Charles Mingus in the 1950s
© 1999, Philip Jones
Charles Mingus is one of the most original and influential jazz composers of
the twentieth century. He created the second-largest volume of jazz work after
Duke Ellington (McDonough 20), and is the first African-American composer to
have his work acquired by the Library of Congress (Harrington B1). Mingus is
known for his unusual style of composing and playing, which attempted to
reconcile jazz improvisation with orchestration, in order for the final
composition to conform most closely to his vision. Also, Mingus liberated the
bass from its mundane role of keeping time, turning it into a fully versatile
instrument as capable of stating the theme as the horns. While forging a new
role for his instrument, he also forged a new style of jazz, one that
acknowledged the influence of bebop but did not cater solely to that genre.
Instead, Mingus' music incorporated a wide range of styles, from Ellington's
big band sound, to gospel music, to early New Orleans jazz bands. At the same
time, he imbued modern sentiments and an avant-garde feeling into his music. In
the 1950s, his music made several important aesthetic and technical advances,
punctuated by the release of numerous influential albums. These productive
years were crucial in shaping Mingus' sound, as he fully incorporated gospel
elements into his music and developed a means of composing and working with his
musicians that allowed for endless innovation.
In the 1940s, Mingus had made great strides in developing his style of
composing and playing, creating works such as Mingus Fingers, which was
performed by the Lionel Hampton orchestra and recorded. In this composition,
the bass has a prominent role in developing the theme, an unusual departure
from the bass' normal function of keeping time. Despite numerous successes,
Mingus received scant support from his record company in Los Angeles. While he
was already an accomplished artist, it appeared at the time that music would
not be a practical way for him to make a living. In 1949 he moved to New York
and began to work for the U.S. Postal Service, his father's employer (Zenni 4,
8). By then he was thirty years old. In New York, he met drummer Max Roach, and
over time, they routinely visited with each other, forming a musical and
Roach landed Mingus his first major date with the beboppers in 1952. Several of
the great bebop artists, Charlie Parker, pianist Bud Powell, Roach and Dizzy
Gillespie, were to perform at Massey Hall in Toronto. Roach asked Mingus to
take the place of bassist Oscar Pettiford, who had been injured. This event,
billed on the cover of its LP recording as "The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever",
marked the beginning of Mingus' period of closest alignment with the bebop
movement. The concert was flawed in numerous ways; most notably, an important
boxing match was happening the same night, so only a third of the seats were
taken at Massey Hall. Charlie Parker, who forgot his saxophone and picked out a
white plastic one to use after driving around Toronto, was sparring with
Gillespie throughout the entire concert. Gillespie would frequently go
backstage to get updates on the boxing match. For his part, Powell arrived
inebriated. The same disorder prevailed at a later show, Parker's last one at
Birdland. Disgusted patrons left the club during a pathetic dispute between
Parker and a drunk Powell. This event clinched Mingus' decision to drop out of
the bebop culture and pursue other musical interests. The bebop influence
always remained in his compositions, but Mingus was ready to open up his music
to a broader range of emotions and orchestration. One critic noted that Mingus
"sensed that for him, despite all its brilliance, bebop was a cul-de-sac, not a
way forward" (Perry 172). Mingus' subsequent work reflected a deeper return to
his musical roots.
One of the strongest influences on his compositions was traditional black
church music. His exposure to it came in his early childhood. Both of his
parents attended church regularly; his father was a member of a rather sedate
African Methodist Episcopal congregation, and his stepmother went to a Holiness
church. Musical expression was encouraged and expected in the Holiness church,
where music was not considered sinful, as in other churches, but rather a
natural emotional response (Priestley 4). His two sisters went to church with
their father, but Mingus went with his stepmother as often as he could. As he
All the music I heard when I was a very young child was church music . . . . My
father didn't dig my mother going to [the Holiness church]. People went into
trances and the congregation's response was wilder and more uninhibited than in
the Methodist church. The blues was in the Holiness churches - moaning and
riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher (Hentoff
Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and Better Git It In Your Soul,
two songs which were recorded at about the same time in the late 1950s, and are
extremely similar in structure, exemplify the influence of the Holy Rollers.
