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Charles Mingus contained multitudes, but his native language was protest

John Foster, Charles Mingus, Roy Brooks, Charles McPherson performs live. Août 1972. Photo : Christian Rose/Fastimage
Christian Rose/Fastimage
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Christian Rose/Fastimage
John Foster, Charles Mingus, Roy Brooks, Charles McPherson performs live. Août 1972. Photo : Christian Rose/Fastimage

Fifty years ago this October, Charles Mingus was one of about three dozen major figures in Black American music honored during a convocation at Yale University. "The Conservatory Without Walls," as this event was titled by its organizer, music professor Willie Ruff, was part of the kickoff for a Duke Ellington Fellowship Program at Yale. Ellington himself — the magisterial composer-bandleader, a prime source of inspiration to Mingus — was on hand to receive the first medal. At one point, Mingus joined an epic jam with five fellow bass stalwarts: Milt Hinton, Ray Brown, Slam Stewart, George Duvivier, and Ellington's bassist at the time, Joe Benjamin.

A bit later, somebody called in a bomb threat, prompting authorities to start evacuating people from the hall. Mingus, alone among his cohort, refused to budge. "Racism planted the bomb, but racists ain't strong enough to kill this music," he barked at a police captain. "If I'm going to die, I'm ready. But I'm going out playing 'Sophisticated Lady.' " And with that, he started into Ellington's ageless ballad, turning it into a solo rumination as everyone else filed out of the building. New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont has recalled that it also "became a protest song, as the performance just kept going on and on and getting hotter. In the street, Ellington stood in the waiting crowd just beyond the theatre's open doors, smiling."

This whole extraordinary scene — with its clash of pomp and defiance, its note of generational benediction and its collision of elegant design with a righteous, roguish impulsivity — is worth keeping in mind on the occasion of Mingus' centennial, which brings a clutch of commemorative releases and special events. Born in Nogales, Ariz. on April 22, 1922 and raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Mingus was a uniquely American creation, and a bramble of contradictions. A sensitive soul given to alarming spasms of violence. An artist drawn to expressions both high and low. Walt Whitman may have been the one to write "I am large, I contain multitudes," but Mingus physically and spiritually embodied the idea. His 1971 autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, famously begins with a disorienting self-assessment: "In other words, I am three."

In similar fashion, this Mingus milestone invites reflection on the multitudinous nature of his art. He exuded a granite authority on the bass even when surging ahead of, or around, the beat — his relationship to tempo almost suggesting an extension of his physiological state, subject to body English. (For some insightful analysis of Mingus as a bassist, consult this piece by Greg Bryant.) As a composer, he created some of the gnarliest pieces in the jazz canon, like "Haitian Fight Song," and some of the most graceful, like "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." His influences ran from Jelly Roll Morton to Claude Debussy to his bebop compatriot Charlie Parker, always with a generous quotient of Duke. (Christian McBride, the eminent bassist and host of Jazz Night in America, calls him "Ellington in a hoodie," as he just noted in an interview with Tidal.) And no matter how refined or abstracted the material, Mingus found terra firma in the blues: They were his home truth, as we're reminded by Rhino's deluxe reissue of the 1957 album Mingus Three, featuring two compatriots, Hampton Hawes on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums.

Mingus died in 1979, at 56, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (perhaps better recognized as Lou Gehrig's disease). The effort to preserve and honor his legacy was already underway, thanks not only to jazz constituents but also Joni Mitchell, who sought him out as a friend and collaborator, creating the album she simply titled Mingus. More than 40 years later, "Mingus music" lives on in jazz's common language. A few of his albums, like Mingus Ah Um, are essential pieces of the canon. And thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Sue Mingus, his widow and former manager, his repertory is always in active circulation, in every conceivable setting. I've seen compelling performances of Mingus music by a fastidious chamber orchestra, under the baton of the late Third Stream synthesist Gunther Schuller, and by all three of his official legacy ensembles: the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Orchestra.

