The Mingus Centennial

Be bop legend Charles Mingus (1922-79) would have been 100 years old today.

I love be bop, but being a theatre person primarily, I first learned about Mingus through a theatrical connection. I read somewhere that Sam Shepard had been a high school friend of his son Charles Mingus III, who hooked the young playwright up with work when he first moved to New York long about the early ’60s. I wish George Ferencz was still around so I could ask him for some thoughts or stories about Mingus. George worked a lot with both Shepard and with Max Roach, the latter of whom once co-owned a record label with Mingus. He’d have been bound to have had some raucous stories.

Mingus was a big dude who played a big instrument (the double bass). He’s certainly the jazz bassist whose work I know best and think of first, though he’s just as well known for being a composer and leader of his own bands. Duke Ellington was one of his heroes; he was known for his devotion to collective improvisation (i.e., all the musicians riffing simultaneously, as in early New Orleans jazz. Not irrelevantly, Mingus had also played with Louis Armstrong). Nat Hentoff wrote the liner notes for many of Mingus’s spacy, conceptual albums. Some of Mingus’s better known compositions include “Pithecanthropus Erectus” (which was about the rise and fall of the human race), and “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” (a tribute to the then recently deceased Lester Young). Mingus also played piano, the instrument on which he composed.

In addition to his over 50 albums of his own, and the nearly 3 dozen he played on as a sideman, Mingus also possessed a small cinematic legacy. He appeared in the 1962 film All Night Long, a kind of be bop Othello starring Patrick McGoohan. And he was also the subject of the 1968 documentary Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, in which he is shown to shoot up his Greenwich Village apartment with a gun, subsequently to get evicted by his landlord for non-payment of rent. Unlike Coltrane, who was all about spirituality and messages like “A Love Supreme”, Mingus was known as the “Angry Man of Jazz”, who physically intimidated some fellow musicians, and even had scraps with them.

The Mingus Big Band is still a going concern. Naturally they have been observing this benchmark, as have many of New York’s jazz clubs. Unfortunately, many of those events have passed, but there are still a few left happening at Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday. And the official Mingus web site, for all things Mingus, is here.