Charles Mingus is one of the greatest jazz artists of the 20th century. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday on April 22.
“Charles Mingus is one of our foremost thinkers and composers,” said Wynton Marsalis, who will conduct two concerts in the composer’s honor at Lincoln Center. “He touched on many of the foundations of jazz and American music, from the roots to the most refined forms.”
A lonely childhood
Born of mixed parents in Nogales, Ariz., Mingus grew up in Los Angeles. His mother died when he was only four months old. In a 1962 interview, Mingus notes that he was fair-skinned; he didn’t fit in with the black, white, or Mexican kids at school. He played the trombone and then the cello, but switched from bass to bass when he was 16 because it was impossible for a black man to find work with classical music at the time.
In the interview, he said that his father, who was an army sergeant, never loved him.
“I never had any idea or father image,” he said. “Everything that was wrong, he knocked down, you know? I never felt love in my family. I had no one to tell me how I should be. He never even told me the world as it was. He never said something about black or white. He never told me anything.”
Mingus’s upbringing has shaped his music. He was an outspoken advocate for civil rights and used his music to make political statements. He wrote that his 1956 song, “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” was about the first man to stand up straight, pound his chest, and then try to enslave others.
His 1959 song, “Fables of Faubus,” was written as a protest against Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of nine black teenagers into Little Rock Central High School.
The Angry Man of Jazz
Mingus drew on traditions that ranged from ragtime to avant-garde, and his compositions expressed an equally wide range of emotions. In 1962, he told his record producer Nehusi Ertegun that the reason his music always changed was that it always changed.
“I can play a sad thing, you recognize it because you’re used to it. I can play an angry tune, GRRRRR. I can play happy tunes like I do with my baby, you know? It’s all kinds of emotions to play in the music , but what I’m trying to play is very hard because I’m trying to play the truth of what I am.”
Mingus had a familiar temper. Nicknamed “The Angry Man of Jazz,” on the bandstand he demanded perfection. He fired sidemen in the middle of a performance. He once punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth and ruined his embouchure. Another time, he shattered his $2,000 bass when he furiously threw it off the stage.
At one point, Mingus voluntarily checked himself into Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital†
Gene Santoro, author of Myself When I Am Real, the life and music of Charles Mingus† said Mingus wasn’t mad; he just loved to whip things up.
“If a set went really well,” he said, “if there weren’t places where he would start breaking in, yelling at people and doing things, he’d get upset from the bandstand. He’d rather have the set broken.” or let it break itself down and envision it with the unexpected.”
Wynton Marsalis says Mingus’ music – with its shifting shapes and varied time signatures – is difficult to play, but it should be played, because the music and the message are important.
“Mingus had a lofty vision of the future,” he said. “He just always wanted our world and our country to live up to the promises of equality that our country was one of the first to actually put down and it meant to the majority of people. And we still struggle with it because it’s not easy to believe in the freedom of others.”
Charles Mingus suffered from Lou Gherig’s disease in the 1970s. He died in 1979 at the age of 56. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.
In New York this weekend, the Charles Mingus Centennial Celebration will take place at Lincoln Center – which says it will “mix swinging hard bop, Afro-Latin grooves and deeply felt blues”.