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Genius Guide to Jazz

A Mingus Among Us

By Published: August 17, 2005

Having established himself a legitimate force as a performer, Mingus began to branch out into other facets of the music business. Forming his own publishing and recording companies to take control of the money end of the creative process, he also created the famed Jazz Workshop to both teach young musicians and give fledgling composers an outlet to have their work performed. 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.

Or maybe they didn't.

The sixties began badly for Mingus. Volumes have been written about the disastrous 1962 Town Hall concert. Although, the ruinous performance is typically spoken of as though everyone already knows exactly what transpired that fateful night at New York's legendary venue. "What a shame that was, the disastrous 1962 Town Hall concert." the serious jazz writers say, rubbing their chins thoughtfully and nodding their agreement that the Town Hall concert in 1962 was indeed disastrous.

Which is why sensible people like you read the Genius Guide.

Feeling his oats after his many successes, Mingus decided to take a big band onstage and record it live. This, in and of itself, was no problem. The difficulty arose from the fact that Mingus wanted the same sort of loose experimentation that he was able to harness with the Jazz Workshop. It was a volatile mix, the mercurial temperament of Mingus combined with the pressure placed on his hand-picked musicians and arrangers, exacerbated by ever-changing deadlines and personnel, topped off by the fact that everyone involved (Mingus included) was being asked for more than may have even been possible at that time.

My father was a motorcar mechanic for the C&O Railroad for thirty years. Often, he would be dispatched in the middle of the night to some godawful remote spot to make vital on-site repairs to equipment that had been damaged by a derailment or other mishap. In his days, he saw some of the most incredible train wrecks on the East Coast. He knew nothing about jazz whatsoever, but he would have appreciated the Town Hall Concert for what it was.

Ill-prepared, under significant duress, lacking unity of vision, and overwhelmed by every aspect of the performance, the usually reliable collection of professional musicians found themselves unable to conform to Mingus' exacting vision of what he wanted the gig to be. For his part, Mingus had almost certainly overextended himself with the ambitious project. He wanted it to be his grand statement, his magnum opus, and when it failed to conform he was unable to readjust his expectations. As it became obvious that the show was going down in flames, Mingus fanned the inferno with his caustic remarks and obviously uncontrollable emotions. Joe Glaser, whom you may remember as Louis Armstrong's mobbed-up agent, was also one of the promoters of the concert. He went onstage to offer the audience their money back, an offer they could not refuse.

I immediately apologize for that gag.

A lesser man would have been destroyed by the spectacular failure at Town Hall, or at least chastened to a meeker self. Not Mingus. Though he never again repeated the mistakes that led to his conspicuous failure, he did not compromise one single ounce of his forceful and visionary personality. Controversial and confrontational, he did not shy away from including political and social commentary in his work. Original Faubus Fables, a scathing assault on Arkansas' segregationist governor Orville Faubus, remains one of Mingus' most significant musical statements. Faubus' musical reply, Who the Heck is this Mingus Feller Anyhow? (Suite for Redneck and Banjo) was relegated to well-deserved obscurity until it was mentioned just now and even then, only as a ham-fisted comic device.

With his reputation and place in jazz firmly secured, Mingus could have sat back and rested on his laurels. In fact, those closest to him claim that he had the most comfortable laurels they had ever seen, and in fact friends occasionally borrowed them to use as a guest bed whenever they had company. These were the days before futons were commonplace. Mingus, of course, did not invent the futon; but he did write an instruction manual for toilet training a cat. That is the single most unusual thing I came across in my research for this piece, and had to work it in somewhere. This seemed as good a time as any.

So then.

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