I am always happy — and indeed feel privileged— to talk about Charles Mingus and his music, and his amazing life. He was my friend and colleague, and we had a kind of mutual admiration society going — or maybe, better said, a “mutual respect” society. Our lives and careers, as separate as they were, intertwined often at various times and in different ways.
I first met Mingus through John Lewis and Nesuhi Ertegun (the head of Atlantic Records) in the mid-1950s. I had, of course, heard about Mingus for many years, but only as a bass player. And I actually heard Mingus play as early as 1947, when I was 22, and when he was one of the two bass players with the Lionel Hampton band. It was in Detroit, I think, in a theatre, and among the pieces the band played that night there was one that really made my ears perk up, those ears being those of a young composer writing modern, atonal music, who had previously greeted the bebop revolution of the mid-40s, with its flatted fifths and raised ninth chords and other modernisms, with great excitement. Yet what I heard that night in Detroit were some musical sounds— musical ideas, musical textures— that I’d never heard in any jazz orchestra, not even Ellington’s, or Gillespie’s, o Kenton’s, or Woody’s. Well, that piece was Mingus’s Mingus Fingers, a real composition, a kind of mini-concerto for bass and jazz band. It was a thrill to hear something so original, so unpredictable, even as the band was still kind of struggling with this rather unfamiliar and difficult material.
I also still have in my mind’s eye a picture of Mingus silhouetted against the stage lights, a tall large man, an imposing figure, standing up straight as a rod, playing his bass like a classical bass player, not bent over the instrument like most jazz bass players.
And, of course, I was stunned when —in 1953— I heard his incredible playing in the now legendary Massey Hall Concert, with his great explorative solos and astonishing walking bass lines, in super-fast tempos—like around 360 to the quarter note on the metronome. (In the meantime Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell were playing eighth notes —at metronome 720!)
Then, when I heard Pithecanthropus Erectus (in 1956) on Atlantic Records, certainly a seminal and, in retrospect, a pure quintessential Mingus composition; and a few years later the prophetic, ominous and yet somehow tauntingly hilarious Fables of Faubus; and then, a few months later, on a Nat Hentoff-produced session arguably one of the three or four greatest duet improvisations in all of jazz history, Stormy Weather, with Mingus’s incomparably talented partner, Eric Dolphy, then I knew that I was—that we all were— in the presence of one of the very greatest musical artists and composers in the country, indeed in the world.
Of course, it isn’t about who is the “Greatest,” with a capital G. The game of listing who’s first and who’s second, and who’s on top and who’s not, is essentially silly and irrelevant. No, I’m not going to play the Nielsen Ratings game here. The brief recital that you just heard — I could have made it a lot longer—of my incremental discovery of the genial talents of Charles Mingus (genial meaning of genius level) was merely intended to show how one person gradually came to the realization that this man, Mingus, was a very special and new kind of talent.
I will speak about Mingus not only from the point of view of jazz history and the jazz world but, more holistically, from a broader perspective of the whole world of music, and, of course, including the world of classical music. Because Charles was almost unique in the way he was aware of what was going on in classical music, especially in regard to the works of Stravinsky and Schönberg and Varèse, and in his reaching out in his own music in those directions, as is so abundantly clear in certain parts of his magnum opus, Epitaph.
So, what are the hallmarks of this remarkable expression of human talent embodied in this particular musician? As a bass player, certainly ranking with other greats such as Jimmy Blanton and Ray Brown, still Mingus was unique, a pioneer, inimitable — in the true sense of that word. Beyond his blazing technique, his clear lithe tone, he was a great bass-playing composer; or, if you will, a great composing bass player. He was also a bass-playing conductor, in that, as we all must know, he led and coached and dictated to his players, shaping the performance spontaneously as it was occurring, just as Mozart and Bach, at the harpsichord or with the violin, in effect conducted their music.
In his work as a bassist, the composer and the player/performer— i.e. the creator and re-creator —came together in a unique way, which a deep listening to his and Eric Dolphy’s Stormy Weather (of 1960) reveals in a most striking way. Here you hear not only the expected consummate technical assurance and natural ease, but a most vivid creative imagination at work, always forging ahead well beyond the acquired standard procedures; and, even more, finding a way (as is so brilliantly displayed in Stormy Weather), to play three distinctive functional roles simultaneously— on one bass and only ten fingers: to wit,1) keeper of the bass line and the song’s harmonic foundation, 2) ingeniously filling in (or at least implying) the harmonies lying between the melody and the bass line, and 3) inventing countermelodies in conjuction with the main soloist, in this case altoist Eric Dolphy. Incredibly, at some points the counterpoint between the two players is as perfect and true as if the great Johann Sebastian Bach, the master contrapuntist of all time, had written it in himself.
But it is as a composer that I believe Mingus must ultimately be assessed as one of the true giants of music. By “a composer” I mean a real composer, beyond an improvising, instantaneously creating composer— say, a great improviser like Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker—and not a mere tunesmith or a writer of lead sheets (with a 32-bar or 64-bar theme and a few designated chord changes), but a writing-out, sitting-down composer, notating in all detail a full, often extended, composition. In both the quality and quantity of Mingus’s compositional achievements, ranging from the briefest miniature pieces to the monumental three-hour, 22-movement long Epitaph, to the remarkable range of his instrumental settings, his orchestrations— from huge double orchestras to small quartets and quintets— in his use of instruments not featured in the jazz canon (like the oboe, the bassoon, the contrabass clarinet) — but I wonder why he didn’t use the horn more?— and above all, in his extraordinary both historic and stylistic/linguistic breadth, Mingus stands alone. And, if that weren’t enough, as a composer Mingus is not only a chronicler of the musical history of jazz—and even to some extent of modern classical music—but also a story teller, a narrator, a philosopher, a poet, a lover, a socio-political activist and commentator. His multifaceted music reflects and embodies both the beauty and honesty, as well as the turmoil, of his life.
In all these respects Mingus excels and stands virtually alone until now, at least in the jazz world—except, arguably, for that other great princely composer, whom we know by the name of Duke Ellington. As that America genius said so often in his life—and would say about Chazz—Mingus was “beyond category.”