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Thinking Mingus

By Published: February 15, 2006

This is Mingus

It takes a lot of energy to assimilate a man like Mingus, or his music (if the two can be separated). Just as he does with individual pieces, he carries the listener along until you think you know what he's doing—and then he pulls the rug out from under you. Or he starts by throwing you over the edge into the abyss, and you fall and fall until you think all is lost—and suddenly there he is, waiting for you by the side of the road, with an outstretched hand and a smile.

I've tried many times to write down my thoughts on Mingus, and each time I've had a whole different impression, a whole different outlook and take on him. About the only common, consistent thought is that the more I listen to his music, the more I discover and the more I like it. Liner notes on his albums tell us that he invented no new musical forms, but I think there should be a new entry in the jazz dictionary—along with Dixieland and swing, stride and bebop, maybe we should add Mingus.

Mingus.

Mingus. The name alone sounds almost ominous. And his face—like an unsmiling Buddha. Like Buddha, he's seen things few people ever see; unlike Buddha though, his vision never gave him any peace.

His life as a Black American jazz musician was filled with the frustrations and outright oppression that have been visited upon nearly all of Black America ever since they were first seen as "Other", brought to America as slaves and considered soulless animals at best, and as beasts of burden and scapegoats at worst. But Mingus couldn't just roll with the punches and accept it as "the way things are around here". Nor would he give up. "Escape" and "complacency" were two words you wouldn't find in his vocabulary. It would be hard, if not impossible, to picture Charles Mingus nodding away in a drug haze among the wasted musicians in Jack Gelbar's play, "The Connection" (a sort of bebop "Waiting for Godot", where a group of musicians—and eventually, the camera man shooting the movie—spend most of each scene rationalizing their need to shoot heroin as they wait for the unnamed connection to show up with a fresh batch of dope). Sure, he had more than his share of personal demons, but he was definitely a force of nature that wouldn't be stopped.

Mingus fought back in every way that he could—there was no division, no wall between his vision and his voice, his struggle and his music. He called himself a "crazy nigger", because only a crazy man would have the chutzpa to keep getting back up after every savage beat-down for as many years as he did—and continue speaking out without losing his train of thought.

There are so many sides to Mingus. The same man responsible for "Haitian Fight Song" (eventually renamed "Afro-American Fight Song" to make it all the more topical), "Fables of Faubus" and "Meditations on Integration", was also the composer of lyrical, moving love ballads, like "Celia", "I X Love", and of celebrations of childhood, like "Hora Decubitis". His songs of love aren't necessarily bitter or cynical. This "crazy nigger" saw no contradiction between being tough guy and tender lover, firebrand and clown. This "angry young man" was not afraid to be gentle and quietly sensitive. Sure, there are any number of people, whether musicians or otherwise, who can be eloquent in their anger; and even more whose talents lie primarily in the composition of love ballads. But there are precious few who can stand with one foot planted firmly at each extreme. There is no middle ground for these geniuses. They expend the energy of any six giants every time they create or re-create a piece of music. This is Mingus.

And this is Mingus: the Big Man who blew up the world several times in "Pithecanthropus" and "Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atom Bomb on Me"; who waged war with "Afro-American Fight Song" and preached a "Prayer for Passive Resistance"; who told us to "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" and then invited us to "Eat That Chicken". A man who could be fiercely proud of the tears in his eyes when he spoke of love, real love, passion between real people—not a Flower-Power kind of shallow, empty love. An angry man, and a proud man, who could cry with no shame at all and laugh with every fiber of his soul. Maybe the anger in his music is for those people who are afraid to cry, who are afraid to say "love". It's all there, in his music. This is Mingus.

Like so few others, he will never be gone from our world. I would like to think that Harry Haller, Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, would have readily counted Mingus among the "Immortals", along with Beethoven and Mozart.

This is Mingus. And this is why I love Mingus.

Any more questions?

Photo Credit
In order of appearance: Lee Tanner, Hans Kumpf, Karlheinz Klüter, and Phocus Agency

Painting by John Froehlich



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