July 20, 2024


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Charles Mingus at 100: The legacy of the late jazz giant also looms large in rock, hip-hop, film and beyond: Photos, Video

From Joni Mitchell and Radiohead to Andy Summers of The Police, Jeff Beck and P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell, Mingus inspired many artists beyond the jazz world’

More than almost any other great music innovator in or out of jazz, Charles Mingus was a textbook example of a truly creative artist who thrived through constant change and evolution.

Or, more precisely, a truly creative artist who mastered the textbooks of music, then put them aside and forged a stunningly multifarious path all his own.

Mingus was a visionary composer, a fearless band leader and a pioneer of collective improvisation. He was also one of the first jazz musicians to establish the bass as a solo instrument that — in his immensely skilled hands — could hold its own alongside any other instrument as a solo voice.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Charlie Mingus Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The result was a profoundly influential body of work best described by the phrase he coined: “Mingus music.” Its impact is still felt today, more than four decades after his death in 1979 at the age of 56.

“His music was so expansive and people could feel the intensity of it. He was one of the most talented and underestimated composers in the history of jazz,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and University of California San Diego professor Anthony Davis. He is now at work on a book about Mingus for Penguin/Random House.

Mingus’ legacy has been absorbed around the world by countless jazz artists, past and present, but it also extends farther. Credit for this goes to his exceptional skills as a composer and a singular ability to fuse modern and traditional jazz approaches with gospel, folk, Latin, contemporary classical music and the blues at its most visceral.

“Mingus wrote music from all these different angles. And it resonated with people who weren’t even jazz fans because he was such a great composer,” said San Diego-based alto saxophone great Charles McPherson.

John Foster, Charles Mingus, Roy Brooks and Charles McPherson 1972.

A key member of Mingus’ constantly changing bands between 1960 and 1972, McPherson will be the special guest artist at Saturday’s free Mingus Centennial concert in the Arizona border town of Nogales. Mingus was born there on April 22, 1920; his family moved to Los Angeles when he was just 3 months old.

Charles Mingus is shown in 1959 in New York City.
Charles Mingus is shown recording at the Columbia Records studio in 1959 in New York City. “Mingus Ah Um,” one of his many classic albums, was recorded that same year.

“He was a renaissance man who was bigger than life,” McPherson said. “We’re still feeling his impact.”

Here are some examples of just how far-ranging that impact has been.

• The groundbreaking English rock band Radiohead cites Mingus as the specific inspiration for several of its songs, including 2000’s “The National Anthem” and 2001’s “Pyramid Song,” while former Police guitarist Andy Summers’ 2001 album, “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” features six-string-centric versions of 14 Mingus classics.

• Canadian-born singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s all-star 1979 album, “Mingus,” is a storied collaboration with its famed namesake. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), six months before the album’s release.

• English guitar star Jeff Beck’s 1976 album, “Wired,” featured his alternately reverent and edgy version of Mingus’ 1959 ballad, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” The haunting song has since been recorded by at least 145 other artists, including the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, Japanese flutist Tamami Koyake and the German big band Fette Hupe.

• Jazz-savvy hip-hop acts who have sampled Mingus’ music on their recordings include Gang Starr, 3rd Bass, Jeru The Damaja and Dj Crucial.

• Mingus’ compositions have been featured in TV commercials for Nissan (“Boogie Stop Shuffle”), Calvin Klein (“Canon”), Dolce & Gabbana (“Moanin’ ”) and Volkswagen’s Jetta VR6 (“II BS”), as well as in the soundtracks to “Jerry McGuire,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and other films.

• In the 1950s and ‘60s, he was one of the first jazz artists to compose music that was explicitly political, whether using lyrics or writing in an entirely instrumental format. His subjects included racism against Black Americans (“Fables of Faubus”), the Civil Rights movement (“Freedom,” “Meditations on Integration”), the 1971 Attica prison uprising in western New York that resulted in 43 deaths (“Remember Rockefeller At Attica”) and the fear of nuclear annihilation (“Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”).

• The 1992 tribute album, “Hal Willner Presents Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus,” features performances by a disparate array of avowed Mingus fans. They included Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, rapper Chuck D, Henry Rollins, San Diego-bred vocal greats Diamanda Galas and Tom Waits, pianist Geri Allen, Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz composer Henry Threadgill, Robbie Robertson of The Band, and more.

The album also featured the 16-stringed surrogate kithara, the 847-pound marimba eroica and other one-of-a-kind instruments created and built by the late composer Harry Partch. San Diego’s Francis Thumm, a Harry Partch Ensemble alum, plays a key role on “Weird Nightmare.” The making of the album is documented in the 1993 film “Weird Nightmare: A Tribute to Charles Mingus,” which was directed by Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Ray Davies, the founder of the band The Kinks.

The Red Norvo Trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus, center, is shown in 1951 performing with guitarist Tal Farlow and vibraphonist Red Norvo.

