At the beginning of his unruly autobiography Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus explains himself to an unnamed psychiatrist:
“In other words, I am three. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there’s an ever-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing himself and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t—he goes back inside himself.”
“Which one is real?”
“They’re all real.”
That sounds more or less accurate, and even though I hate to disagree with such a great man, he might be giving himself both too much and too little credit. I mean, august W.E.B. Du Bois once talked about Black folks in America having a “double consciousness” due to being inevitably seen through the eyes of others, so Mingus having a threefold consciousness is really saying something. Then again, it is hard to conceive of any of the usual terms applying to any part of Mingus’s life and work. “The angry man of jazz” was always breaking out of whatever categories, musical or otherwise, that the world wanted to shove his iconoclastic genius into.
Outsized in physique, talent, and ambition Mingus took on the whole of jazz tradition and kept winning until his cruelly paralyzing death from ALS in 1979, in his mid-50s. This year would have been Mingus’s 100th birthday and even if he didn’t live that long he certainly gave us a century’s worth of music; we’re still reeling from the astonishing amount of quality music in the archive, which is, especially considering the adverse circumstances of any jazz musician let alone one as idiosyncratic as Mingus, simply awe-inspiring in sheer depth and scope. A couple of excellent recent releases — a 1974 Carnegie Hall concert and a lost tape from a 1972 London show at the legendary club Ronnie Scott’s — demonstrate how much he culled from the roil within.
The Norman Mailer of jazz, mercurial Mingus was always shape-shifting, never settling on one genre, tone, style, or mood for very long. Just when he’d mastered a particular form or assembled a stellar lineup of heavy hitters, before he risked the possibility of getting comfortable he instantly demanded a radical change. Mingus’s whole life was a perpetual metamorphosis fueled by a perpetual refusal to settle. It’s not just a case of compositional ADD or wild mood swings (though Mingus certainly had his share of both) it’s that Mingus seemed to take it as a point of pride to drive himself and whatever crack band he was working with hard, in order to climb ever higher and steeper aesthetic plateaus, only to behold fresh vistas of musical and social imagination.
An unavoidable issue that Mingus struggled with all his life, and a very timely concern in our hyper-political times, is the complexities of race and racism in America. Race is a fiction that nevertheless writes the script of too much of American life. Mingus did his best to flip it. The story of Mingus’s actual ancestral roots tends to change depending on who you ask, but Mingus was evidently part Black, part Chinese, part white, and possibly any number of other things.
Being mixed race was evidently one of the reasons why he often felt on the outside of whatever group that was around. If you watch the documentary Triumph of the Underdog, he remembers what the schoolyard bullies called him, and suffice to say that it’s unprintable. He sometimes described himself as always being too Black to be white and too white to be Black. This anguished mental state was clearly not an easy space to inhabit, especially in the tightly normative world of midcentury America, but that mélange of experiences and intersecting narratives is exactly what makes Mingus as American as anyone.
It may be apocryphal, but I tend to believe the story that young Mingus was getting picked on all the time at school for being different and fighting so much that he was eventually taken to the school psychologist. The results of an IQ test informed him that apparently he was a genius and so don’t let the other kids get him down. If anything, I think the story illustrates the essential contradictions that fueled the vision: his immense skill contending with his volatility, deep vulnerability balancing roiling anger, and sarcastic wit wrapped in an iron pride.
Life ain’t easy for any musician (just ask, they’ll tell you) but it’s notoriously tough for jazz musicians. The often long, wordless, complex music doesn’t have the easy absorption of your average three-minute singalong pop tune. Mingus certainly intended to rouse and captivate his audiences, but that became increasingly harder to do as rock and roll started to take over the airwaves in the ’50s and ’60s. Every performer wants to get people to listen. And it isn’t always the easiest thing to do when playing a complex, intricate tune amid the bustle of a crowded, smoky nightclub with drinks clinking and talk circulating, made worse when the paying audience (which is, needless to say, tends to be predominantly white) is expecting to be entertained rather than challenged or confronted.
Jazz’s vital reliance on improvisation and teamwork makes it harder to phone it in, as plenty of successful pop bands tend to do whenever they want the easy money of a legacy tour. You’ve got to be totally present, utterly in the pocket, with all synapses firing fully and precisely to play good jazz, let alone court exquisitely orchestrated chaos with a mercurial Mingus as ringmaster night after night. This is probably why his musicians tended to stick with him despite all the macho bullshit: all that berating, the smashed stuff, the punchouts, and all the rest of it. Mingus played an already demanding music to its fullest extent, and this made the people around him better, upping their game by keeping them on edge. That’s a test that only a few can pass; many are called but few are chosen
Genius that he was, Mingus did the first crucial thing that all artists must do and mastered the forms that he inherited from his musical ancestors, especially Duke Ellington. Then he proceeded to take them apart with dissonance, free improvisation, poetry, and genre-bending. A natural if temperamental leader, the number of gifted musicians he collaborated with is remarkable. In true jazz style, their story cannot be told without his story, and his story is inseparable from theirs. Mingus often willfully confronted his audiences, demanding the tribute of fully paid attention, (“Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit”) and, in return, he and his crew gave them what they had, which was big helpings of everything.
