded as seminal in the history of jazz. Wherever you are, Charlie—take a bow.
Stay tuned next Sunday for more bassists, including Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, and Esperanza Spaulding!