A Mingus Among Us
“ The Jazz Workshop also produced fine hand-crafted, jazz-themed spice racks and birdhouses to supplement their income and raise awareness about jazz throughout the burgeoning suburbia of Eisenhower-era America. ”
If you were to sit down and make a list of jazz's greatest bassists/composers/bandleaders of all time, you wouldn't get very far at all because it is almost time for dinner and you still have this article to read yet. But as short as that list would be, it would certainly include Charles Mingus. In fact, with the criteria I've given you, it is possible that Charles Mingus would be the only name on the list. Had I widened the description to include bassist/composer/bandleader/shortstop, you could make a case for the great Honus Wagner, who never played jazz in his life but man could he turn a double play.
6-4-3. Two out, top of the first.
Charles Earl Mingus (I couldn't find any record of his middle name, so I lent him mine) was born in Nogales, Arizona, on April 22, 1922. Even as a newborn Mingus knew that the Nogales jazz scene consisted entirely of a guy who had once felt up Bessie Smith at a cotillion, so he persuaded his father to move the family to somewhere more jazz-oriented. Many jazz scholars now believe that young Mingus was actually trying to get the family to New York, the hottest spot for jazz at the time with the possible exception of Chicago. But in one of those great moments of happenstance that are legendary in jazz history, when his father asked him where he wanted to move, his off-guard reply "What?" was interpreted as "Watts." The family ended up in Los Angeles.
Before Mingus was 2, his mother passed away. His father remarried, and his stern but loving stepmother forbade any music in the house except church music. She also forbade any food in the house but church food, so Mingus' formative years were spent eating nothing but bread and wine. This was only because Mingus' father was a member of the traditional African Methodist Episcopal Church. Had his stepmother, a member of the evangelical Holiness church, had her way, it would have been crackers and grape juice. Later, she was persuaded to allow food one would find at a church covered dish supper, but upon tasting that horrid green bean casserole that always seems to show up at such events, Mingus went back to bread.
Chastened by his experience with the casserole, Mingus was somewhat reluctant to experience anything else beyond his limited realm. However, while experimenting with his father's radio, he wandered across Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo". Unlike anything he had ever heard, the dark and seductive sound enchanted him. He even gave the green bean casserole another shot, this time while listening to Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy". The casserole still sucked, but Mingus was hooked on the exotic sound that was called in less-enlightened times "jungle music." Of course, we know it is now called jazz, or else this would be allaboutjunglemusic.com and I would have been spared years of morons calling me Jazzy Jeff. Junglemusic Jeff is just too many syllables for the average dumbass to come up with on his own.
Mingus demonstrated an early proclivity for music, first taking up the trombone but having an innate foreknowledge that I would someday also play the trombone and wishing to avoid the whole Mingus-Genius nonsense that would sprout from slackwitted journalists trying to explain away the both of us. Switching instead to double bass (not to be confused with a double play, mentioned earlier for no good reason), he studied under the principal bassist for the New York Philharmonic for five years before finally deciding that the bass possessed enough magnetism to attract the ladies. Just to be safe, though, he also studied piano and sharpened his composition skills. You can never be too careful.
By the early forties, Mingus was playing with such famous big bands as those of Louis Armstrong , Kid Ory and Lionel Hampton. But Mingus was quickly becoming too much of a force in his own right to be buried behind row upon row of musical automatons dutifully playing the homogenized charts meted out for public consumption during the Big Band Era. Mingus was also proving himself to be a capable and charismatic leader of men, a trait which would serve him later as bandleader, organizer of the famous Jazz Workshop, and Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 146.
By the 1950's, Mingus found himself in New York (or rather, a private detective he had hired to find himself had found him there. Self-discovery was handled a bit differently in those days). He quickly found himself in demand as a bassist, working with many of the top musicians of the day. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell not only employed Mingus as a bassist, but used the rangy virtuoso as a power forward on the BeBop School's basketball team.