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Charles Mingus: The angry man of jazz

Volatile, complicated and prone to exaggeration, Charles Mingus was also a brilliant innovator and skilled performer, composing works that are easy to listen to but much trickier to play.

From a young age, Charles Mingus had designs on being a classical musician. He grew up in Watts, LA, in a household that celebrated Ravel and Bach along with church music. The cello was his instrument of choice, but as he entered his teens it became clear that classical conservatoires were not inclined to make space for black musicians, and so he pivoted to the double bass, and to jazz, hoping to emulate the success of his hero Duke Ellington.

He discovered a knack for composition early on, and had enough prowess on stage to establish himself as a band leader.

In 1952 he moved to New York City, just as the likes of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins were making waves and the whole scene was heating up. Mingus is an imposing figure in jazz music, literally and figuratively. His short temper on stage, with the band and the audience, earned him the nickname ‘the angry man of jazz’.

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He chased hecklers down the street, he destroyed his own double bass in the middle of a gig, he fired a gun on stage when the band wasn’t playing up to scratch. He once punched the trombonist Jimmy Knepper and damaged his teeth so badly he could no longer play at the top octave range. Stories like this, along with his talent for writing music (he called it a “gift from God”) and his fearless dexterity on the bass has proved rich pickings for many biographers.

Of the countless books on Mingus you could choose to read, all of them will likely tell you more about the man than his own book, Beneath the Underdog, first published in 1971. It’s an absorbing read, coarse and confrontational, but I get the impression that Mingus feels no duty to give away secrets beyond what he gives us on stage – the opening chapter features a conversation with his psychiatrist where the doctor notes “You’re a good man Charles, but there’s a lot of fantasy and fabrication in what you say.” And from there the pages fill with sex and swagger, hyperbolic anecdotes and bar room bravado, with occasional hazy glimpses of the alienation Mingus felt, from white America, from black America and from the jazz world itself. It’s a life story as a pulp novel, and with each reading I feel a little more alienated from him myself. 

His carefully curated memoir stands in stark contrast to his music, which was for the most part created to be performed live and reinvented every night. The bandstand was his laboratory. He was constantly tweaking and appraising, trying to make the music sound as though it lived and breathed of its own accord. Even during the bebop era, one of the most innovative periods in jazz, next to his pioneering peers like Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, Mingus obliterated convention.

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I was led to Mingus’ music first by a track called If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats. Who would give a piece of music such an audacious title? It refers to Mingus’ frustration with other players copying Parker’s style but it sounds like backstage mudslinging.

Mingus records are full of those kinds of call-outs, political grievances, personal slights, as well as appreciation for fellow musicians are all expressed with candour. His most celebrated album, Mingus Ah Um, features tributes to Lester Young (in Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, a nod to Lester’s fashion sense), Open Letter to Duke (for Duke Ellington) and Jelly Roll (for Jelly Roll Morton). On the same album and with equal fervour Mingus levels his rage at Orval Faubus, the segregation-supporting governor of Arkansas, with the track Original Faubus Fables.

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His music is sharp and clever and is in the somewhat awkward position of being easy to listen to but very difficult to play well. Many jobbing jazz bands fear Mingus – only Goodbye Pork Pie Hat has been adopted as a common standard. Although compositionally he has often been compared to Duke Ellington, Mingus was never concerned with becoming a fixture of the Great American Songbook. Sometimes his ambitions with writing music extended beyond even the most skilled musicians’ capabilities.

In the early ‘60s he famously composed a piece called Epitaph, which was two hours long, required a 30-piece orchestra, and was never successfully performed during his lifetime. Pop and folk artists have been far more readily inclined to revisit his repertoire – like Elvis Costello, Davy Graham and Joni Mitchell who released an album in 1979 simply called Mingus.

It’s 50 years since Beneath the Underdog was written, but 70 years since Mingus started writing it. He spent two decades creating and restlessly redrafting it, hoping to project an accurate picture of himself to the world. In that respect it falters, but thankfully his music tells us all we need to know. 

Deb Grant is a radio host and writer, formerly known as Anne Frankenstein @djdebgrant

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