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Mingus: Finding Beauty in the Edges of the Imagination

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Some composers and musicians are purists, intent on remaining in a specific tradition without altering it greatly. Others are, for lack of a better term, “musical anarchists” intent on destroying every rule and barrier set before them. Finally there are those who fall far from either extreme, but more importantly are able to hold to various traditions while simultaneously challenging them. Charles Mingus is someone that can be considered a member of this third group. A musical renaissance man, Mingus could be as comfortable following contrapuntal rules as he could deconstructing the jazz structures of his contemporaries. He truly was an individual without boundaries to his imagination, and it was his curiosity that set him apart. In order to truly understand, rather begin to understand, the music Charles wrote, one must study his life. It is this concept that this post will focus on, taking both Mingus’ biography and his music and attempt to construct a portrait of the man’s creativity.

Charles Mingus (officially Charles Mingus Jr.) was born April 22, 1922 at an Army base located in Nogales, Arizona, but was raised primarily in Watts, California (Mingus and Homzy 5). Mingus’ early exposure to music was of a religious nature, namely because his step-mother forbade any other music in the home (Priestley 3). The irony is that, in spite of this ban, Charles found other music to listen to (as is often the case for children growing up in strict households looking for a release). Of this music, i.e. jazz, Duke Ellington had the most lasting impression on the young Mingus (Mingus remarked once that he heard “Duke Ellington over the radio when” he “was eight years old (Mingus and Homzy 5).” Many years later Charles Mingus would write the jazz symphony Epitaph, which in many ways showed a nod to Ellington’s epic Black, Brown, and Beige as it nearly rivaled the work in significance). Initially Mingus pursued cello as his main instrument, but he did not know how to read music in his early music years which greatly inhibited his study (Priestley 5). Mingus also faced resistance playing the cello due to the fact that he was black, and in that time African-Americans were not embraced by the classical world (Mingus would spend his entire life as a civil rights activist, both in word and in song, a course solidified by his early experiences with racism) (Priestley 5-8). Eventually Mingus moved onto what would become his most famous played instrument, the double bass (this change occurred in high school. Mingus stated that he did not switch to double-bass by choice necessarily, but rather out of necessity. Buddy Collette’s band needed a bass player, and the only way Mingus could gig with him was by playing bass) (Priestley 8-10). The irony is, his technique on the cello was able to be applied to the double-bass, which helped establish Mingus as somewhat of a prodigy on the instrument (namely the virtuosity required for cello). His formal bass teacher was Herman Reinshagen (first bass for the New York Philharmonic) whom Mingus studied with for five years (Mingus and Homzy 5).

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In addition Mingus also took composition lessons with Lloyd Reese, a composer known teaching some of the greatest minds in music. Mingus stated about composition “I marvel at composition, at people who are able to take diatonic scales, chromatics, 12-tone scales, or even quarter-tone scales. I admire anyone who can come up with something original. But not originality alone (Mingus, “What is a Jazz Composer?”).” He further stated the influence Lloyd Reese had on his compositions, “Part of the reason I am a composer is that I studied composition with Lloyd Reese. Lloyd Reese taught Eric Dolphy; Harry Carney also studied with him and so did Ben Webster and Buddy Collette, to name a few. Art Tatum highly recommended him. When Art found out I was studying with Lloyd, he asked me to come and play for him. Lloyd Reese was a master musician; he knew jazz and all the fundamentals of music from the beginning. (He used to be the first alto player in Les Height’s band.) And he could play anything (Mingus, “What is a Jazz Composer?”).”

Even before his studies with Reese, Mingus demonstrated a unique aptitude for composition, both in imagination and product. As a teenager, Charles wrote numerous compositions, many of which would later be performed and recorded. Stylistically these compositions fell into the Third Stream genre. The composer Gunther Schuller defined Third Stream as “a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music,” incorporating idiosyncrasies reflective of both genres.   It is doubtful Mingus intended doing this at such an early age, but his influences from classical and jazz most likely caused this fusion (Mingus and Homzy 5). This deduction can be made due to the fact that Mingus treated composers like Debussy, Stravinsky and Strauss as influences. Coupled with his frequent jazz playing (even in his youth), it was inevitable that Charles would write music that used the Third Stream compositional language.

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As Mingus’ reputation as a bass virtuoso spread among the jazz world, he landed some important gigs. Some of these jobs included playing (in the touring band) with Louis Armstrong in 1943, as well as regular gigs with Lionel Hampton’s group (which was advantageous for Mingus because Hampton liked his compositions and recorded them) (Priestley 25). Charles Mingus was so celebrated as a bassist in this time that he earned a spot in Duke Ellington’s band as a temporary replacement for Wendell Marshall. Unfortunately, Mingus had throughout his life an intense temper, and that cost him his job in the band (which is tragic as Ellington was responsible for Mingus’ earliest music memories). He remains one of the few individuals to be personally fired by Duke Ellington, this occurred following an onstage altercation with band trombonist Juan Tizol (this incident, as was alluded to earlier, did not change Mingus’ approach to anger. He was known to yell at audiences and get into fistfights with other musicians) (Priestly 50-51).

