Charles Mingus, the great jazz composer, remembers: NPR
Charles Mingus is one of the greatest jazz artists of the 20th century. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday on April 22.
“Charles Mingus is one of our most important thinkers and composers,” says Wynton Marsalis, who will conduct two concerts honoring the composer at Lincoln Center. “He touched on many foundations of jazz and American music, from the roots to the most sophisticated forms.”
A lonely childhood
Born to mixed-race parents in Nogales, Arizona, Mingus grew up in Los Angeles. His mother died when he was only four months old. In a 1962 interview, Mingus notes that he was light-skinned; it didn’t fit black, white, or Mexican kids in school. He played trombone, then cello, but switched to bass at age 16 because, at the time, it was impossible for a black person to find work playing classical music.
In the interview, he said his father, who was an army sergeant, never liked him.
“I never had a father idea or image,” he said. “Everything that was wrong, he spilled it, you know? I never felt love in my family. I had no one to say how I’m supposed to be. He didn’t even tell me Never told the world as it was. He never said anything about black or white. He never told me.
Mingus’ upbringing shaped his music. He was a strong civil rights advocate, using his music to make political statements. He wrote that his 1956 song, “Pithecanthropus Erectus” was about the first man to stand, who beat his chest, then sought to enslave the others.
His 1959 song, “Fables de Faubus”, was written as a protest against the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, who sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine black teenagers.
The angry man of jazz
Mingus draws on traditions ranging from ragtime to avant-garde, and his compositions express an equally wide range of emotions. In 1962 he told his record producer Nehusi Ertegun that the reason his music always changed was that he always changed.
“I can play a sad thing, you know that because you’re used to it. I can play an angry tune, GRRRRR. I can play happy little songs like I do with my baby, you know? That’s all kinds of emotions to play in the music but what I’m trying to play is very difficult because I’m trying to play the truth of who I am.”
Mingus had a well-known temper. Nicknamed “The Angry Man of Jazz”, at the bandstand, he demanded perfection. He fired sidemen in the middle of a gig. He once punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth and ruined his mouthpiece. Another time he smashed his $2,000 bass when he angrily threw it off stage.
At one point, Mingus voluntarily checked himself into Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital..
Gene Santoro, author of Myself When I’m Real, The Life and Music of Charles Mingus, said Mingus was not mad; he just liked to shake things up.
“If a set was going really well,” he said, “if there weren’t places where he would start yelling at people and doing things, he would come out of the bandstand upset He would rather have the set break down, or have it broken down and turned into a performance with the unexpected.”
Wynton Marsalis says Mingus’ music – with its shifting shapes and varying time signatures – is hard to play, but it should be played – because the music and the message are important.
“Mingus had a lofty vision for the future,” he said. “He always wanted our world and our country to live up to the promises of equality that our country was one of the first to make and mean to the majority of people. And we still struggle with that because it’s not not easy to believe in the freedom of others.”
Charles Mingus suffered from Lou Gherig’s disease in the 1970s. He died aged 56 in 1979. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges.
In New York this weekend, the celebration of the centenary of Charles Mingus will take place at Lincoln Center – which says it will mix “swinging hard bop, Afro-Latin grooves and deeply felt blues”.