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“He got so heavy that the bass was something he just slung over his shoulder like a duffel bag, hardly noticing the weight. The bigger he got, the smaller the bass became…Mingus played it like he was wrestling, getting at the neck, and plucking strings like guts…Then he’d touch the strings as softly as a bee landing on the pink petals of an African flower growing some place no one had ever been. When he bowed it he made the bass sound like the humming of a thousand-strong congregation in church.” – from Geoff Dyer’s novel But Beautiful
CHARLES MINGUS was born in 1922 in Los Angeles of mixed ancestry, a background that can only have reinforced feelings of persecution, and a sense of ‘not belonging’ – either socially or musically – is writ large throughout his life. At all times Mingus was deeply sensitive and had a tendency to dramatise his own experiences, exacerbated by his legendary bad temper. As a child he learnt the trombone and ‘cello, and, when he was sixteen, took up the double bass. As a teenager his teacher was Red Callender, one of the first black bassists to get regular work as a studio session musician, and studied with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and Mingus developed a formidable technique. Also he received formal lessons in composition.
Mingus served a professional apprenticeship in Central Avenue, LA’s equivalent of New York’s 52nd Street, starting to play there regularly in 1941. He played with Barney Bigard, even Louis Armstrong (although he was upset with Armstrong’s compromise with the white dominated entertainment circus), Kid Ory and, in the late 1940s, Lionel Hampton; but he began to receive critical acclaim only when with the Red Norvo trio in 1950 and 1951. In 1952 he founded Debut Records with Max Roach, releasing early Jazz Workshop recordings and the famous Massey Hall concert with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. He worshipped Parker’s style and technique, yet found Parker a complex and ultimately disappointing character (he even titled a composition If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats as a riposte to Parker’s legacy of self-destruction). He subbed briefly in Duke Ellington’s band in 1953, but a fight on the bandstand granted him the rare honour of being fired personally by Ellington. With Teo Macero, Teddy Charles and others, Mingus formed the Jazz Composers’ Workshop, and Mingus started his own workshop ensemble in 1955 as his compositional style developed, and his ensembles ranged from 4 to 11 players. His first great album, Pithecanthropus Erectus, was released in 1956, and this heralded a decade of significant recordings, including Mingus Ah Um in 1959, and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (his psychotherapist provided the liner notes) and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus in 1963.
Mingus attempted to disentangle himself from economic dependence on the white commercial jazz world in the 1960s, but ultimately failed. With Max Roach he promoted an alternative to the Newport Jazz Festival, from which the Jazz Artists’ Guild – an attempt to allow jazzmen to promote their own business – emerged. A 1962 New York big band concert failed, as did Charles Mingus, his new label, after only a clutch of releases in 1964 and 1965, and he failed to publish his autobiography. In 1966, in dire economic circumstances and troubled by psychological problems, Mingus became reclusive and eventually withdrew from public life. Thomas Reichman’s classic 1968 film Mingus documented his eviction from his New York apartment, Mingus clearly in a haphazard state, filmed firing his gun in his apartment, children present. He returned to work in 1969. His autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, was published eventually in 1971, and in that year he was granted a Guggenheim fellowship for composition. More albums, work and travel followed this new success.
In 1977 Mingus was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and a year later he was confined to a wheelchair. He died in 1979. His legacy is continued by his wife, Sue (who he married in 1966, Allen Ginsberg officiating), through reissues and the Mingus Dynasty, eventually to be known as the Mingus Big Band, a group of alumni headed by Danny Richmond.
As a bass player Mingus was as dramatic as his personality, covering a great breadth of styles with a sound technique and full tone. He combined the traditional bass line, providing the harmonic foundation, a style developed by Jimmy Blanton with Ellington, with complex bop harmonies and improvised counter-melodies. He developed his “conversational” approach of playing in the 1960s through his work with Eric Dolphy.
Mingus’ early influence was the uninhibited music of his local Holiness Church which he attended as a boy with his stepmother: there he heard blues drenched vocal improvisations, unrestrained vibrato, moaning, call and responses. Later the music of Duke Ellington was to have a profound influence, particularly in compositional techniques. Mingus was a Janus figure. He combined New Orleans jazz, blues and gospel in a bebop setting, and at the same time prepared the way for Miles Davis’s modal work (with his use of pedal points and ostinati patterns) and free jazz (with his rhythmic and ensemble devices). His greatest achievement as a composer was to destroy the distinction between improvisation and composition. Mingus grew away from the use of musical notation, which he found inadequate, and developed the technique of dictating lines to each player individually, even prescribing the style of improvisation. Like Ellington, who in Brian Priestley’s words was “cannibalizing his musicians’ very souls,” Mingus personalised each voice in his ensemble, achieving in bop terms what Ellington had done with swing-style musicians. Mingus loved non-standard chorus structures; he loved dissonance and dense low-pitched sonorities; and, above all, shifting tempos and meters; at all times he sought to combine spontaneity with composed complexity.
When confronted with a nightclub audience’s noise,
Mingus stopped his band and loudly chastised the audience,
stating “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit.“