Mingus and other musicians freely shout "Lord, I know" during the songs and
blend their voices with the instruments into a high-pitched moan. Prayer
Meeting ends with most of the musicians raising their voices in a
crescendo, as if at the end of a traditional gospel song. The most striking
aspect of the two songs, which is executed with more freshness in Prayer
Meeting, is a saxophone solo accompanied only by faint drumming and the
handclaps of the rest of the band. Use of handclaps was a new innovation in
jazz, although an age-old device from black churches, where preaching and
singing are sometimes blended: "[Booker] Ervin [the saxophonist] preaches
hellfire for an entire chorus before [drummer Dannie] Richmond returns to take
the people home" (Simon 4). The drums and saxophone swirl together in a
turbulent, fervent cacophony at the end of the solo, as if the "preaching" by
Ervin has just raised the congregation to a higher emotional level. Mingus lost
none of the swinging feeling of the two songs with the handclaps (in fact, he
enhanced it), while forging a more direct connection to the earthy, soul roots
of jazz. Prayer Meeting and Soul
can be appreciated either from a blues or a jazz standpoint, but Mingus' true
aim was to unite the two genres, giving blues more structure while avoiding the
cerebral sound of modern jazz.
Mingus also gained some technical knowledge from the Holiness church. As Brian
Priestley explained, "Mingus learned . . . the crucial importance of an
underlying beat sufficiently tight to allow all kinds of rhythmic flexibility
on top" (Priestley 4). This is exactly what happens in Prayer Meeting and
, as the rhythm section states the beat while some instruments play a chorus,
and others have simultaneous, improvised solos. In the two songs, the piano's
role as a rhythm instrument becomes even more important than usual, as its
syncopated chords give the song much of its gospel, hard-driving feeling. The
combination of big band sounds and gospel music, which Mingus seems to join so
intuitively, may be a throwback to the choice of instruments in the Holiness
church. Some of the gospel singing had a big band tone because of the use of
instruments that were named in the Bible, such as cymbals and trombones
Earlier, the radio was the source for another important inspiration. When he
was six years old, he happened to come across a (probably live) broadcast of
Duke Ellington's East St. Louis Toodle-oo. He had never heard anything like it,
and from then on he was fascinated by the brassy, orchestrated big band sounds,
constantly trying to find more of the same music on the radio. Mingus recalled
that "It was the first time I knew something else was happening besides church
music" (Mingus, "Ah Um" 13). More importantly, it captured his interest in
music in general, leading up to his adoption of the trombone. A few years
later, Mingus' friend Britt Woodman took him to a Duke Ellington concert, which
had been a long-time wish of Mingus. As he described it, "I nearly jumped out
of the bleachers. Britt had to hold me. Some place, something he did, I
screamed" (Priestley 7). Mingus didn't believe that he resembled Ellington, at
least in terms of his musical style. He believed that any similarities to
Ellington appeared in his compositions subconsciously, just because he had so
much respect for him (Moon 70).
The trombone was the first instrument that Mingus took up. He was around eight
years old when he received it for Christmas. Mingus' main reason for choosing
it was his familiarity with it from the Holiness church (Priestley 5). As he
explained in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, the trombone was "the only
interesting-looking musical instrument he'd seen up to that time" (Mingus,
Underdog 24). His early experience playing the trombone, and his exposure to it
in church, explains his frequent use of it in his compositions. After
Ellington's heyday, Mingus was the only major composer to continue to use the
trombone in his music (Priestley 5). Because of poor teachers, he was
ultimately unsuccessful in learning the instrument, and his father traded in
the trombone for a cello. An itinerant teacher named Mr. Arson tried to teach
him how to play, but as soon as he realized that Mingus was naturally musical,
Arson taught him the fingerings while skipping the lessons on sight-reading.
Mingus writes, "I'm sure Mr. Arson hadn't any idea his shortcut method would
turn out to be great for jazz improvisation, where the musician listens to the
sounds he's producing rather than making an intellectual transference from the
score paper to the fingering process" (Mingus, Underdog 25). Exposure to the
cello sparked his interest in classical music. Later, in high school, his
interest deepened, and he became familiar with Beethoven, Richard Strauss,
Debussy, and others (Priestley 9).
Another result of this lazy teaching was that at age fifteen his sight-reading
skills were still lacking, and he almost gave up the cello because of the
derision shown him by his music teacher. He persisted, and when he was
seventeen, he was advised by his friend Buddy Collette that he should switch to
bass. For one thing, Mingus would be able to join a swing band run by the
Union, a private musicians' club in Watts, California, his hometown for most of
his childhood. Also, as Collette pointedly said, "You're black. You'll never
make it in classical music no matter how good you are. You want to play, you
gotta play a Negro instrument." Mingus switched instruments again, and taught
himself the basics by playing along with the radio (Mingus, Underdog 69). By
this time he was such a versatile musician that after three days of practice on
his new bass, he played it in a concert (West, "Charles Mingus" P4).
