On the bassist and bandleader’s centennial, 10 jazz musicians discuss his achievements and complexities and pick out a pivotal track from his repertoire.
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Marcus J. Moore and
Charles Mingus was everything all at once: jazz, folk, dance, theater, label owner, brave Black man. In an era where the wrong opinions could get him killed or, at the very least, exiled from the music business, he expressed himself boldly, and exorcised strong emotions through the strings of his upright bass. His playing style was fierce, almost violent, as if the trauma of American racism was coming through it.
Born 100 years ago on Friday along the United States-Mexico border, in a body that confounded easy racial categorization (one of his most memorable ballads is “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”), Mingus lived, wrote and played bass in a state of agitated brilliance. He stretched the instrument’s powers of melody and found new ways of making it into leadership material. As a composer, he brought the blues erudition of Duke Ellington into every group he led, whether sextets or full orchestras. And he kept his ensembles as loose as a group of friends joking around the card table.
In one of his most quoted interviews, with the producer Nesuhi Ertegun, Mingus explained that the smoldering, sizzling force of his music was a reflection of everything happening inside. “What I’m trying to play is very difficult, because I’m trying to play the truth of what I am,” Mingus said. “The reason why it’s difficult — it’s not difficult to play the mechanics of it — it’s because I’m changing all the time.”
By the time he released his most widely remembered album, “Mingus Ah Um,” in 1959, he was both a leading man and an elder statesman on the New York scene. But his defining years were still ahead: Mingus’s music would ultimately become hard to disassociate from the 1960s, probably because it so powerfully conveys a feeling of convulsive change. He made reinvention and regrowth feel like a ritual and a party, all the way until his death of a heart attack in 1979, at 56.
Highly sensitive, he had a short temper onstage and sometimes with his band; he was called the “Angry Man of Jazz” in a time when the genre was hopped up on cool. (His infamous memoir, “Beneath the Underdog,” showcased this sometimes volatile passion.) Mingus’s legacy is best represented by the unruly beauty of his recordings, including “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” a courageous 1963 album filled with the roots of Baptist gospel and the blues, the language of Blackness and the sound of togetherness. He wanted to stray from the labels that siphoned Black music into prescribed boxes and sanitized it for the mainstream marketplace. This was him — the rage, the swing, the beauty and the confusion.
Still, no single album sums up the live-wire brilliance of Mingus. What follow are edited excerpts from conversations with a wide range of jazz musicians who are active today, including one who played with Mingus and many who carry his torch. Each picked a pivotal track from his career and explained its powers.
Saxophonist, 82; played in Mingus’s ensembles from 1960 to 1972
Mingus to me was a complicated person, and he had a lot of moving parts, which can translate into musical dimension. I would use the term “Renaissance man.” I think of him as a world thinker. He had feelings, thoughts and opinions about the world, and he expressed all of that in his compositions.
When we would play his music, if we were too clean, he would say: “I do not want it to sound processed. It’s too pristine.” And if we weren’t as organized, then he would say, “Well, that’s too raggedy.” He would say, “I like organized chaos.”
He called his group the Jazz Workshop. So when you come to see Mingus, you’re not only coming to see a performance, but you’re also coming to see a process. He would sometimes just stop a tune right there, in front of 200 people, and give advice to the musicians. And then he would turn to the audience and say, “Jazz Workshop process. You’re witnessing creation in progress in real time.”
There was a recording date at Town Hall where we were reading music that was being copied while we were on the bandstand — and we were performing this music and some of the parts were still not quite written. That’s a great example.
Singer, songwriter, rapper and producer, 38
I think the most meaningful aspect is his naturalness, because we can look at it two different ways, right? His naturalness as far as the transparency of his emotions coming through his arrangements, and just him. However he felt it, he was going to write it. And I think the other thing is in the way he arranged his music, and the way he taught it to people. Like, “I’ll hand you the music, but you should probably play it how I’m singing it to you.” That’s one of my favorite things about Mingus, because it’s something that transcends the paper.
He was pressing up his own stuff — and I love that, too. I think that’s one of my favorite things, his independent business sense. He walks his talk, basically. He’s like, “Yo, I’m going to do this differently. I’m going to own my own thing.”
