Introducing a Charles Mingus decade – the flowering of a jazz genius

The truth of what I am

“I’m going to keep on getting through and finding out the kind of man I am through my music. That’s the one place I can be free.” – Mingus in conversation with Nat Hentoff (A Musician Beyond Category – From Gadfly April 1999)“In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.” -Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus playing at the Bi Centenial, Lower Manhattan July 4, 1976. Photo by Tom Marcello via Wikipedia

This is the first in a series of articles which will explore some of the music Charles Mingus recorded in the astonishing decade in which he emerged from being a sideman of note and great virtuosity to being a composer and leader of imposing stature. Of course this decade includes that incredible year for jazz, 1959, during which Mingus was involved with four major releases as leader.

The decade in question is from the incredible Jazz at Massey Hall of May 1953 to the Jazz Workshop recording Right Now of June 1964, a period in which he was involved in some 30 releases. OK, so it’s a year more than a decade but you get the idea – it’s a convenient period starting and ending with very different and very great live recordings (there will be a couple more live recording thrown into the mix as we go along). I will concentrate to some extent on numbers that recur throughout these recording to give an idea of the growth and change that Mingus insisted on throughout his life.

First just a little about Mr Charles Mingus, a towering genius of jazz.

He was born 22 April 1922 at a US Army base in Nogales, Arizona and grew up in Watts, Los Angeles, where his mother fed him a diet of church music and his grandmother took him to a Holiness church in Watts where he was exposed to the crying, moaning and singing of the church people.

He told Nat Hentoff about this musical background: “All the music I heard when I was a very young child was church music. My family went to the Methodist church; in addition, my stepmother would take me to the Holiness church and other such churches.

“The blues was in the churches—moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher.”

In his genes he carried a wide cultural mix of Chinese, English, Swedish and African American, but the blues seem to have been central to his music over the years. It comes out in almost everything he recorded in one form or another.

From a relatively early age he became interested in jazz, most especially the musician who for most of his life was his idol, Duke Ellington. In 1943 he toured with Louis Armstrong and later played in Lionel Hampton’s band, in a trio with Red Norvo and Tal Farlow before joining, for a brief and shining moment, the orchestra of his idol, Ellington. Here his tempestuous temper led to his being allegedly the only musician (although Sidney Bechet might also have been) to be fired by the Duke.

Mingus increasingly demanded respect for his music, becoming intolerant of audiences who did not pay sufficient attention to the music. He once said to a nightclub audience when the clinking of ice in glasses was distracting him: “Isaac Stern (the great classical violinist) doesn’t have to put up with this shit!”

His famous temper led him into many difficulties with club owners, fans and even fellow-musicians. He once famously hit trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth, causing damage to Knepper’s embouchure and leading to a court case.

Mingus was a larger-than-life personality who could inspire both awe and fear. He also struggled all his life with a weight problem, shedding and re-gaining weight regularly.

He contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) which is caused by the degeneration of the motor neurons, those nerve cells in the central nervous system which control voluntary muscle movement. The loss of muscle activity leads to atrophy of all the muscles and the loss of the ability to initiate and control voluntary movement. The body wastes away, while the mind is still unimpaired, so patients can literally watch themselves slowly die.

Even after he was unable to play, Mingus continued to compose and supervise recording, but was unable to complete a project with Joni Mitchell.

He died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1979, where he had gone with his wife Sue in search of a cure or at least a palliative for the disease that was so cruelly taking away everything he had lived for as a musician.

A look at some important albums

Nat Hentoff, in the same article quoted at the start of this post, said of Mingus: “The reason Mingus reached so many people around the world was the depth—sometimes the explosive depth—of his expressions, his emotions.”

In the posts that follow I will try to look into those depths and see in them what it is that stirs me, and I hope will stir you, to the depth of my being. As Mingus said, “Music is, or was, a language of the emotions.”

In the articles which follow I will look in a bit more detail at some of the more important recordings of this most creative and growthful decade in Mingus’s life. Of course, this is my personal selection and is based on the recordings that I have access to and knowledge of. Others might argue for a different selection, and that’s jazz for you – always something different and new.

The albums I am going to examine (not necessarily in separate posts) in this series are:

Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)

The Charles Mingus Quintet with Max Roach (1955)

Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956)

Mingus in Wonderland (1959)

Blues and Roots (1959)

Mingus Ah Um (1959)

Mingus Dynasty (1959)

Mingus at Antibes (1960)

Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus (1960)

Tijuana Moods (1962)

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

Right Now (1964)

The first article in the series will look at the first three albums and will be called “Massey Hall to Pithecanthropus.”

The second article will look at the famous 1959 albums, delving in a bit more detail into Mingus Dynasty..

The third article will take the two important 1960 albums.

The fourth article will look at Tijuana Moods, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Right Now, taking us up to 1964.

© Text copyright Tony McGregor 2011