His first major teacher on bass was Red Callender, who helped Mingus to develop
his penetrating tone. Later he worked with Lloyd Reese, who taught him how to
deconstruct musical compositions and to learn the role of each instrument.
Reese helped Mingus to understand a simple concept that was fundamental to his
later style of composing: the music that one person hears can be translated,
either through written notes or direct playing, so that many others can also
One of Mingus' most important contributions to jazz is the role he had in
advancing the bass as a multi-purpose instrument. A forerunner of Mingus who
set the stage for him was Duke Ellington's bassist Jimmy Blanton, who showed
the wide range of tones and emotions which the instrument could convey. In the
late 1940s, two talented and versatile bassists, Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford,
appeared on the scene. Their influence was limited because of the broad
popularity of bebop, which expanded the creative role of the drums without
doing the same for the bass. As a result, the primary responsibility of the
bass became keeping time. One critic notes that "Most bassists were so steeped
in their roles as timekeepers that during their solos, they would simply
continue to keep time, but with a more interesting choice of notes" (Goldberg
134). Mingus looked for new technical uses for the instrument, choosing, for
instance, to play with his third finger as often as he could, just because it
normally was under-utilized by bass players (Hentoff 164). The tempo changes
which Mingus popularized also contributed to a more dynamic role for the bass.
Mingus commented that "I really can't enjoy music if I have to play 'boom',
'boom', 'boom', 'boom', 'boom' all night" (Moon 70).
Along with expanding the bass' role, Mingus searched for inspiration in the
under-appreciated corners of jazz history. Besides gospel music, he explored
the music of Art Tatum and Jelly Roll Morton, to name just two influences.
Eventually, he understood Morton's music well enough that he could poke fun at
his style in two songs, on the Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um
albums. Early in his career, he left Kid Ory's New Orleans band, not because he
was unhappy with it musically, but because the other musicians made fun of his
affinity for "old timey" jazz, calling him a "square." Mingus never adopted new
styles just for the sake of their novelty. He bristled at Fats Navarro's
criticism, "That's not it, Mingus; that's what they used to do" (Hentoff 167).
By the same token, Mingus never encouraged - or even allowed - his musicians to
emulate the styles of other famous jazzmen, especially Charlie Parker. As much
as Mingus admired Parker, he would always admonish his musicians, "Don't play
like Charlie Parker. He can do it better. Play yourself. Be an individual"
(West, "Charles Mingus" P4). At the same time, Mingus expected his musicians to
conform to the overall vision of a particular song. He would not hesitate to
stop in the middle of a song, even while performing in a club, and correct his
musicians' playing. Mingus wanted to keep his music fresh, and did not want his
players to become "glib and facile" in their style (Priestley 80). His ultimate
goal was to bridge the gap between improvisation and orchestration. He noted
that a classical musician will perform a song as it was written, but often with
the wrong treatment. On the other hand, a jazz musician will tend to improvise,
but in doing so, will replace the composer's original vision with his own.
Mingus conceived compositions in his head, worked them out on piano, and played
them for his personnel. This gave his musicians an idea of the musical
structure Mingus expected them to follow, but allowed them flexibility in their
execution of it (Mingus, "Pithecanthropus").
Musicians new to Mingus' bands struggled with this radical form of playing. A
critic summed up the demands he placed on them:
He expected his soloists to carry the spirit of his melodies
into their improvisations, and demanded no-bullshit soul-baring - all strictly
reverent to the rhythmic pocket, and of volcanic intensity. You joined Mingus'
band, you came to work (Moon 68).
In the 1950s, Mingus introduced a new musical device to facilitate his style of
composing and playing: the jazz workshop. The music for the first jazz
workshops in 1953 had generally been written down before the performance, and
Mingus was unsatisfied with the results. He felt that improvisation was so
intrinsic to jazz that a musician should not be restricted to written scores.
In 1956 he developed a new kind of jazz workshop which "[dealt] with nothing
written," in his words. This new focus was reminiscent of a powerful lesson he
had received from Roy Eldridge when he played with Mingus' high school band.
Someone had written out a part for Eldridge to play, and he declined. When
Mingus pressed him, Eldridge told him, "You see this horn. I play what I feel
on it. That's jazz. You'd better find out about the music of your people. Some
day you're going to thank me for this" (Goldberg 137).