I love Mingus on piano, so “Myself When I Am Real” is one of my favorites. He’s just such a West Coast dude, and it’s a beautiful song.
Pianist, 47; studied for years with Mingus’s longtime pianist, Jaki Byard
First, Mingus wholeheartedly acknowledges the folk aspect of all great music. That means acknowledging your ancestry and how it shows up — and that you can never put a tuxedo on it. That’s what makes it vital, because a folk tradition just is. That’s one aspect that makes Mingus’s music vital today, for the artistry’s part.
But the political part, I think, is that, because of his generation, he was able to say things with maybe a more pointed tongue than, say, Ellington. Then he and Max Roach and Ellington teamed up, and that’s a really beautiful generational meet-up. Whether everybody was on the same page or not, it’s necessary. So I think he also represents that every generation will have a way that they view the politics and react to it, and the artists will find a way to sew it in so that it hits people differently.
On “Meditations,” there’s something that happens in it, especially when they would play it live, where it feels like it just rips apart. It sounds like the band is literally screaming through the instruments.
Bassist, vocalist and producer, 37
I like the way that you hear the personality of everybody in his band, even when it’s a big band. Even as you’re hearing the arrangement that clearly was written by his hand on a piece of paper. And the total sound of the arrangement is this tapestry of every individual’s sound and way of playing.
I think his transparency is really meaningful. His transparency of who he is and what he thought, what he felt and what he was dissatisfied with. And what he was striving for and what he was talking about in the music. From the way he plays and the way he writes and the titles of his songs, and the words in the songs, you can feel exactly what he means. I feel like that was his point, to let you know exactly what the hell he meant, and exactly who he was. And I think that’s really radical for anybody.
There is this song for the saxophonist Eric Dolphy called “So Long Eric.” It was his last gig with the band. I remember hearing it when I was pretty young, thinking, “This is a grown man onstage in front of people he doesn’t know, offering a song of longing and grieving and farewell to another person that he loves. That’s so generous and radical.” What a profound gesture of love.
Bassist, 63; played in Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Big Band in the 1990s
When people talk about Mingus’s music, more often than not they talk about these pieces of music that are incredible tunes by themselves. But in some ways, I think of him as so much more than that: as a composer who was able to combine different moods and feelings and colors in ways that are just so human.
He was also about setting things in motion and then cutting them off. And pulling the rug out from under you, and then sending you back in another direction. And then just when things are getting to a certain point of tension, he would throw in this beautiful ballad idea — but it would only last for a short time. His compositions often had many moods right up against each other, yet changing very quickly. I think human beings can relate to that in a different sort of way, maybe even unconsciously. The internal sort of push-and-pull of life. It’s very real, it’s very exposed. And very beautiful.
“Orange Was the Color of Her Dress” is a really important one for me, partially because the recorded versions are so different. The sextet played it in Europe in ’64, with Jaki and Dolphy and Clifford Jordan. To go from that to “Changes Two” in 1975, to hear what they did with it, and how portable the material was. To have music like that, with all that character and all that complexity, but that can really happen in really different ways with different groups — to me, that’s amazing.
Bassist, singer and composer, 42
One of my favorite ideas of Mingus’s is that rhythm is felt in a circle. Each of us feels time in a slightly different place. When I refer to “time” in music, it’s the rhythm, the beat, the tempo. And Mingus would put his band together depending on who felt the rhythm where, in this concept of a circle: ahead of it, on top of it, behind it. And he would make it so that the entire band equaled a group of musicians that created a full circle of time.
What Mingus embraced in his music, what you’re hearing, is someone embracing the idea that you want to cultivate a collection of humans because they are different from one another, not because they are the same. You’re not hearing a bunch of people in unity. You are hearing a bunch of people sharing a concept and expressing it uniquely to themselves, all at once. That is one of the most unique approaches to music, to jazz, that I’ve been able to bring into my own thought process. And I think it’s a wonderful idea: The small things that separate us on a common goal is what makes us more powerful.
