Charles Mingus

By: Brian Berger
April 22, 2010

“You haven’t been told before that you’re phonies,” said bassist, composer, and activist CHARLES MINGUS (1922-1979) from the stage one night. “You’re dilettantes of style. A blind man can go to an exhibition of Picasso and Kline, and not even see their works, and comment behind dark glasses, ‘Wow! They’re the swingingest paintings ever, crazy!’ Well, so can you. You’ve got your dark glasses and clogged-up ears.” Mingus, a large, voluble, candid, sensitive, contradictory and impulsive man, made these provocations out of love, particularly for Duke Ellington (from whose band he’d been fired after chasing trombonist Juan Tizol with a fire axe) and Charlie Parker, whom Mingus honored with the greatest of his many uniquely evocative song titles: “Gunslinging Bird, or If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.” A Los Angeles native who grew up in sight of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Mingus was himself inimitable: a virtuosic musician of vast emotional nuance and a man who’d press hard for his sense of justice, whether critical, economic, or racial. Sometimes Mingus’ ambitious reach exceeded his grasp — his short-lived record label, Debut (co-owned with Max Roach); his decades-in-the-making semi-autobiography, Beneath The Underdog (1972) — but the work he did still astonishes. Not everybody appreciated such truculence. While he lived, Mingus won but a single Grammy, and that for liner notes: “Let my children have music! Let them hear live music. Not noise. My children! You do what you want with your own!”


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