What About Mingus?

In our conversations, Duke Ellington never called his music jazz. He opposed putting any music in categories. So too did Charles Mingus, who said of his compositions and performances that they were—and still are—“Mingus music. I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”

For most of us for whom jazz is a common part of our language, no other originals in the history of the music so far have equaled Ellington and Mingus in the multi-dimensional power and range of their creations. When Mingus, as a youngster in Los Angeles, first heard Duke’s band, “I almost jumped out of the balcony. One piece excited me so much that I screamed.”

Recently I heard, on NPR’s News and Notes, Robert O’Meally, founder of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, discussing the impact of first hearing Mingus on his students: “They almost jump out of their chairs. And then they want to play like that. They want to play for real!” 2009 will be a singular year for the always contemporary Mingus music. Sue Mingus—who has a pool of hundreds of musicians for the Charles Mingus Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Dynasty—tells me that these embodiments of his indomitable presence will be touring here and in Europe, focusing on selections from three of his seminal albums—Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty and Blues and Roots—during the 50th anniversary of their release.

It’s worth noting that the musicians in these Mingus ensembles, some of whom weren’t even born when he died in January 1979, adhere to Mingus’ command to his sidemen: They bring to the charts who they are. Or, as Sue puts it, “Each one brings his or her own chemistry.”

In this country, students in several thousand high school jazz bands find themselves—as well as Charles—in the Simply Mingus series and the Mingus Big Band charts, published by the Hal Leonard corporation in Milwaukee.

From Feb. 22-24, the first Mingus High School Competition takes place during a three-day Mingus festival at the Manhattan School of Music. In charge will be Sue Mingus and Justin DiCioccio, head of the school’s jazz department, who designed and organized the first of the widely successful Essentially Ellington high school competitions at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Toward the end of last September, in the Watts section of Los Angeles, there was the grand opening of the already operating Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. And the next month, the city, having won an American Masterpieces grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, presented a series, “The Charles Mingus-Son of Watts Musical Caravan.”

All of this brought me back a half-century to when the phone would ring in my office, and there’d be instantly recognizable Mingus music. After a while, the composer would come on: “What do you think of that? I just wrote it.” It was like Beethoven calling.

Mingus is not universally acclaimed, however. Ken Burns’ series on jazz on the Public Broadcasting System—which, I understand, is circulating in schools around the country—gave Mingus about two minutes. I couldn’t believe it! I thought I’d somehow missed part of it. But I hadn’t. Yet Wynton Marsalis had a considerable advisory role in that television breakthrough (where has PBS been since?). Why hadn’t he educated Ken Burns on Mingus?

My next Final Chorus will be devoted to an essential new “inside jazz” book, Wynton’s Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, with Geoffrey C. Ward (Random House). There are remarkably perceptive insights, new to me, on musicians I knew well but not that well. However, there are only fleeting Marsalis mentions of Mingus, and nothing to even indicate his towering presence in this music. There is deep appreciation of Duke Ellington (“his music is full of lessons”) but nothing of the so-many life lessons in the universe of Mingus music.

It’s not surprising, then, that while the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty will be touring next year in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of several spirit-lifting Mingus albums, Wynton’s Jazz at Lincoln Center will present in February three-day tributes on the 50th anniversaries of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Mingus didn’t rate.

And in the otherwise valuable “Jazz in the Schools” toolkit and Web site that has reached many schools and was developed by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Jazz at Lincoln Center, Mingus appears mainly as a civil-rights voice with only one of his compositions, “Fables of Faubus.” That’s all Wynton could think of?

The music students throughout the country being exposed to much more Mingus that “they want to play for real” are getting a much deeper knowledge of Mingus than Wynton apparently has. For another example, at a January 2009 Jazz at Lincoln Center tribute to civil-rights jazz, only that segment of the Mingus experience will be heard.

Sure, Charles was a protester, as when he told me, “It’s not only a question of color anymore. It’s getting deeper than that. People are getting so fragmented, and part of that is fewer and fewer people are making a real effort anymore to find exactly who they are and to build on that knowledge.

“Most people,” Charles continued, “are forced to do things they don’t want to for most of the time, and so they get to the point where they feel they no longer have any choices about anything important, including who they are. We create our own slavery. But I’m going to keep on getting through, and finding out the kind of man I am, through my music. That’s the one place I can be free.”

That’s also in Mingus' music, Wynton.

Originally published in December 2008

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