There’s so much I like about this piece of music. One is the constant tension of that bass line and the constant lurking sound that it has: Something is coming for you. He was so able to capture the spirit of the Haitian revolution throughout the arc of that song. It sounds like it’s starting at night. It sounds like people are making their way toward some purpose. The ability of that song to set visuals in your head is something that I aspire to at all times — not just tell a story but to evoke imagination in the listener.
I also like that the band and Mingus don’t stay quiet inside of their instruments. They’re expressing themselves vocally. They’re expressing themselves with yells and shouts, not just for effect, but in actual praise of the musicians around them and the performances they’re hearing.
Trumpeter and composer, 39
If I had to choose one thing to take away from what he contributed, it would be courageousness, the things that he levied against a world that refused to see all people’s humanity, in a time where those types of accurate appraisals of our environment could have been met with death.
And, as much as his musicianship and genius, the things that he was able to conceptualize and actualize, I think his ability to be upright in the moment and say the things that he said through his chest and mean it, is one of the greatest examples that we have in the 20th century of a human being speaking to the ills of this world and trying to do something to contribute light to it.
Obviously, we understand that it’s written for the great Lester Young. It was my grandfather’s favorite song, and when I was a very small boy, and before I started to cut my teeth into music, he would play the song all the time. It’s just one of the most beautiful examples of that kind of send-off, the power in the melody, the space and the timing of it, texturally what’s going on.
Bassist and bandleader, 30
I was introduced to Mingus at Michigan State University. I was told to play “Haitian Fight Song,” the first tune of his I ever played. I listened to a lot more Mingus after that, partially because that record is so iconic and begins with an open bass solo. It’s something that every bass player knows.
When I listen to Mingus, I can hear all of the influences that relate to me, even in 2022. Mingus’s music was a very social-activist music. You take “Fables of Faubus,” that was written in the late ’50s. People were still getting lynched for speaking their minds back then. To create music that really impacted such a social change and pressed against the society’s norms at the time, that was incredible. He always kept the integrity.
“Better Git It in Your Soul,” that’s just a feel-good song. I grew up in church, so automatically I’m just vibing to it. I could hear people doing the two-claps, and then just all the jazz language that he uses in it. From his work with Ellington, he found a way to mash everything together and make it relatable and timeless.
Bassist and composer, 70
Musically, he had a great imagination, and lots of the content in his music came from the church. His music grew from contrasts, fast against slow; from the idea of politics; from color and bursts of sound; and using the instrument as a human voice.
If you look at the way the books try to clean up Mingus’s music, I feel that his music was much less cleaned up than they represent. If you’re changing it every time you play it, it can’t be boxed in. There’s one thing missing when you say, “Let’s play the music of Charles Mingus.” And that’s Charles Mingus. You need Mingus.
Mingus was a street musician, to me. People say, “Well, he’s academic, he’s trying to do a kind of classical or symphonic music.” But, to me, the way he played was non-calculated; he used his ear a lot. If you listen to “Money Jungle,” with Duke Ellington and Max Roach, I believe they just came together and pulled that record together in the studio.
Bassist and composer, 25
In the music, I feel like there’s a very audible sense of his search for identity, and constructing an identity in real time. And him being multiracial — that’s been a significant part of my identity development over the years, and he also went through that.
There was such a strong foundation of the blues in particular, and also Ellington’s music. And you can tell that even as he branches out with experimentation, and exploring other kinds of music in his work, he is always playing with this idea of tension and release. There’s this balance of checking out relatively unexplored areas, and then connecting it back to the blues roots. It also, I think, challenges this idea that musical evolution is a linear concept. He really turns that inside out. It’s more like a circle.
“Duet Solo Dancers” is the second track on “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” and I think is pretty much a perfect composition. What starts out as the most beautiful ballad I’ve ever heard goes into a section where the band starts in this sort of downtempo funeral march, and then just keeps on constantly accelerating. Then they drop back down. He’s kind of messing with you a little bit, which I really dig. And then, toward the end of the track, he brings back stuff from the track prior, in really creative ways. As the album progresses, all this material kind of returns; it gets folded back and creates this really beautiful chaos that he’s controlling.