Charles Mingus, born 100 years ago Friday, was jazz’s ultimate firebrand. As an African American artist, he gave a quarter to the establishment in the 1960s. One of the country’s greatest composers, Mingus could also lead a band like a peerless field general.
The artistic and social polemicist is rarely cited as a member of the inner circle of the jazz Hall of Fame, which features the likes of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. Now’s the time for a redressing.
Mingus had the courage of a James Baldwin, a Muhammad Ali, a Sam Cooke – artists of the civil-rights movement who could no more pull a punch than take a dive. His best art bristles with an intensity one rarely finds in the genre that is arguably America’s only indigenous art form. To hear him with his sextet during his annus mirabilis of 1964 is to hear perhaps the finest small band there ever was.
“I was always doing revolutionary things,” Mingus said, “things that would alert people, so they would stop being so subservient.”
People can be pretty subservient right now, and it’s a self-imposed subservience of thinking a new Facebook filter gets things done.
We’re in the lip-service age. Your neighbor is going to plant that Black Lives Matter flag in his lawn, a sop to his conscience, an assertion that he’s someone who really gets it and cares, and then wash his hands. All done.
But you know one of the best things we can do by any race of people? Celebrate their greatest creations. Experience them. Delve deep into that art. Let it enrich our lives and inform our perspective. Put one’s money where one’s mouth is. Be a learner, not a lip-servicer.
Listening to Mingus will fry your DNA. It isn’t possible to experience his finest albums – “Cornell 1964,” “Mingus Ah Um,” “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” – and not emerge transformed. This is what we are here for: to expose ourselves to life experiences – which is what the best art is – that shake up who we are.
Mingus was a modernist steeped in jazz history. To be steeped in jazz history is to be steeped in the history of America. It’s all in there with jazz: racial oppression, the fight for a voice, the striving hope of work songs and spirituals in the field, the hard-won ascent to something better. Mingus’ music contains the sonic upheaval that was to be found in Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Fives and Sevens recordings, the mercurial futurism of Charlie Parker, the sophisticated, neo-classical élan of Duke Ellington. Simply put, he got it and his music still gets it.
As a jazz musician who seemed capable of commandeering respect by sheer force of will, Mingus possessed rare finesse. He teaches that it’s possible to be honest without brutality, and if his bedside manner, as such, was indomitable and fierce, he also existed to connect and empower. There was a lot more walk, we can say, with Mingus, for all the talk this far-from-diffident man was prone to dishing out.
His bass playing doesn’t get a ton of props for its virtuosity, but that’s because of Mingus’ songsmithing, which is rarefied. Not necessarily Duke Ellington rarefied, but within hailing distance. The tunes that represented a kind of cumulative copestone to his career denounced machinations; they went straight through you, for you. In other words, Mingus’ message of individualism brokered no artifice. This is music that’s a veritable body blow for the soul, on behalf of truth and being what you say you are.
Coming to Mingus’ music as a young man made me more open to the world than I would have been. His music is surging and real, and not much that we focus on really is. There are a lot of flashing lights in today’s world but few beacons. Put on some headphones and crank some Mingus – a big-time beacon guy – for his centennial.
The sound of legitimacy is the sound of rebirth. Why give lip service to anything when the realest of real deals is out there singing its siren song? All we have to do is hear it.
Colin Fleming is the author of “Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.”