Magazine article The Nation

Mingus Ah Um

Magazine article The Nation

Mingus Ah Um

Article excerpt

When Charles Mingus died fourteen years ago, just short of his 57th birthday, of Lou Gehrig's disease, he was already one of the most famous and controversial jazzers of his time. A gargantuan figure as well-known for his volatile temperament and ferocious sexuality as he was for his dynamic and intense and challenging musical vision, he'd shifted the directions of what we call jazz dramatically and irrevocably over the course of his nearly four decades of playing and writing.

His stature--never in question within the jazz community--has recently been validated by several organs of official culture. Beneath the Underdog, his "autobiography" (in fact, a highly fictionalized presentation that's one of the great Beatera novels), was reprinted a couple of years ago by Vintage in a new trade-paperback format. At Lincoln Center in 1989, Epitaph, his ambitious extended work meant to echo Mozart's Requiem and Strauss's Death and Transfiguration (in intent, not style), was premiered, after being repieced together and edited (and, in fact, filled in) by Gunther Schuller. The fiftyodd albums, comprising some 300 pieces, that he recorded are tumbling out faster and faster on CD reissues. This April, The Mingus Project: Jazz on the Border Festival, which was centered around his birthplace in Nogales, Arizona, brought his music--with resounding success--to a small Mexican border town of 19,000 that had never before had a jazz concert. And on June 4, the Library of Congress acquired his papers from his widow, Sue--marking the first time the archives of any American jazz composer will be housed within its hallowed portals.

So with the Mingus Big Band (the latest incarnation of various Mingus Dynasty bands Sue has piloted to keep his music living onstage and in spirit) performing his material weekly at New York's Time Care and building a large, and largely new, following for his music, and with his influence continuing to grow among younger musicians, Mingus is once again proving the validity of the old maxim ars longa, vita brevis.

Mingus's art reached in many directions, and wasn't limited to music. (In classic beat fashion, he made his life a kind of artwork--self-dramatization, infused with a slippery sense of irony and outrageous Barnumesque posturing, was only one of his many faces.) But wherever it reached, it was marked by a quintessentially American touch. He himself was a classic American mongrel--part black, part white, part Asian, part Indian. He grew up in Watts, when that part of Los Angeles was still a lower- and middleclass mix of various ethnic groups. He studied classical music while absorbing gospel, blues, Latin and jazz, which he mixed with a free hand and fierce determination. For as angry as Mingus became about this country's institutionalized forms of racism and cultural discrimination, his music always reflected, quite deliberately, the rich heterogeneity of cultures that, recognized or not by the official validating organs, is America's pride and best hope.

From 1950, when he first came to national attention with the Red Norvo Trio, Mingus fit the definition of an important jazz player--he pushed the envelope of possibility on his instrument and, in the process, reinvented its very nature. He'd set about revolutionizing bass playing with his sly and plastic sense of time and tonality. To start, he extended the approach pioneered by 1940s Duke Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton, who, like his contemporary Charlie Christian on the guitar, adapted the single-line, vocalic attack of jazz horn players to his own more recalcitrant instrument. Blanton had an enormous impact among jazz bassists, but Mingns was among the most passionate about insisting that the instrument, usually thought of as cumbersome and unlovely as a lead voice, should have equal footing with the horns of the front line and take its place as a first-rank soloing vehicle. Between his subtle sense of rhythm and his richly inventive lyricism, he insured that it could. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.