Tuesday, 23 June 2015


Charles Mingus was like many highly talented individuals who are not only near genius but also fatally flawed human beings. John Lennon springs to mind, Ludwig Van Beethoven another. Mingus had a violent temper. Anecdotes abound where the bassist used his fists when so moved by what he perceived as 'bad playing' on the part of band members. Jimmy Knepper lost a tooth once at the hands of Mingus following a punch to the mouth. The act of violence was bad enough but the fact of Knepper losing his crown and the tooth remains by which the crown fitted meant a loss of embouchure which in turn lead to a dip in career earnings when the trombonist could no longer play the top octave. 

Another to suffer at Charles Mingus legendary rages was Eric Dolphy who, having taken a punch to the forehead had a large lump form which remained in place for ages after the event. Mingus even insulted fans and audiences alike by telling them to shut up when he was playing. He was decades in advance of John Lydon when taunting fans although with Mingus it was more a case of unseemly annoyance at people paying good money to hear him and his band play only then to discuss how great he was whilst talking over the great music he was making.

What I find amazing about those murderous acts of rage was the manner in which the aggrieved forgave the aggressor. It was almost as if those on the end of the fist, those carrying the bruises, knew in their hearts that not only was this a man unique in so many ways but also that his mood swings were as much a part of that process, much as both he and they disliked them, as was his rare talent for creating such music in the first place.

I think what attracts me to characters like this, their output and possible genius, to one side, is due to their flaws. It makes me realise that they, if a lot more talented, share the same human frailties as me. Perhaps I seek this connection as it somehow deflects all my bad faults, spreads them generously like some mutual back slap.

As with so much I have posted here in the last however many years, Mingus is relatively new to me. Unlike Beefheart, Beethoven or Miles Davis whose work I have enjoyed for a great many years, it is only in the last ten, a little less in fact, that I have grown to like the music Charles made.

Reading from others I take much of what they say on board. The manner in which favourable comparison to Duke Ellington is made is, a little obvious perhaps, understandable. Mingus shared that ability to hold together, write for, large ensembles, without loss of purpose or coherence. He also ranks high, as do Zappa, Bernstein, Ellington and aforementioned Beefheart, as not just a great composer but a great composer of purely American music.

One piece I particularly like that highlights comments made by positive critiques is of course "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."  It has that tight, syncopated brass that punches notes out with sharp ebullience but by act of constraint allows the melody to course its way through whilst being punctuated by gospel like chants. Mingus claimed that it was Ellington and the church who were his main inspirations. 

I could, more out of sheer bloody mindedness, disagree with all those comments made by those who know far more than I about jazz, about the part Charles Mingus played in that genre, but I wont. Why would I? As far as I can see virtually all that's been said, apart from a few ill placed words, have been true.

He was a force of nature. Flawed, feisty, fearless and forever pushing the boundaries of not only what his band could play but his own abilities.

His was a grumbling, growling sound born of a time when progression mixed with ease of listening without compromise. He played with all those energetic souls keen to bring something new, something vital and vibrant to jazz in the nineteen fifties. He played with the likes of the mercurial Parker, the Warpsmith fast .Gillespie, the ever elegant Davis but also Art Tatum (why play one note when a hundred is better) and of course his idol, Duke Ellington.

He brewed together gospel, traditional jazz and the spark of Be-Bop, a musical flavour that was as spunky as it was elusive; as devilish as it was godly. His was not so much a fusion but a commitment to the purity of music transcending genres, while still faithful to them, and all at the same time. He pushed that envelope as far as it could go.

"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 three hundred scores. Although he wrote his first concert piece, “Half-Mast Inhibition,” when he was seventeen years old, it was not recorded until twenty years later by a 22-piece orchestra with Gunther Schuller conducting. It was the presentation of “Revelations” which combined jazz and classical idioms, at the 1955 Brandeis Festival of the Creative Arts, that established him as one of the foremost jazz composers of his day."

Such a testimonial. Such a man. A man born in Arizona in nineteen twenty two. A man who settled down in New York City when New York City was the city to live in. It matched the thrust and energy of Mingus. It, like he, was the focal point of the new world where art and artists were challenging empires along with methods before inventing their own. He was as much a part of that as was William Burroughs in literature or Marc Chagall was to art.

Mingus was like that white who when asked what he thought of black people said - "I don't know, I haven't met them all."  Mingus didn't skim the surface of things but delved deeper. It is this that elevated him above so many. This constant seeking for personal truth.

Like so many who change so much their lives are short lived. Perhaps it has something to do with burning so much energy so fast.  He died in Mexico in nineteen seventy nine. He was just fifty six.

At least he lived. I for one am thankful he did.



Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog