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'Creativity is more than just being different.' A look at the career of Charles Mingus.

Tom Marcello
Flickr Creative Commons
Charles Mingus

In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues

Charles Mingus is perhaps the jazz world’s most famous bass-playing composer. There are three repertory bands playing his music on a regular basis, and those compositions are still provoking and inspiring musicians and music fans around the world. Abe Beeson highlights his story.

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird, that’s easy. Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, that’s creativity.”

That’s Charles Mingus.

The bassist, composer and bandleader was born in Nogales, Arizona in 1922. And he grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

The post-World War II “Great Migration” transformed Watts into a working class African American suburb. But by the ‘60s, the area saw huge job losses and poverty. Racial resentment and inadequate social services resulted in the Watts Rebellion, leading to six days of civil unrest.

Much of Charles Mingus’ L.A. youth is documented in his fascinating autobiography, “Beneath the Underdog.” He writes that the Mingus home was filled with church music when he was a kid. But Charles found a love for jazz, and especially the music of Duke Ellington.

Mingus’ bass mentor in the late-30s was Red Callendar. He helped to train Mingus in a switch away from his cello to the bass. That education was furthered by joining Buddy Collette’s band, when Mingus and the future saxophone, clarinet and flute player were both still teenagers.

Collette and Mingus formed a fast friendship, with Collette often credited for encouraging Mingus’ more reserved side.

Charles Mingus went on to work with Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker and his idol, Duke Ellington. Unfortunately, Mingus’ notorious temper got him fired from Ellington’s band, after he got into a backstage fight with trombonist Juan Tizol.

Mingus would reunite with Duke on the classic trio record “Money Jungle” with drummer Max Roach in the early ‘60s.

The fiery part of his musical personality is what Mingus has become known for. One of the compositions that most successfully channels his anger is “Fables of Faubus,” from the 1959 album “Mingus Ah Um.”

Charles Mingus was not alone in his anger at Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus, who, in 1957, famously called out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African American teenagers.

The song was originally written with lyrics, but Columbia Records refused to release the song in that form. A year later, that original version did come out, as “Original Faubus Fables,” for the independent Candid record label. It included this brief introduction from the composer:

“I’d like to continue this set with a composition dedicated to the first (or second, or third) All-American heel – Faubus. And it’s titled ‘Fables of Faubus.’”

The unadulterated lyrical version includes jeering from the band, shouting out “Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us!” and a call-and-response between Mingus and drummer Danny Richmond:

“Name me someone ridiculous, Danny……… he’s a fool!” from “Original Faubus Fables”

One of Mingus’ most explicit political works, “Fables of Faubus” presents a musical satire of the Arkansas governor. The song see-saws back and forth between a circus-version of a military march and sophisticated large ensemble swing. The result is a musical triumph of love and dignity over hatred and buffoonery.

“Fables of Faubus,” and Charles Mingus, of course, are hugely influential today. Many of our KNKX School of Jazz DJs have played Mingus recordings on their shows, including this one.

Bainbridge High School guest DJ Bridget Shelton had this to say about how successfully Mingus expressed emotion in his music:

“You can feel the emotion without having a visual of somebody with pain. You can hear it in their playing. I think it’s really interesting how one could hear the pain of the song, and what he’s trying to express… someone may hear it and say, ‘Huh, that’s really the raw expression of it.’”

Politics in music and in jazz was not common in 1959. Charles Mingus was one of the first to write songs of protest, as the civil rights movement gained momentum through the 1960s. And his music is still has that power today.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.