The Genius of Charles Mingus

#5 On My Facebook List of Albums Vital To Me

It was some time in the mid ‘70s that I heard Charles Mingus live at The Village Gate in New York. I’m sorry to say that I never saw him play before or after that one date. He was a musician I held in awe, one whose records I played repeatedly and whose stature grew larger and deeper the more I listened to them. He started that set at The Gate in his very particular and [in]famous way, by demanding silence from the audience. On one of his albums you can hear it: “No talking. No pushing of chairs. No shaking the ice in your glasses.” Mingus was demanding, of his musicians and of his audience, and he had no interest in being a nightclub entertainer. He was a serious classical/jazz musician who, he insisted, should have been playing in concert halls. He was right. And today, as occasionally in his lifetime, that is where his music is played.

Later that night, I got to stand right beside him when he was otherwise alone and offstage, but I was too intimidated even to suggest to him how much I loved and admired his music. He was tall and barrel-chested, with huge hands and a wide, imposing face, and I didn’t know how to strike up a conversation with genius. And besides, we were standing at adjoining urinals during his break.

I was a little surprised by a few of my Facebook friends who gave a Like to my choice of Mingus, Ah Um. I had no idea that some of them followed jazz, much less that some would know Mingus’s work. Even though many critics have recognized his brilliance as a bass player, band leader, and composer, and even though he has a cult following to this day, twenty-one years after his death from ALS, not every jazz fan is a Charles Mingus fan. He was sometimes too raucous; in his later work, he sometimes went overboard with strange harmonics; and he sometimes too avidly promoted the idiosyncrasies of Eric Dolphy, probably Mingus’s favorite reed player. Those (including Dolphy) are among three of the things I most love about Mingus, but they are also the things that lost him some audience, even while he became one of the most highly respected figures in “jazz.”

Mingus Ah Um contains great elements representative of all his small-band compositions and musicianship: driving rhythms; haunting melodies; horn arrangements that make a septet sound like an orchestra; Danny Richmond’s propulsive drumming; the energy and fine funk of Horace Parlan’s piano; and, always Mingus’s bass playing, which earned him the moniker “The Boss” (long before Springsteen came along). In addition, there are the horn solos–especially John Handy’s and Booker Ervin’s–that once again show that great players, when they work with Mingus, play their greatest. And there are the hand-claps, the chants, and Mingus’s sung cues that the rest of the band immediately follows, moving into the next phrase of the arrangement, the sometimes surprising but always perfectly fitting section of the composition. 

There’s tremendous variety on the album, showing off the range of Mingus’s heart, the masterfulness of his skills as a composer, and the reverence he had for so many of his jazz predecessors. The opening jubilance of “Better Get It In Your Soul,” is followed by the sweet mournfulness of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” Mingus’s paean to the great saxophonist Lester Young. Moves like that, from jubilation to eulogy, continue, as do the tributes–to Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington, in whose big band Mingus played for a while–and whom Mingus revered. 

Mingus Ah Um is not the only album that turned my head and heart to Mingus. There was also Oh, Yeah, recorded live at The Jazz Workshop. It contains, one per side, only two pieces: “New Fables” and “Meditations for a Pair of Wirecutters.” Bothare remarkable, one an expression of contempt and rage, the other of sorrow and despair, and both about civil rights and setbacks. There was The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a poem and, to me, a ballet that I wish had been choreographed by someone by now. But as I write this, listening to Mingus Ah Um once again, there is little doubt that it was his first record to surprise and delight me so greatly that I would go on to make Mingus an ongoing source of musical joy. 

I would also go on to read critical analyses of his work and articles about his musical evolution, his bands, and his exploits on and off the stage. He was a tempestuous personality. I would read and reread his memoir, Beneath the Underdog, which helped me understand his music, his intelligence, his creativity, his rage, his tenderness, and the modern history of racism in America. He made me know about vital aspects of music, of creativity, and of the kind of passionate commitment that genius seems always to demand.

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