Eventually Charles Mingus moved to New York City to continue his career in music. The first significant occurrence in this career phase was the founding of Debut Records. Charles Mingus started this record label (along with virtuoso drummer Max Roach) to give himself creative freedom (sometimes his subject matter, like racism, was disliked by record labels) (Priestley 61-62). What Debut Records became known for was being a label for new jazz artists, as well as releasing works by bebop legends (one such record included Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach. This was an ill-fated group due to Parker and Powell’s substance abuse) (Priestly 62). Besides the record label, Charles Mingus continued his work as a band leader which he began doing in Los Angeles. Notably Charles worked with a group he formed called the Jazz Workshop. The group tended to contain about 10 members (at the least 8), with such members including Charles McPherson, Pepper Adams and many others. Mingus’ goal with the Jazz Workshop was to push musicians beyond their limits, especially when it came to improvisation. Due to this heavy emphasis on improv, it is quite possible that the Jazz Workshop was an unofficial precursor to the avant-garde and free jazz movements. Even though Mingus was demanding (some musicians called the Jazz Workshop a “sweatshop”), many musicians credit the group with expanding their respective instrumental abilities (Priestly 72).

As was alluded to in the previous paragraph, Mingus’ work with Jazz Workshop was a beckoning to jazz’s avant-garde. In the years that would follow (starting in 1956), Mingus would go on to create truly adventurous and experimental works. The albums that these works existed on were Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, Tijuana Moods, Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Ah Um, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, and Let My Children Hear Music (Mingus and Homzy 5).

While there are significant works on all of these aforementioned albums, there are certain pieces that will be explored further. The first of these pieces is “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” from the album The Clown. Mingus stated about the song “It has a little bit of what Charlie Parker did, but usually when I write something about Monk or Bird, I’m not trying to write the way they write, I just write my interpretation of my feeling for them and their feeling for me. As for the name, I was doing a benefit for Bird at Carnegie Hall and somebody said they saw a feather fall. I wrote a poem about that (Mingus and Homzy 124).”  The piece utilizes the rather common AABA song structure, but Charles does not allow this to restrict his artistic vision. In fact, the AABA structure is the only “normal” component within “Reincarnation of a Lovebird.”

The first abstract concept to note about this piece is that it is written in the key of f # minor. The reality is, most jazz works are not written in this key (and even more interesting is the fact that some instrument parts are written in g minor, possibly due to difficulties certain musicians had playing “Reincarnation of a Lovebird”) (Mingus and Homzy 124).  One other point of interest with this piece is the melody, namely the reach of said melody. Most melodies remain within an octave, two octaves if transposing the melody to a higher register (this could be for a number of reasons, be it the rules of strict counterpoint or numerous other traditional writing methods). Such examples of melodies within this intervallic span are the themes to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave and numerous others. With “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” the melody extends beyond these boundaries, specifically more than two octaves which is rather unusual.

While abstract, musicologist and composer Andrew Homzy has stated that “the melodic line” of the song “must be counted among the most inviting yet challenging themes in all of jazz.” Homzy goes on to state the melody to “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” is reminiscent “of the development and exploration of line (sic.) found in Lennie Tristano’s music…and, unlike many bop tunes of the period, it is more than ‘remembered improvised figures’ assembled within a popular song structure (Mingus and Homzy 124).”

The next analyzed piece, “Tonight at Noon,” falls into the avant-garde period of albums listed earlier in the paper (although technically it was created during The Clown and Oh Yeah album sessions, it never made it on those albums, instead it was released on the self-titled record “Tonight at Noon”) (Mingus and Homzy 141). Once again Charles Mingus drew from personal experiences when crafting this piece. He once said about the work’s background, “Our nights didn’t begin until after noon. Because in the old days, you’d start Birdland at 8:30 or 9 pm and 4 in the morning. Then you’d go out to the corner  and talk to a couple of musicians-I used to talk to Oscar Pettiford a whole lot-you’d stand there till 7, 8 or 9, or else go down to the jam session at Minton’s. The name is like Midnight Sun-except Lionel Hampton stole that title from me (Mingus and Homzy 141).”

