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Charles Mingus 95th Birthday Celebration

Peter Jurew By

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Mingus Big Band
Jazz Standard
New York, NY
April 24, 2017

Saturday, April 22, was an unusually good day. It started, blessedly, when the president did not tweet out a series of early morning fabrications/accusations to befuddle the free world. And it could only get better from there: It was Earth Day! Scientists marked the 27th edition with a global March For Science, and tens of thousands of people made a full-throated defense of fact-based (as opposed to "alternative fact-based") reality.

Also, it was Record Store Day! All over the country, music lovers of every stripe flocked to independent record stores to scarf up special new releases, rare old vinyl and other collectibles, and to appreciate the good people who stock and sell them. Who knew I needed Saxophone Colossus on vinyl—but it was 40% off!

Last and most certainly not least, the music world noted what would have been the ninety-fifth birthday of one of its immortals, Charles Mingus. To honor the great man, WKCR, Columbia University's esteemed student run radio station, played nothing but Mingus music for twenty-four hours. Elsewhere, Mingus's widow, Sue Mingus, overseer of the vibrant and vital posthumous organization of Mingus music—Mingus Big Band, Mingus Orchestra, music education programs, and more—threw a private party and completed preparations for a public celebration taking place two days later, on the 24th, as part of Jazz Standard's terrific Mingus Mondays residency.

Apart from the other exciting events of the day, a ninety-fifth birthday seems an apt occasion to muse just a bit on Mingus, this giant not just of jazz but of American music; to appreciate his achievements, consider why his music matters and how it resonates still with so many today.

Setting aside, if possible, the fact that the man was a genius, Charles Mingus's life is a thoroughly American tale of self-invention. He was born on an Army base in Arizona in 1922 of African American, Native American, European and Chinese ancestry and raised in a Los Angeles home where music was a part of life. Taking up the trombone, then cello and piano, Mingus became something of a prodigy on the bass, studying with Red Callender as well as with a classical double bass teacher named Herman Reinshagen. His compositional talents blossomed early as well, and in the 1930's into the 1940's he was writing tunes while playing bass in the bands of Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Buddy Collette, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong. The story goes that hot-headed young Charlie even worked a stint with his boyhood idol, Duke Ellington until he became the first and only player Ellington ever personally fired.

Heavily influenced by Ellington's popular tunes such as, "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," Mingus looked to write commercial hits himself. In the 1930's this frequently meant bluesy tunes with clever lyrics backed by big band instrumentation. An example of this style in the early Mingus catalog is "Baby, Take A Chance With Me, " which he released under the name "Baron" Mingus—a rather inflated but ultimately appropriate moniker in the age of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Ever more ambitious ideas began to germinate. He and drummer Max Roach launched their own record label, Debut. Mingus's reputation as a bassist expanded from prodigy to master. In the early 1950's, he reached what would have been the pinnacle of an ordinary bass great's career when he and Roach made up the rhythm section in the famous all-star band with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell at 1953's "Jazz At Massey Hall"—the so-called "greatest jazz concert ever." But fame as a record label mogul or as a top bassist was not going to define Mingus; according to people who knew him well such as Sy Johnson, an arranger who worked with Mingus throughout the 1960's and 1970's, Mingus always harbored ambitions to make his mark as a composer.

In the mid-1950's, he set his mind to doing just that. By then Mingus's concepts for original music had moved light years beyond his early commercial efforts, harnessing ideas exploded by the big bang of bebop, the jazz revolution of which he was an integral part. Fusing bop harmonics with the sounds he'd grown up with and was still rooted in—black church, blues, Ellington, New Orleans, big band swing—Mingus began to invent ever more complex, sophisticated arrangements first for smaller combos, then for ensembles as large as sixteen instruments.

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