Saturday, 21 November 2009

Charles Mingus, the controversial bass giant

FROM the movement of the bass line through Ray Brown of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Jimmy Garrison, Steve Davis both of the John Coltrane Quartet to the comparatively young Reginald Veal and Avery Sharpe – no one has made as much impact as Charles Mingus. He turned the bass into a percussive, harmonic melodic, rhythm and lead instrument. Besides, he was a powerful composer whose various Jazz Workshops provided ideal training for young up-and-coming jazz musicians.
For a while, Mingus played in various groups with Charlie Parker, Bud Powel, Stan Getz and the pianist Art Tatum, and then disappeared from music for a considerable stretch of time, to reappear around 1956 with a new, and more powerful concept. Disenchanted with the technical preoccupations of certain white musicians, he recalled an incident, which occurred when the trumpeter Roy Eldridge, preferring not to play a passage which had been written for him, told Mingus, “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 talking to you like this.”
Accordingly, Mingus wrote in 1956, “my whole conception with my present Jazz Workshop deals with nothing written. I write compositions – but only on mental score paper – then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the ‘framework’ on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used. Each man’s own particular style is taken into consideration, both in ensemble and in solos. For instance, they are given different rows of notes and play them in their own style, from scales as well as chords, except where a particular mood is indicated. In this way, I find it possible to keep my own compositional flavour in the pieces and yet to allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos.”
Basically, Mingus wrote co-operatively with his players in the Ellington manner, but Ellington, of necessity, had to have many more sections actually written out, simply be cause there were so many more men in his band. It is notable that in the cases of both men, the unit was instantly recognisable, no matter who was in the band, and so were the soloists. Of his first recorded compositions, Mingus says, “they sound a lot like Ellington, but what I was trying” to say with them was, ‘see, I can write, too.’
After many changes in personnel, Mingus’ new Jazz Workshop eventually recorded an album called, Pithecanth-ropus Erectus. Besides Mingus, the group consisted of Jackie McLean, alto; J R Monterose, tenor saxophone; Mal Waldron, piano, and Willie Jones, drums. One of the tracks, A Foggy Day displayed one aspect of Mingus for which many have taken him to task. It is an attempt to convey his impressions of Sam Francisco, and uses actual sounds, rather than attempting to represent them musically. Of this complaint, Mingus said characteristically, “critics wanted to pigeon hole and stylise me, saying ‘Mingus uses whistles and effects’, when I used them on only one piece out of thirty or forty different recorded compositions.” It was the album’s title track which caused the uproar and again brought Mingus to public notice.
Probably, Mingus is more responsible than any one since the late Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton for the liberation and expanding role of his instrument in jazz. Originally, the string bass was strictly a rhythm instrument; a substitution for the tuba when the New Orleans marching bands came in off the streets.
Blanton had shown that the instrument was capable of subtler melody, both plucked and bowed, and gave the impetus to such virtuosi of the late forties and fifties as Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown. Bop, however, made the drums more of an accent voice, and the burden of keeping a steady beat fell more heavily on the bass.

Most bassists were so steeped in their roles as time keepers that during their solos, they would simply continue to keep time, but with a more interesting voice of notes. Since Mingus, many bassists seemed to consider their instruments as a sort of large guitar, and in his wake, the late fifties and early sixties have unearthed perhaps the largest number of young virtuosi to appear at the same time on any one jazz instrument. Wilbur Ware, the late Scott LA Faro, Charlie Haden, Art Davis, Ron Carter, Gary Peacock, Jimmy Garrison, Chuck Israel, Steve Swallow and others.
Mingus’ career was remarkable. For a time, in an attempt to be an Ellington counterpart, he was known in California as Baron Mingus. He appeared in two motion pictures, Higher and Higher and The Road to Zanzibar.
Mingus’ musical experience was extraordinarily varied. From 1941-43, he was with Loius Armstrong. From Armstrong to Kid Ory, then to Alvino Ray, and from 1946-48, he was with Lionel Hampton. During the stay with Hampton, he was featured on a recording of his own composition Mingus Fingers. In later years, he pointed to a particular section of the new version of Fingers and said, with the air of a man to whom justice had come after long waiting, “That’s the chorus Hampton could not play.” In 1950 and 1951, he toured with a fascinating trio led by Red Norvo, which included guitarist Tal Farlow. After leaving that group, he settled in New York and, discouraged, went to work for the post office.
“It was Charlie Parker,” Mingus has said, “who had called me out of the post office in December 1951, when I had almost decided to stay there. And Parker encouraged me about my writing. He never mentioned whether he thought I was a good writer.”
Mingus who regarded Parker in a manner approaching reverence, heeded his word, and took a job as bassist with the trio of pianist Billy Taylor. While this paid the bills, Mingus became involved in the first of several experiments.

However, prolific though Mingus was as a composer; as remarkably proficient as he was on the double bass – accomplishments which he backed up with the various Jazz Workshops that nurtured numerous musicians for the ability to challenge their musicianship, Mingus had a serious attitude problem. And this affected his credibility and reputation in the eyes of the discerning public.
A highly complex man, he was an astonishing mixture of directness, outrageous exaggeration, self-contradiction, hostility, and a rare affection. He was attempting, by the latter part of the remark, to dissociate himself from the bland conformity he found around him. As he put it, “If Nina Simone is a jazz musician, then I‘m not.”
My bet is on Mingus as a great musician. Besides, being one of the most forceful, personal and most unusual composers and leaders in jazz, he was one of the greatest virtuosi on the double bass in jazz history.
However, none of these talents did Mingus much good, except that he won the admiration of people like me for his great musicianship. Musicians far less capable worked more often where he was jobless. Besides, it is safe to say that the majority of his counterparts less proficient on the same instrument were more content – in a business not noted for the peace of mind for its participants. It was like Mingus benefited every one, but himself.
A good deal of his unwillingness to disseminate information was directly traceable to a book called Beneath the underdog which he wrote at the time. He often referred interviewers and critics to the book saying, “I think jazz musicians should write their own books so they’ll get the money. I never got a job from anything that was written about me. I’m on the cover of one jazz magazine right now. Do you think the agents care about that? The publicity has never done me any good”.
But all of this Mingus felt, was beside the point. What was important, he said, was the music, and if you wanted to understand him, you should listen to that music.
Maybe, he was right. His music is indeed so personal that it tells quite a bit about him. So, of course, does his life.
Born in 1922, Mingus died in 1979.

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