 “Tonight at Noon” utilizes the common AABA song structure, however Mingus alters the A section. Instead of A being eight bars, the section is written in an uncommon ten bar form. When the B section ends, the A section is altered again, this time being increased to 16 bars. What results is a varied piece that keeps the listener on their toes, as the additional bars give a certain “unevenness” to the piece which is certainly not common by even today’s standards (Mingus and Homzy 141). What makes “Tonight at Noon” so important is the techniques used that pre-date numerous avant-garde jazz artists like Ornette Coleman. According to musicologist Andrew Homzy the piece “will have to be recognized…for its innovation” with components such as “the wild introduction with a drum solo, aggressive collective wailing by the other musicians, shouts of Ngowah, and Arabic-like vocalizations (Mingus and Homzy 141).” When one considers that this piece was released in 1957, it is obvious that Mingus had a certain amount of gusto when producing his music (Mingus and Homzy 141). What is meant by this is that Charles Mingus wanted to make ambitious music, regardless of the trends of the time. Think about this, the free jazz of Ornette Coleman was received with immense controversy, and he did not appear on the scene until the 1960’s (Priestley 109). With this in mind, consider the resistance Mingus must have met when releasing the ambitious “Tonight at Noon,” yet Mingus always had an attitude that creativity must come first (Mingus, “Blindfold Test”). It is this personality trait that the music community, regardless of genre, should be grateful for as he explored many ideas that seemed insane (but likely influenced other movements in jazz and beyond).

The period following his “avant-garde” albums showed notable creativity in Mingus, although at time it seemed as though he was slowing down a bit. Unfortunately, Mingus was later diagnosed with ALS, which is almost a cruel joke of the universe (Priestly 215). Like Beethoven going deaf, Mingus’ increasing immobility was a heart-wrenching injustice to a master of his musical craft. He could play bass at first post-diagnosis, but as with anyone afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, he slowly declined in mobility until he could play no more. With this lack of ability to play music (as well as no longer write down notes on staff paper), the final works Mingus ever composed were sung into a tape recorder (Priestly 215-216).  Eventually, in 1979 on the date of January the fifth, Mingus would be allowed to rest for eternity, with his soul playing notes on the wind.

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A determined set of pages really is not enough to explore the contributions of Charles Mingus to not only jazz, but all music genres. The purpose of this paper, however, was to look at the life of the musician and composer with hopes of having a glimpse into the mind of the man. Mingus was known to have a range of personal emotions, and at times he would only talk to his wife. The truth is, however, he did not need to use words to communicate to the audience; he simply needed little black dots on a piece of sheet music. It seems fitting to end this exploration of Charles Mingus with his own words, specifically words taken from one of his many personal writings on music. “Let my children have music! Let them hear live music. Not noise. My children! You do what you want with your own!”

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Works Cited

Mingus, Charles. “Blindfold Test: Charlie Mingus.” mingusmingusmingus.com. Jazz Workshop, 1960. Web.  4 Mar. 2014.

Mingus, Charles and Andrew Homzy. Charles Mingus: More Than a Fake Book. New York: Jazz Workshop, 1991. Print.

Mingus, Charles. “What is a Jazz Composer?” mingusmingusmingus.com. Jazz Workshop, 1971. Web.  1 Mar. 2014.

Priestley, Brian. Mingus: A Critical Biography. New York: Quartet Books, 1982. Print.

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4 responses

  1. Your efforts on here are truly astonishing.

    Needless to say, I saw Mingus live, too. We used to joke that he had a hook instead of a thumb.

    Once a composer begins to manipulate musical resource, genres become irrelevant, as Mingus (and I) found. My biggest complaint is that jazz has become a caricature of the music, from the outside looking in.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bill Russo’s composition ‘Portrait of a Count’, written for the Kenton band. It’s a feature for trumpeter Conte Candoli. If you compare what he wrote with what was going around at that time you will understand why he never entered the mainstream of music written for popular ‘tastes’ (taste is a dangerous area for the unwary). I know how he (and Mingus) must have felt (plus, he had racism to contend with.

    I attended a seminar in 1996 where Bill, Milt Bernhardt, Giggs Whigham, Lee Konitz, Mike Vax etc… were all present. Bill explained his use of guitar in ensembles. The instrument interferes with the middle harmonies and therefore has to be used in a more formalized way. Count Basie never worried about this but Freddie Green had a technique that kind of allowed it. Nevertheless, the chugging style prevented using the freer, looser style that evolved in what used to be called ‘modern’ jazz where the guitar dropped out of favour in large ensembles.

    ‘Portrait of a Count’ is still as fresh as the day it was written. Only the recording techniques for bass date the composition. It sounds as if the player was plodding but that’s because the sophisticated mikes needed were not around then (you will know all this of course).

    Keep on trucking!

    March 20, 2014 at 9:20 am

    • Thanks John, I sure will. I always wonder if I would’ve been a guy Mingus liked, or punched in the face haha.

      March 20, 2014 at 8:42 pm

  2. Pingback: Charles Mingus - Live In Stuttgart - 1964 - Past Daily Downbeat | Past Daily

  3. Reblogged this on mixolydianblog and commented:

    In honor of Mingus’ birthday I am reblogging the rather long post I did about him some time ago.-Derek

    April 23, 2015 at 10:02 am

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