Charles Mingus at 100: A Roiling, Political Jazz Figure Made for the 21st Century

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Charles Mingus playing the bass, looking to the right and smiling knowingly
Mingus' ties to the Bay Area—and his music's political overtones—presaged many of our activist movements of today.  (Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images/Illustration by Becca Kao )

In the summer of 1939, a 17-year-old bassist named Charles Mingus made a fateful trip to the Bay Area.

While already possessed by extraordinary ambition—a racially ambiguous jazz artist drawn to Stravinsky and Ellington, the blues, and church call-and-response worship—the protean bassist had felt misaligned for every path that presented itself. That included his 1939 gigs which brought him to Oakland and San Francisco with the Floyd Ray Orchestra, a now-forgotten Los Angeles-based dance band.

An encounter with North Beach artist Farwell Taylor, however, changed the course of Mingus’s life, and initiated a decades-long connection to the Bay Area. Their fast friendship introduced the teenager to a world of poets and painters, philosophers and novelists. Providing the young bassist and composer with refuge whenever money was thin and moral support when depression closed in, Taylor opened up an infinite vista into which the bassist gradually expanded. And expanded. And expanded.

On April 22, 2022, Charles Mingus would have been 100 years old. A singular composer, volatile bandleader, outspoken activist and virtuosic improviser, Mingus created a body of music as profound, diverse and emotionally unbridled as any in American music. And his centennial coincides with a moment in American history, and in the Bay Area especially, uncannily primed for his prescient music and its social and political overtones.

Mingus smiling, scowling, and musing
Mingus was a musician of many emotions, reflected in his evocative compositions. (Courtesy Sue Mingus, Jazz Workshop Inc.; Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Jean-Pierre Leloir)

‘Mingus Dealt With All the Muses’

Within jazz, Mingus intersected on stage and in the studio with artists spanning the entire 20th century, from Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker to Randy Brecker and John Scofield. Beyond jazz, his breadth remains just as imposing. Collaborating with leading figures across numerous disciplines, including Langston Hughes and Alvin Ailey, Joni Mitchell and Dimitri Tiomkin, Jean Shepherd and John Cassavetes, “Mingus dealt with all the muses,” alto saxophonist Charles McPherson says today.

McPherson played and recorded intermittently with Mingus from 1960-72, and decades later, he continues to sound awed when discussing the scope of the composer’s creative realm.

“He wrote pieces protesting social injustice,” McPherson says. “He wrote love songs dealing with eros, romantic love, and sometimes he wrote love songs with reverence dealing with agape, love of God. He wrote from different angles. Sometimes it was dance, like ‘Ysabel’s Table Dance,’ or blues and folk music and bebop. He loved Charlie Parker. He was very knowledgable about Western classical music: Stravinsky, Hindemith, Prokofiev. More than anything, he revered Duke Ellington. You stir all that up, that’s how you get a Charles Mingus.”

Mingus with goatee and hat and glasses, and McPherson, holding a saxophone, in a beanie
Charles Mingus with Charles McPherson. “He wrote from different angles,” McPherson says of the jazz titan. (Courtesy Sue Mingus/Jazz Workshop, Inc.)

A Distinct Bay Area Ingredient

Mingus absorbed plenty from his Los Angeles upbringing, including several disillusioned years delivering mail, or ghostwriting Hollywood film scores for Dimitri Tiomkin. But he seemed most in tune in San Francisco’s bohemian circles.

Even after he moved to New York City in 1951, the Bay Area served as Mingus’ second home. He returned repeatedly to settle into its clubs for extended residencies, and to commune with Farwell Taylor. It’s no coincidence that some of his signature artistic triumphs took place here. (Certain Bay Area markers found their way into his recordings, also: cable car bells and foghorns in his version of “A Foggy Day,” or an ode to Taylor titled “Far Wells, Mill Valley.”)

Rather than presenting polished compositions, Mingus treated performance as an in-progress process, often billing his confederation of musicians the “Mingus Jazz Workshop.” It was a moniker picked up by the North Beach nightclub that became one of his primary San Francisco outlets, where he recorded the thrilling 1964 album Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop for Berkeley label Fantasy Records. Just a few months later, he made an epochal appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival with a big band, premiering his roiling, political opus “Meditations on Integration” (as well as an extended medley of Ellingtonia), released on Mingus at Monterey.