So now that we’ve had some time to let his legend grow and his reputation develop and we take his greatness for granted, let’s give him the attention he deserves, shall we? Friends, newbies, fans, and the idly curious are all invited to pull up a chair, light something up and/or pour yourself a drink and lend the mighty Mingus your ears. Here follows a selection of some of my favorite Mingus tunes, with a few supplemental texts offered as guides to the perplexed. Of course, a playlist like this could never hope to be comprehensive given the man’s vast output, but at least it might offer a tasty sampler of the multifaceted world of Charles Mingus.
This one never fails to get things going. Pepper Adams’s meaty baritone sax crackles with all kinds of attitude, matched with approving grunts and exclamations from Mingus, and before we know it the door is swung open onto a strutting, raucous, joyful celebration. The great Jackie McLean swaps solos with the great Booker Ervin, both of whom went on to enjoy distinguished careers as bandleaders.
There’s more than a hint of swing music, with those happy hands and feet sailing gracefully through the air, but there’s a twist. It’s swing that’s caffeinated, modernized with a double shot of avant-garde freedom, where the concentrated energy of the ’30s gets down and dirty with the frenetic bebop of the ’50s. Not to be confused with a wonderful tune of the same name from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. That one has a superb, soulful groove, but this breakdown of what Mingus and crew are up to in this song ably illustrates how Mingus takes it to whole other place.
This was my first Mingus record, evangelized by a musician friend way back in High School, and it never gets old. I’m so glad there’s film footage of the show. Again, this one swings like hell, but it’s also got the crucial element of eccentricity. Dissonant, avant-garde shredding comes courtesy of poor Eric Dolphy, who pushed the sound of jazz even further out before his tragically untimely demise. It took me more than a few listens to get into him, but once I did I couldn’t listen to anything else for some time. Mingus loved the soft-spoken, ascetic Dolphy and their collaboration is a rich mix of opposite personalities.
There is plenty of the church’s exuberant call and response, a gospel of musical fellowship is being enacted. I love stomps and hand claps in songs in general, and this has one of the best I’ve ever heard. When everyone suddenly just stops playing and starts rhythmically clapping, it gives me chills every time. Gotta keep your soloists on their toes. I also love how in the last minute or two the whole thing sounds like it’s about to fall completely apart, swerving under the pressure of its own momentum, with Mingus’s stalwart drummer Dannie Richmond keeping the vibe going all by himself with an absolutely virtuosic solo. Mingus once described his relationship with Richmond as a barrage of taunts and insults mixed with profound love, the kind that sustains a fruitful musical relationship for decades.
You know the cliched image of the lonely, junkie jazzman who slouches in the corner of the room over whorls of cigarette smoke, wearing a great hat, uttering his own indecipherable slang that only the hippest of the hip can hear? That’s Lester Young, except he wasn’t putting anyone on. He was just that cool. I’ve also heard that he is the source for that word becoming a slang term and that he was reputedly the first person to ever smoke Jack Kerouac up. True or not, that’s the kind of guy he was. It was he who nicknamed his platonic soulmate Billie Holiday “Lady Day” and she nicknamed him “Prez,” as in President, which is what they were, in their own unique ways, especially when they worked together. When he died, this is what Mingus wrote in his honor. It’s the sexiest elegy I’ve ever heard.
So, imagine you’re finally in the room with your hero, a musical lodestar for generations of musicians, who deeply appreciate having such an elegant and brilliant Black man like Duke Ellington to look up to — the nickname alone clues you in on his whole vibe. And he wants to make a record with you (!!!) in order to prove that he’s still got what it takes to keep up with the young bloods of the early ’60’s. Which, I mean, like, obviously. The very notion that Duke Ellington should have to prove anything is absurd.
The only other person in the studio is an equally feisty, radical, and brilliant drummer named Max Roach. What’s more, the two of you have beef, which is only exacerbated by the fact that you’re both about to jam with none other than DUKE FUCKING ELLINGTON, the man you both respect the most in the world. As a rule nobody outplays you anyway, let alone in front of Him. So Duke tells you both to start thinking about the petty cruelties and outrages of trying to make a living in dog-eat-dog America: crooked promoters, bigot landlords, and all the rest of it. Roll tape.
After the hurricane, a gentle reprieve. Here’s how Duke Ellington described it:
One number, in particular, was as close to spontaneity as you can get, I believe. I explained what we were going to do, with no thought as to what they were going to do. I said, “now we are in the center of a jungle, and for two hundred miles in any direction, no man has ever been. And right in the center of this jungle, put in the deep moss, there’s a tiny flower growing, the most fragile thing that’s ever grown. It’s God-made and untouched and this is going to be ‘The Little African Flower.’ I started to play, and we played to the end, and that was it. People like Mingus and Roach, they are so imaginative, and I thought this was the greatest example of it. Everybody gave his own little impression of this little number, though it’s possibly a little surrealistic.”