“Mingus was a great artist, a great composer and a great bassist,” said saxophonist McPherson, who is featured on Resonance Records’ newly released 1972 triple live album, “Mingus — The Lost Album: Live from Ronnie Scott’s.”

“I know Mingus knew he was celebrated. Because, when he was living, people who loved his music really loved his music and they really loved him.”

Those sentiments are shared by Pulitzer-winning composer Davis and by pianist and solo artist Helen Sung, a member of the Mingus Big Band since 2007.

“Mingus was fascinating because he had such a deep grasp of the history of the music,” Davis said. “And, at the same time, he was moving the music forward. That’s a rare combination, to look back and to do something that hasn’t been done before.”

“Mingus was so brilliant and far-reaching,” Sung agreed, speaking in a separate interview. “His range extended from the most gut-stomping barrelhouse blues to the most sophisticated modern music. And he did it all so well, from small group jazz to symphonic orchestral writing. There’s so much joy and life in his music and it reflects the complexity of the man he was, so real and raw.”

McPherson was just 20 when he joined Mingus’ band in 1960. The virtuosic young saxophonist quickly learned that working with Mingus could be equally demanding and rewarding.

“It was a wild ride!” McPherson said.

“Mingus was multidimensional and his music was as multidimensional as he was. He could be very volatile and angry, yes, and he would confront audience members who were talking too loudly. But he could also be very tender, sensitive and empathetic. There were a lot of moving parts to him. He wrote poetry, he painted, he wrote song lyrics, he wrote his memoir (‘Beneath the Underdog’).”

Much like the man himself, Mingus’ music could be graceful, sophisticated and imbued with a beguiling sense of melancholia and intense beauty. It could also be raucous, gritty and rollicking, elegant and experimental, nuanced and explosive.

Playing Mingus’ music required both exacting attention to detail and a willingness to take chances by boldly moving into uncharted new territory, especially in live performances. The goal, McPherson recalled, was to blur the lines between where a written musical arrangement ended and spur of the moment musical extemporizations began.

“Whenever we played a composition Mingus wrote and we were too pristine, he would say: ‘This is too clean; it sounds too processed’,” McPherson said.

“And if we muddied the waters and were less clean in our playing, he’d say: ‘It’s too raggedy!’ Then he’d say: ‘Here’s what I want: I want organized chaos’.”

Mingus was a classically trained bassist. He was steeped in the traditions of jazz, as befits an artist whose early career in Los Angeles saw him work as the bassist in bands led by Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington and Kid Ory.

He moved to New York in 1951 to broaden his musical horizons. Much in demand, Mingus collaborated with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, then established himself as a formidable band leader in his own right. He also founded his own record label so he could keep control of his work.

An astute judge of young talent, Mingus hired and nurtured many future jazz stars. They included saxophonists McPherson, Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Hamiet Bluiett; pianists Paul Bley, Jaki Byard, Mal Waldron, Horace Parlan and Don Pullen, trumpeters Lonnie Hillyer, Jon Faddis and Jack Walrath; and dozens more.

The Jazz Workshop, the name Mingus used for many of the bands he led in the 1950s, lived up to its name. His rotating cast of musicians were encouraged — make that, required — to push themselves each night, often playing brand new music that Mingus was just teaching them at the time. It was daring approach that helped change the shape of jazz to come.

“Mingus was a revolutionary,” drum legend Roach said in a 1993 Union-Tribune interview. “He was as honest as the day is long. If things weren’t right, he would react with every fiber of his body.”

Mingus, Roach and Ellington teamed up for “The Money Jungle,” a landmark 1962 trio album. During its recording, Mingus demonstrated how volatile he could be if slighted — and how tender he could be underneath his brooding exterior.

“When Mingus and I walked in the studio the day before the record date,” Roach recalled, “Duke said: ‘Just think of me as the poor man’s Bud Powell (the bebop pianist).’ And the next day he blew us out of the studio!

“We’d forgotten that Duke and (Count) Basie came from that stride piano tradition where they played bass (lines on the keyboard) over everything. Duke came from that tradition and when he started smothering the bass lines, Mingus got so upset he packed up his bass and walked out.

“They beseeched Duke to get him back, so he went out — I followed him — and he said: ‘Mingus, you sound fabulous.’ And Mingus started crying and came back in and finished the date.”

Ellington, Parker, Thelonious Monk and Jellyroll Morton were some of Mingus’ most significant jazz inspirations, and he referenced them in his own music. But his biggest impact came as a band leader and composer who was equally well versed in the works of such visionary contemporary classical composers as Béla Bartok and Paul Hindemith.

As the leader of his own bands, Mingus built on those traditions to create a body of work that constantly pushed forward into new terrain. His goal, as he once described it, was to create music “as varied as my feelings are, or the world is.”

“And that,” McPherson said, “is what Mingus did.”

Jazz bassist Charlie Mingus performs in 1977 in San Francisco

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