Charles Mingus was one of the most influential and important bassists in Jazz. In addition Mingus’ composer credentials also rank him as one of the all time greats. Mingus was a prolific and versatile composer.
From the mid forties, until his death in 1979 he produced a body of work, which is notable for its depth, diversity, and variety of ensembles required for performance. Initially inspired by maestro Ellington, Mingus composed everything from standard length Jazz tunes, Blues, portraits, politically charged pieces, and long-form suites/tone poems, and pieces for large ensembles. This body of work came through Mingus’ supreme understanding of his own artistic goals, and the Jazz tradition.
Charles Mingus emerged in the early 40s and had already been composing almost as long as he had been playing. His early compositions are generally firmly Swing Era styled, a bit later flavored in BeBop, Blues, or pieces with a strong Ellington-Strayhorn influence. “The Texas Hop,” “Bedspread,” and “Story Of Love,” (with more than a hint of “A Night in Tunisia”), and “Boppin’ In Boston,” fall into this broad category; well arranged for small Big-band, usually instrumental, and ample solo opportunities, Mingus included. Blues (and Blues influenced) compositions were few, notably “Baby, Take a Chance On Me,” and “Ain’t Jivin’ Blues;” well-played, with vocals. I find the denser harmony and intros to this Blues songs to be too close to window dressing; still, they’re interesting and of quality.
The arena to his early tunes that I find most interesting are those clearly showing his Ellington-Strayhorn influence. Here, too, his compositions show their own style merit and, to my ears, great depth as well as originality. The moody ballad, “This Subdues My Passion,” an aptly titled “Weird Nightmare,” (aka “Pipe Dream”) are particularly notable. From the tonally ambiguous intro, and piano flourishes, of “Nightmare,” as well as the chordal extensions, and voicings of “Passion,” Mingus demonstrates his abilities in using some their techniques, and hallmarks, but creating his own unique tunes with them.
From the 1950s, Mingus ventures further, creating his own distinctive pieces of the next types, essentially setting the tone for the next three decades. Most influential, were Mingus’ long-form compositions, “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” “Haitian Fight Song,” “The Clown,” and “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” (not to mention his magnum opus “Epitaph”). These occurred with small to medium sized ensembles, with the results quite stunning: Mingus was able to consistently extract maximum results with a minimum amount of players, attention to dynamics and detail, and variety within the piece itself. He introduces a theme, and then holds ones attention throughout the piece. These were groundbreaking in that they’re fully realized compositions, not just and intro and head, followed by a long line of solos.
Mingus was not the first to write a tribute piece, but much like his idol, Ellington, he did it with fair frequency: Paying resects to Rudy Williams, (Mingus had a saxophone playing cousin, Rudy Williams, but these pieces are for the Savoy Sultans alto saxophonist also named Rudy Williams), “Eulogy For Rudy Williams,” 1954, Charlie Parker, “Parkeriana,” and “Gun-slinging Bird,” 1959, and Lester Young, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” 1959, and Harry Carney, “For Harry Carney,” 1975. These were longer compositions, with maximum solo time, for each player to memorialize as he saw fit.
Beginning with 1959’s “Fables of Faubus,” Mingus protested racism, and general oppression through his . “Faubus” dealt with integration, while “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me,” as you can imagine, dealt with the threat of nuclear war, 1961, and the Attica Prison riots were covered in 1974’s “Remember Rockefeller At Attica.” Mingus’ direct and overt approach to dealing with these politically charged events was exceptional, particularly for a Jazz musician/composer. They speak deeply of his racial and artistic pride and political and humanistic philosophies.
The final type of composition Mingus favored was one that often, but not exclusively, involved humor, and a nod to the past. In “Eat That Chicken,” 1961, and “My Jelly Roll Soul,” 1959, he interprets early Jazz, with a direct nod to none-other-than Jelly Roll Morton, while spirituals, and the Old-fashioned revival meeting are given the Mingus treatment in 1959’s “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” and “Better Git It In Your Soul.” Mingus was exceptional in his grasp of the Jazz tradition, and ability to draw on it.
This is really just the tip-of-the-iceberg. Almost up to his death on January 5, 1979, he continued creating fresh material, drawing inspiration from wherever he found it. Perhaps that’s one explanation for his genius; that he never thought about composing in a narrow sense, looking everywhere and anywhere for something that he could translate to music. These aforementioned, as well as many other Mingus compositions, provide ample evidence of such abilities.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]