It’s an embarrassment of riches, but I would argue that this is Mingus’s magnum opus. Everything that makes his music great is in here. A synchronized but loose orchestra aches and throbs and swings and always aims directly for the soul by way of the gut, and vice versa, expertly changing tempos and moods and tones whenever necessary. A balletic movement is punctuated by what sounds like a car jam in midtown Manhattan and then swoons like a crane shot kiss on a midnight rooftop and then we have whirling Spanish-laced guitar interludes which give way to a weeping, wailing dirge motif and then finishes with a rousing climax that restates the main theme, rejuvenating the whole ensemble. Mingus explicitly said that it was intended for dancing and for listening, so I hope someone out there choreographs a dance routine to this as soon as possible and puts it up on YouTube so we can all bask in its war-torn whimsicality.
The liner notes were partially written by Mingus’s psychiatrist during a stay at Bellevue, who suggests that the music is Charles’ way of lamenting being existentially alone and needing love and wanting to fight off all the vicious forces of hate in the world, which is about as good an explanation as any. Emily Dickinson once defined poetry as “when I feel as though the top of my head were taken off” which works, too.
This is what we talk about when we say that Mingus never stopped confronting American racism. In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orvil Faubus (who had his own personal armored tank) refused to follow the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate and called in the Arkansas National Guard to stop integrating a High School.
One sly way to mock your enemies is to portray them as cartoonish buffoons, and this is exactly what Governor Faubus (“The first, or second, or third All-American heel”) sounds like courtesy of the bouncy, pratfalling melody. Mingus and Dannie Richmond gleefully and mock-pompously call out the infrastructure of white supremacy that stands between full citizenship and participation in American life. “Why is he so sick / and ridiculous / He won’t permit us in his schools . . . then he’s a fooool!” The much lengthier version from a few years later at Cornell University, in the tumultuous year of 1964 no less, includes witty quotes from jingoistic musical doggerel that refine Mingus’s point about the difference between what America is and what it likes to say about itself.
This was by no means a one-off dabble in searing social commentary, either. Try “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” or the hymnlike “Freedom” or his brooding “Meditations on Integration.” I also think it’s highly appropriate that none other than Chuck D from Public Enemy would read from the autobiography as well.
There’s an old joke that a couple in the ’50s is having problems communicating so they go to a jazz show and argue over the bass solo. I’ve always found it a little ironic that such an assertive fellow like Mingus would choose to play the humble bass, of all things, which isn’t as sonically aggressive as a horn or a piano. The utter change in scale would be a little like Freddie Mercury singing folk songs or Walt Whitman writing haiku. Yet somehow he makes that bassline drive the rest of the band by leading, as it were, from behind.
This signature tune is a prime example of how Mingus is able to create tension and momentum while soloing on what is usually a rhythm instrument while letting each of his collaborators get their chance to shine. I love how deftly they switch between loud and quiet dynamics, between intensity and ease. Mingus once explained that the song was inspired by brooding about racism and his crew play hard enough that there will be no doubt by the end who is really in control of things.
This mordant little parable features an almost delirious circuslike ambiance and a reading by none other than Jean Shephard, a hip NYC radio host best known as the narrator of the classic film A Christmas Story. There is a lot you can take from this simple premise: insights about the perils of self-expression, the racial implications, a commentary on the subtle vulnerability of the performer, the relentless need to satisfy the market’s expectations. Duke Ellington once performed it as a tribute to Mingus, which must have been something to see.
Again, Mingus mixes it up. Playing solo piano, stripping away all the fervor and ornamentation of his orchestra and offering a kind of soliloquy. Just a thoughtful, sensitive man sitting alone thinking out loud through each note, finding rhythms and melodies that sing and sparkle for a moment, and then disappear. Meditative. Maybe the band wasn’t it; maybe in his solitude is when he felt most like himself.
It’s a good song and everything, but it merits inclusion because of the title alone. And the fact that one time, when I was on the train heading into the city for a weekend of debauchery with friends, these sounds in the headphones perfectly melded my inner and outer states. Don’t you just love it when that happens?
One of his best solos, I think, and another lovely piece of music inspired by Duke. As I hope I’ve been able to show, Mingus had a gentle side to him that didn’t always get the chance to be held up to public scrutiny. Maybe he was so pugilistic because he had to protect himself from a cold world, or because he still had the wounds of insecurity from childhood, or because he needed to be seen to be in control at all times in order to keep it all together. Whatever it was that drove him, he was never afraid to let his sensitive side show, which really is true strength; the structural integrity of a cobweb.
How great is it that a wheelchair-bound Mingus personally requested to make a record with none other than the great Joni Mitchell? Apparently, he liked her voice, and why wouldn’t he? Here’s a sleek cut from the record, which isn’t necessarily a masterpiece but a worthy listen for obvious reasons. Mingus fought for every breath, every second of music, never letting his need to create and collaborate fail him, even if his body was slowly going under. There’s inspiration for you.
Who says that music from such a mercurial fellow has to be all strum und drang? According to his friend the writer Fran Liebowitz, Mingus had a legendary appetite, and the way he romps through this rollicking tune certainly backs it up. Everyone is having a ball, putting a little New Orleans sizzle in those trombones, and the convivial vibe is like a family barbecue after everybody’s had a few drinks. So go ahead, eat that damn chicken. It’s good for ya.•