A saxophonist and bassist share the stage in deep concentration
Clifford Jordan and Charles Mingus on stage in Paris, 1964. (Charles Edridge/Getty Images)

Social and Political Overtones Ahead of Their Time

In 2022, the scope of Mingus’ legacy is enduring and, indeed, increasing. He was a pioneering entrepreneur who was among the first jazz musicians to launch his own label, Debut Records, independently releasing a catalog eventually acquired by Fantasy in Berkeley. His DIY efforts rippled across the music business, connecting to future Bay Area independent labels like 415 Records, Alternative Tentacles and Hieroglyphics Imperium.

In much the same way, Mingus’s experimental bent as an artist often intersected with his radical opposition to white supremacy and prejudice. The felicitous marriage of activism and aesthetics has also resonated deeply in the Bay Area, across the decades.

“He started using mixed media and prerecorded sounds in his recordings, all this stuff you start to see incredible young composers like Samora Pinderhughes and Ambrose Akinmusire doing today,” notes San Francisco bassist Marcus Shelby.

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At a time when taking a political stance could end a Black musician’s career, Mingus explicitly connected the struggle for civil rights in America with Black resistance to oppression abroad. Sometimes he christened a tune with a title that amplified its impact, like the insistently pugnacious “Haitian Fight Song,” also recorded as “II B.S.,” which Barack Obama selected in 2016 for one his famous playlists.

In the liner notes to the 1957 album The Clown that introduced “Haitian Fight Song,” Mingus wrote that “my solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There’s sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling: ‘I told them! I hope somebody heard me.’”

Other times, a provocative title seemed to have little relationship to the music itself. His outrage at the massacre that ended the 1971 Attica Prison riot manifested on his late career masterpiece Changes Two with “Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA,” a beautiful piece that evokes a much more pleasant scenario than its title implies.

Cover detail from ‘Right Now! Live at the Jazz Workshop,’ recorded in San Francisco in 1964. (Fantasy Records)

Presaging the Bay Area’s Activist Movements

Mingus’s gift for transforming news of the day and historical events into deeply personal and cutting edge musical expression is another legacy that has rippled through the Bay Area music scene in the work of composers and bandleaders like Jon Jang, Francis Wong and Anthony Brown.

“He inspired me to create music about the world around me and really use music as a way to highlight issues,” says Shelby, who across his career has composed and recorded a series of suites inspired by abolitionists, civil rights leaders, and Negro League baseball. “That came straight from Mingus and Nina Simone.”

In an era when prison abolition had far less public purchase than at today’s organizations like Oakland’s Critical Resistance, Mingus released “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” pointing a finger at the New York governor who ordered guards and police to retake the prison.

Mingus knew Black uplift as well as Black suffering; his “Better Git It It Your Soul” could be the de facto soundtrack to Oakland’s annual Black Joy Parade. As for groups like Moms 4 Housing fighting the eviction crisis in the Bay Area, look no further than the 1966 film Mingus. In one scene, to protest his impending eviction, Mingus loads and fires a rifle into his apartment ceiling.

After chuckling, Mingus begins singing under his breath: “My country ’tis of thee / Sweet land of slavery.”

Three album covers showing Mingus smoking, an open sea, and an abstract painting
Three of many essential Mingus titles: ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,’ ‘Mingus at Monterey,’ and ‘Mingus Ah Um.’ (Impulse Records/Fantasy Records/Columbia Records)

Essential Recordings

For the uninitiated, a short list of essential Mingus albums cluster within the decade between 1955-1965, and include Mingus’s first extended programmatic work on the 1956 Atlantic album Pithecanthropus Erectus. Especially crucial is his popular breakthrough and Columbia Records bestseller Mingus Ah Um, from 1959. Ah Um features his oft-played tribute to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” as well as “Fables of Faubus,” his anthem mocking the Arkansas governor who called in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.

His elemental 1960 nonet session for Atlantic, Blues & Roots, is a personal favorite, and, like Ah Um, it prominently features Oakland-raised saxophonist John Handy, an essential part of Mingus’ musical world during his most celebrated period. The 1962 RCA release Tijuana Moods is another classic, a wild, border-town dispatch unlike anything else in his discography (recorded in 1957, it was one of several Mingus masterpieces that took years to surface, delaying recognition of his genius).

