Requiem for the Underdog

Charles Mingus: Requiem for the Underdog

By Alan Goldsher

I didn't get Charles Mingus.

As a 14-year-old burgeoning music freak and neophyte bassist making the slow transition from rock to jazz, the ever-tuneful Miles Davis made sense to me. I also understood Charlie Parker's twisty, turny, ebullient declarations. And Art Blakey's knock-you-on-your-butt bebop was fairly obvious.

But Mingus was... well, I didn't know what Mingus was.

The first record I picked up by the Arizona-born, California-reared, New York-centric bassist/composer was Let My Children Hear Music, a 1972 large-ensemble outing that, frankly, might not have been the best place to start. For a pair of young ears raised on the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, this was difficult music. Many of Mingus' finest qualities are on display - the complexity and distinctiveness of "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too" and "Hobo Ho" - as are some of his worst, most notably the excessive (and excessively depressing) "The Chill of Death." Overall, the album was too weird and dark for me, so it went to the back of the vinyl pile.

Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus. (Photo by Tom Marcello via flickr creative commons)

I couldn't write Mingus off, however, because so many journalists were telling me I was supposed to like him. For instance, Nat Hentoff - arguably one of jazz's three finest critics - wrote, "Charles Mingus was not only the most powerfully original bassist in jazz history, but he was one of the few legendary soloists and band leaders to leave an utterly distinctive body of continually unpredictable compositions." So it was back to the record store.

Next up, what many deem one of Mingus's finest albums, Mingus Ah Um. Featuring one of modern jazz's most memorable, swinging protest songs in "Fables of Faubus," this 1959 set was a triumph even I could recognize, though it proved tough for me to wade through. For a suburban white boy, the gospel-bopping "Better Git it in Your Soul" was funky but foreign. And "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," a tribute to swing saxophone heavyweight Lester Young, was a bit mournful for my unsophisticated taste. On the plus side, the propulsive "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and the gleeful "Bird Calls" were both affecting and memorable.

Ah Um made me understand that Mingus was a great composer, but I was trying to figure out how to play bass, and at that point in my development, this record wasn't much help. Where were those Ray Brown walking lines, or those groovy solos that Paul Chambers laid down with most of the Blue Note Records roster? Mingus was loud and percussive, and he beat the tar out of his bass, and I simply couldn't deal with it. In retrospect, I think he frightened me.

Still, I decided I'd take another sip of the Kool Aid.

Which led me to Mingus at Antibes, a two-album documentation of a 1960 live performance. With this album, the whole Mingus deal came together and the funny thing is that once I realized what he was about I kicked myself for not understanding him earlier. Charles Mingus isn't as much a musician or a composer as he is a conversationalist. More than anybody in jazz history except for possibly Duke Ellington - a bandleader and composer who Mingus cited time and again as a primary influence - Charles spoke with his music. Take "Folk Forms," a song that features tempoless instrumental chit-chat between Mingus and his brilliant foil, reedist Eric Dolphy. For about two minutes, there's no pulse or chord movement, just two musicians at the height of their powers, riffing off of one another, creating an impossible-to-replicate soundscape that even a jazz hater could appreciate.

Having now fully bought in to the Cult of Mingus, I wanted to learn everything I could about the guy. I picked up virtually every recording I could track down (Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Changes Two, and Cumbia & Jazz Fusion are great starting places for the Mingus newbie). I read and reread his self-aggrandizing, periodically truthful 1971 autobiography Beneath the Underdog and despaired that he passed away before I had the chance to see him perform in person.

Charles Mingus died in 1979 after a long bout with Lou Gehrig's disease. He left behind a discography filled with inspiring (albeit sometimes freaky) compositions, ramrod bass solos, anger, joy, madness, humor, and a whole bunch of young acolytes; Avishai Cohen, Carlos Henriquez, Dwayne Burno, Ugonna Okegwo, and Eric Revis are among this generation's bassists who have clearly transcribed a Mingus solo or two. As for those aforementioned freaky compositions, Charles's spirit and music live on at the New York club the Jazz Standard, where the Mingus Dynasty Big Band holds court each and every Monday night. And his influence goes beyond the music world - recently, director Darren Aronofsky cited Mingus' composition "The Clown" as a primary inspiration for his critically acclaimed film The Wrestler.

All that said, Mingus's influence isn't felt as strongly as that of Miles Davis or Charlie Parker because, well, some people just don't get Charles Mingus.

Maybe they're not trying hard enough.

• Alan Goldsher is the author of Hard Bop Academy: The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read, as well as several novels. For more information, you can visit Alan at http://www.alangoldsher.com. For more information about all that is Mingus, please visit http://www.MingusMingusMingus.com.