At their best, these tributes capture the volatility and teeming vitality in Mingus music — though they can only go so far, without the man in the matrix. He was more than an anchoring presence in his bands, and more than a fulcrum; he was the thrumming heart of the whole contraption. This is one reason why, for all of his enduring work in the studio, Mingus is best understood through live recordings — like the legendary Mingus at Antibes album made in 1960, or Cornell 1964, a posthumous gem that first saw release 15 years ago.

That Cornell recording features a version of Mingus' Jazz Workshop with three of the collaborators who best understood his working methods: Richmond, multireedist and flutist Eric Dolphy and pianist Jaki Byard. (The two other members of the group, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and trumpeter Johnny Coles, stood just one concentric ring outside that core.) The same sextet can be heard on the first half of an excellent four-disc set released in 2020: Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975.

The centerpiece of both the Bremen and Cornell recordings is "Fables of Faubus," the iconic composition Mingus wrote in response to the white supremacist actions of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who'd called in the National Guard to thwart school integration in Little Rock. The piece originated during a club residency, and an integral part of its critique was a hollering call-and-response between Mingus and Richmond. Columbia Records couldn't sanction this, so the version of "Fables of Faubus" captured in 1959 on Mingus Ah Um is an instrumental. But when Mingus made an album for Candid Records the following year, he restored the song to its full sardonic fury. It appears as "Original Faubus Fables" on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, which a newly relaunched Candid has just released in digital form (with a vinyl release due in June).

By the mid-'60s, the fight for civil rights had reached a higher gear in the national discourse, and Mingus was steadfast. Protest was less a decision for him than a blunt matter of course — a natural extension of who he was in the world. And "Fables of Faubus" had become not just a trademark, but also an open playing field: In performance, Mingus and his bandmates would routinely stretch it out to a half-hour or longer. Within that writhing sprawl, every feint or flicker could be stuffed with meaning — as in Byard's juxtaposition in Bremen, during an unaccompanied piano interlude, of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Yet another epic performance of "Fables of Faubus" is about to enter the fray: a 35-minute version of the song can be found on The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott's, which Resonance Records is releasing for Record Store Day (and digitally on April 30). This stunning boxed set, produced with obsessive care and the full cooperation of Sue Mingus, gathers almost two and a half hours of material from a club date in London in mid-August of 1972.

The sextet Mingus led at the time featured a 19-year-old wunderkind, Jon Faddis, on trumpet, along with Charles McPherson on alto saxophone, Bobby Jones on tenor, John Foster on piano and Roy Brooks on drums. McPherson was the only veteran Mingus associate in this crew, and in an interview at the time with British jazz critic Brian Priestley (reprinted in the album booklet), he astutely suggests that the music they're making spans a full spectrum of human emotion: "There's love, hate, protest, joy, glee, happiness, sadness, different kinds."

You can hear this much within "Fables," which rollicks and rattles like a pinball machine on the back of a flatbed pickup. But there's a moment when most of the band falls silent, and Mingus has the floor. He begins in arco mode, bowing his bass with a touch of mournful solemnity. Then comes a plucked soliloquy peppered with knowing references: the Negro spiritual "Down by the Riverside," the plantation nursery rhyme "Short'nin' Bread," "The Star-Spangled Banner," a bugler's reveille, even the Confederate anthem "Dixie." It's a textbook example of the African American tradition of signifyin' identified and theorized by Henry Louis Gates. Meaningfully, it segues into a high-spirited take on "When the Saints Go Marching In," with Foster trotting out a fond impersonation of Louis Armstrong, who had died the previous year. (For all of his Ellingtonian affinities, Mingus was always naturally in tune with Armstrong's ebullient mischief; Pops, as he was known, had made signifyin' an art.)

McPherson, who sounds incredible throughout The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott's, likes to describe the teetering balance in Mingus music with the phrase "organized chaos." That feels like an almost perfect description, but it grants chaos the last word, and Mingus rarely plunged entirely past the threshold of control. What I hear in his music is "chaotic organization" — a less catchy term, but one that implies a governing intellect at the center of the madness.

A few months after Ronnie Scott's, Mingus would find himself onstage at an Ivy League institution, bullishly ignoring an evacuation order for his own safety. He wasn't a ticking bomb, in this instance; he was the nonviolent resister, throwing the full force of his humanity into the presence of sound.

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