Just last week, the historic jazz label Candid relaunched by reissuing five albums, including 1960’s Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. It’s a spectacular quartet session with Eric Dolphy that includes “Original Faubus Fables,” with the chanted lyrics about the governor that had been repressed by Columbia (“Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us ... 2-4-6-8/Brainwash and teach you hate”) as well as quintessentially Mingusian contrafact “All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.”

And for sheer immersive pleasure, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, his 1963 ballet score for Impulse Records, is another sui generis project. Combining the ecstatic release of flamenco with the earthy heft of the blues, it’s a fantastical longform journey, seething with fire and beauty. (Mingus wrote the liner notes with his psychotherapist).

The list could go on and on; Mingus recorded at least a half dozen other bona fide masterpieces in this period. But he created some of his most vivid and visceral music in his final decade.

Mingus, in a wheelchair, surrounded by
Mingus appeared the White House jazz festival of 1978, hosted by President Jimmy Carter. Traditionally unbreakable, Mingus broke into tears when the president, placing his arm around Mingus, paid his life and achievements due respect. (Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Inhabiting a Singular Vision

Mingus’ band often featured rising stars and established veterans, but Mingus didn’t seem to care about a player’s name recognition. More than anything, he valued a musician’s ability to inhabit his music without relying on jazz clichés.

In fact, Mingus’ discography is dotted with obscure players, such as Shafi Hadi, remembered only for their work with him. This is exemplified by The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s, due out on April 29 from Resonance Records.

The Lost Album was originally intended to be an official release for Columbia. Instead, this searing three-disc live session from a short-lived incarnation of Mingus’s sextet was recorded in the summer of 1972, just before the label infamously dropped its entire jazz roster (except for Miles Davis) in what historian Ted Gioia called the worst day in jazz history.

Detroit-raised altoist Charles McPherson, who by 1972 was nearing the end of his intermittent 12-year association with Mingus, anchored the band, which also featured tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones (a fluent improviser who made his only significant mark with Mingus from 1970-74). Mingus’s longtime drummer Dannie Richmond had decamped to join the pop band Mark-Almond (he returned to the fold in 1973), and was replaced by Roy Brooks, a stellar Detroit musician who augmented his drums with an eerie-sounding musical saw on several tracks.

The obscure pianist John Foster makes a powerful impression on The Lost Album, though the album’s standout surprise is 19-year-old Oakland trumpet phenomenon Jon Faddis, perhaps best known now to younger listeners as the uncle of hip-hop producer Madlib.

‘He Lived, Breathed and Embodied the Music’

For a taste of Mingus’ music in person, saxophonist David Slusser’s band The Stray Horns celebrate Mingus’ centennial on Saturday, April 23, at the California Jazz Conservatory. A repertory group that’s presented Slusser’s arrangements of music by Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and band namesake Billy Strayhorn, the piano-less septet includes heavyweight saxophonists David Boyce and Sheldon Brown. The CJC show includes a new excerpt from “Meditations on Integration,” based more on an album of Mingus rehearsing the band at UCLA than the famous Mingus at Monterey version recorded a few days later.

“That’s the biggest challenge doing a Mingus tribute,” Slusser says. “He’s one of a kind, and he’s directing everything from the bass. Whatever he does, it’s the bottom note. He controls the harmony and the band in an almost stream-of-consciousness way. It’s hard to capture for a written ensemble the way he lived and breathed and embodied the music. We’ll play the main themes and have duos explore these breakout themes in tandem, so it’s like a conversation between two soloists that reflects the process of integration. People have to occupy a musical space and have a dialogue. It’s a great challenge.”

As for Farwell Taylor, who at his Bay Area home introduced Mingus to the Vedanta Hindu faith, he left his mark on Mingus right up until the end: the aging composer requested that his ashes be scattered in the Ganges, a task fulfilled by his widow, Sue Mingus, after his death in 1979 at the age of 56 from Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In the world of Charles Mingus, nothing came easy. But in striving to express his entire outsized soul, he created music so dauntingly beautiful and nakedly human, it sounds as powerful today as when it was recorded.

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