The first album to come out of the Jazz Workshop was Pithecanthropus Erectus,
which took the music world by surprise in 1956. The title track, especially,
was an indication of what was to come: a programmatic yet flexible style, raw
emotion, and blues elements. Another track, A Foggy Day, was
controversial because Mingus had sampled sounds of cars and boats and
incorporated them into the song. He also tried to play some of the sounds
musically, but critics tried to accuse him of being gimmicky. Mingus noted,
though, that this was the only song where he used that technique (Goldberg
138). In 1959, one of Mingus' most influential albums, Mingus Ah Um,
was released. This was the first album showing strong gospel influences. Better
Git It in Your Soul became a hit in New York, prompting Atlantic to
release Blues & Roots, a compilation of similarly-influenced songs
recorded earlier than Ah Um
The name "Jazz Workshop" implies a school, or a place of learning. For many
musicians, that's exactly what it was. Some referred to it as a "university".
Mingus would usually work with fresh, undiscovered talent. In the process of
getting them to play his style of music, the new musicians developed their own
style and vision. Mingus discovered a drummer named Dannie Richmond in the
mid-1950s, who had recently switched from saxophone. Mingus approached him
after a performance, and asked him to join his group. This restored Richmond's
confidence in his playing, and over the next months, Mingus helped him to
refine his style. Richmond played with Mingus for the rest of Mingus' career,
and was an important part of his sound (Priestley 75).
Paradoxically, many other players felt compelled to leave when they reached the
point of discovering themselves musically. This caused setbacks for the Mingus
bands, since he wouldn't write down the individual parts for songs. Each new
member of the personnel would have to learn the songs from the ground up,
causing delays for everybody else (Goldberg 139). Still, Mingus felt that this
was the most honest way to work. Dannie Richmond reflected on the luxury of
experienced players that other band leaders had:
"People think Miles Davis is the great talent scout. But Paul
Chambers was already winning polls before he went with Miles . . . . And all
the musicians knew what a great drummer Philly Joe Jones was. He was there. He
was complete. There was no work to be done" (Goldberg 139).
Despite the probability that his musicians would eventually leave, Mingus was
careful to note each player's characteristics and write songs with specific
individuals in mind. In this respect, he resembled Ellington (Moon 68).
Mingus had strong feelings about free jazz. He was always able to tell when
someone was playing genuinely, and when they were pretending at improvisation.
At the same time, he was wary of free-form jazz: " . . . if the free-form guys
could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something .
. . . Most of the time they use their fingers on the saxophone and they don't
even know what's going to come out. They're experimenting." Mingus believed
that a jazz musician had no more of a right to "experiment" in front of an
audience than a doctor has the right to experiment with a brand-new technique
on a patient, improvising as he goes along. While Mingus was constantly trying
to get his players to expand their skills, he did not believe in playing beyond
one's abilities. There was sometimes even a finer distinction between
experimentation and Mingus' working style, though. During some Jazz Workshop
performances, he would tell the audience that it might take his band a few
tries to get a song right, because it was a new composition. Unlike the
free-form musicians that he criticized, however, Mingus always had a specific
musical vision he was working towards. Audiences usually appreciated the chance
to see a song evolve, and applauded when the composition came together. This
was reassuring for Mingus, who had a practical as well as an aesthetic reason
for creating the jazz workshops: "I couldn't afford to pay for rehearsals"
While Mingus had a practical side, staying true to his musical vision was
always his overriding goal. Mingus was an emotional man, with a fierce temper,
a tender streak, and strong political beliefs about society and the music
industry. This aspect of Mingus is outside the scope of this paper, but its
influence on his music is another important topic of study. The 1950s saw the
expansion of a style that had matured in the 1940s. Mingus' jazz workshops,
begun in the 1950s, produced a wide array of talented musicians who shared his
discipline. His emphasis on jazz' roots and on orchestration had a strong
countering influence on trends that were rendering jazz more cerebral and
free-form. One musicologist compared Mingus to his hero, Duke Ellington, noting
that "Like [Ellington], Mingus was able to compose over the blues structure
with such strength, beauty and sophistication that the listener is not aware of
the music's humble origins" (Mingus, "Ah Um" 18). Charles Mingus' compositions
challenged both his musicians, his listeners, and himself, in his attempt to
create a musical style that transcended jazz.
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