“The suffering experienced in his childhood and youth, as a person and as a black man, was surely enough to induce in him a great bitterness, hatred, distortions that make him escape from reality. However, he never gave up. She is painfully aware of her feelings and desperately wants to heal.” This reads on the back cover of The black saint and the sinnerDisk of Charles Mingus published in 1963. It was not written by a high-ranking music critic, as befits the edition of what was immediately considered a masterpiece, but Edmund Pollock, Mingus’ psychiatrist.
It’s the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charles Mingus, jazz’s most treasured oxymoron.
Double bass player, pianist, composer, arranger, producer, architect of improvisations, charismatic leader. Or also less than a dogas he titled his wild autobiographypublished in 1972, the story which, with the power of the improbable, accounts for a life lived on the edge of lucidity, between anguish, joy, music and its contempt for the other.
Difficult and unpredictable character, maladjusted to the point of psychosis, exhibitionist and naive, pathologically incapable of self-controlchildishly contradictory, honest like few others, brutally sincere and often ungrateful, Mingus was one of the great musicians of the 20th century. As a double bass player, he showed extraordinary resources, even if there were surely better ones. But few composers have ventured, like him in his time, into such complex musical territories. He was an insatiable innovator and at the same time a conservative attached atavistically to the Afro-American tradition. His stated sources were church music – the only music his mother-in-law allowed him to listen to at home -, Charlie Parker Yes Art Tatum. Yes Duke Ellingtonof course, whose orchestra he briefly played in early ’43.
The rest was pure intuition and ambition. Between loneliness and originality, his music was a majestic bridge between the two great revolutions of modern jazz: with his instrumental virtuosity and fierce spontaneity, he prolongs the bebop; through his collective improvisations and his social commitment to blacks in the United States, he anticipated Free jazz.
Zafar without forgetting
He was born in 1922 at the military base in Nogales, Arizona, and spent his childhood in Watts, this black suburb of Los Angeles where one of the most violent race riots in American history broke out in 1965, still remembered by the slogan of the street : “Burn baby burn.” Until then, only the hopes of generations condemned to misery burned in this marginal district.
Mingus chose music to try to escape, but without forgetting: the cause of more rights for African Americans was his cause. “I am not white enough not to pass for black, nor light enough to be called white. But I declare myself black”, he declared in his autobiography, where also without much explanation he declared his Chinese, English and Afro-American ancestry from his mother -who died when he was a few months old-, and Swedish and African American on the part of her father, an Army sergeant.
His first musical choice was trombone, which he immediately changed to the cello. Later, his friend Buddy Collette encouraged him to opt for the double bass, more used in jazz orchestras. “You are black. As virtuous as you are, you can never do anything with classical music,” he argued. I was 17.
foreign and fleeting
Mingus’ professional career began in 1940, in the band of drummer Lee Young (Lester’s brother), when he didn’t yet despise the term “jazz” but was already mortified if they called him “Charlie”. He played with the Illinois Jacket, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong orchestras and made a name for himself as a double bass player for the white vibraphonist Red Norvo, until he did without his services, because on television the representation of interracial groups was not allowed. Mortified again, in 1951, in his late thirties, Mingus moved to New York. It wasn’t easy for an adult Californian to break into the New York jazz scene, so that immediately his most important source of income was two young women – his first wife and their lover –, who roamed the streets for him.
The same entrepreneurial spirit led him to found, with drummer Max Roach, a record company of their own, Debut Records, another way to protect themselves from the scam of white producers. There, between published, in 1953, the album which would be the last vital gesture of bebop: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Roach and himself, live at Massey Hall in Toronto. Later, he was part of the collective Jazz composers workshop. In 1956, with this name, he released an album with the material he had already published the previous year as Mingus Moodalongside a session by pianist Wally Cirillo released earlier on the album Wally Cirillo and Bobby Scott .
The mingus method
The idea of workshopthe workshop, on the structure of the traditional big group, will remain in the foundations of the art of Mingus. It is this material and conceptual space that allowed him to compose and play from a broader approach, with a high level of arrangements but without being bound to the scores and placing open improvisation and expansion form at the center of the creative method. This idea of a workshop where the most diverse materials could be worked enabled him to hate, with that mixture of rage and mercy with which he hated the term “jazz”. And also complaintwith this mixture of love and rage that he poured out in his struggles, in the blues, the indisputable root of his work.
A monument What Pithecanthropus erectus (1956), his first important album, could only be the product of this idea. There, with the pianist Mal Waldron and the alto sax of Jackie McLean, among others, he captures vibrant, anguished and expressive music, a strong and fruitful moment between past and future. To the variety and complexity shown by jazz in 1959, with the editions of kind of blue by Miles Davis, free time by Dave Brubeck and The form of jazz to eat by Ornette Coleman, among others, the bassist contributed mingus oh uh. There is “Fables de Faubus”, a blues that defies racist governor of arkansasOrval E. Faubus, who in 1957, with a blow of blackjack, ordered to prevent the “racial integration” of nine black boys at Central High School in Little Rock.
Other exceptional records followed: Mingus dynasty (1960), Moods of Tijuana (1962), The black saint and the sinner (1963), Mingus plays the piano Yes Mingus in Monterey (1964), among other brilliant proofs of genius, start and commitment. Overwhelmed by social, material and family difficulties, in the mid-1960s, Mingus disappeared from the scene, leaving in addition to a great and unique music, the long anecdote of a damn. Great, but fucked up.
to be beaten
He was fighting with everyone. For all time. In the Ellington orchestra, where he entered at 21, he lasted two weeks: he was fired by Duke himself, who had to separate him from the Struggle who, dagger in hand, held in the script with Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol. Already famous, during a performance in London, disgusted by the way they played, Mingus successively removed from the stage, even pushing, each of the musicians of his quintet until he was alone.
Again, in Philadelphia, also on stage, blew a tooth in a pineapple for trombonist Jimmy Knepper. Already mature, he boasted of having one day given “what he deserved” to Miles Davis. This violence and others, somewhere between resentment and anti-system rebellion, had in a way been sublimated into music of a strange fullness, which could with the same effectiveness tend towards new harmonic and rhythmic labyrinths or relax into a sweet ballad on the razor’s edge. kitsch.
In the 1970s it reappeared. In 1974, with a quintet including pianist Don Pullen, he recorded change one Yes ChangesTwo and in 1977 Cumbia & Jazz Fusiona slightly Hollywood approach to Colombian music, where we also find the music he had composed for the Italian film all mode. In 1977, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and soon after, he stopped playing the double bass.. In June 1978, a concert was given in his honor at the White House: excited, in a wheelchair, cried at President Carter’s eulogy. He spent the last months of his life in Mexico alongside Sue, his last companion, whom he had married in 1966 in a Buddhist ceremony presided over by Allen Ginsberg. He died in Cuernavaca on the eve of Epiphany 1979. He was 56 years old. His ashes, as he had requested, were scattered in the Ganges, far from the United States.