HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Charles Mingus in the 1950s
© 1999, Philip Jones

Charles Mingus is one of the most original and influential jazz composers of the twentieth century. He created the second-largest volume of jazz work after Duke Ellington (McDonough 20), and is the first African-American composer to have his work acquired by the Library of Congress (Harrington B1). Mingus is known for his unusual style of composing and playing, which attempted to reconcile jazz improvisation with orchestration, in order for the final composition to conform most closely to his vision. Also, Mingus liberated the bass from its mundane role of keeping time, turning it into a fully versatile instrument as capable of stating the theme as the horns. While forging a new role for his instrument, he also forged a new style of jazz, one that acknowledged the influence of bebop but did not cater solely to that genre. Instead, Mingus' music incorporated a wide range of styles, from Ellington's big band sound, to gospel music, to early New Orleans jazz bands. At the same time, he imbued modern sentiments and an avant-garde feeling into his music. In the 1950s, his music made several important aesthetic and technical advances, punctuated by the release of numerous influential albums. These productive years were crucial in shaping Mingus' sound, as he fully incorporated gospel elements into his music and developed a means of composing and working with his musicians that allowed for endless innovation.

In the 1940s, Mingus had made great strides in developing his style of composing and playing, creating works such as Mingus Fingers, which was performed by the Lionel Hampton orchestra and recorded. In this composition, the bass has a prominent role in developing the theme, an unusual departure from the bass' normal function of keeping time. Despite numerous successes, Mingus received scant support from his record company in Los Angeles. While he was already an accomplished artist, it appeared at the time that music would not be a practical way for him to make a living. In 1949 he moved to New York and began to work for the U.S. Postal Service, his father's employer (Zenni 4, 8). By then he was thirty years old. In New York, he met drummer Max Roach, and over time, they routinely visited with each other, forming a musical and personal relationship.

Roach landed Mingus his first major date with the beboppers in 1952. Several of the great bebop artists, Charlie Parker, pianist Bud Powell, Roach and Dizzy Gillespie, were to perform at Massey Hall in Toronto. Roach asked Mingus to take the place of bassist Oscar Pettiford, who had been injured. This event, billed on the cover of its LP recording as "The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever", marked the beginning of Mingus' period of closest alignment with the bebop movement. The concert was flawed in numerous ways; most notably, an important boxing match was happening the same night, so only a third of the seats were taken at Massey Hall. Charlie Parker, who forgot his saxophone and picked out a white plastic one to use after driving around Toronto, was sparring with Gillespie throughout the entire concert. Gillespie would frequently go backstage to get updates on the boxing match. For his part, Powell arrived inebriated. The same disorder prevailed at a later show, Parker's last one at Birdland. Disgusted patrons left the club during a pathetic dispute between Parker and a drunk Powell. This event clinched Mingus' decision to drop out of the bebop culture and pursue other musical interests. The bebop influence always remained in his compositions, but Mingus was ready to open up his music to a broader range of emotions and orchestration. One critic noted that Mingus "sensed that for him, despite all its brilliance, bebop was a cul-de-sac, not a way forward" (Perry 172). Mingus' subsequent work reflected a deeper return to his musical roots.

One of the strongest influences on his compositions was traditional black church music. His exposure to it came in his early childhood. Both of his parents attended church regularly; his father was a member of a rather sedate African Methodist Episcopal congregation, and his stepmother went to a Holiness church. Musical expression was encouraged and expected in the Holiness church, where music was not considered sinful, as in other churches, but rather a natural emotional response (Priestley 4). His two sisters went to church with their father, but Mingus went with his stepmother as often as he could. As he explained:

All the music I heard when I was a very young child was church music . . . . My father didn't dig my mother going to [the Holiness church]. People went into trances and the congregation's response was wilder and more uninhibited than in the Methodist church. The blues was in the Holiness churches - moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher (Hentoff 161).

Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and Better Git It In Your Soul, two songs which were recorded at about the same time in the late 1950s, and are extremely similar in structure, exemplify the influence of the Holy Rollers. Mingus and other musicians freely shout "Lord, I know" during the songs and blend their voices with the instruments into a high-pitched moan. Prayer Meeting ends with most of the musicians raising their voices in a crescendo, as if at the end of a traditional gospel song. The most striking aspect of the two songs, which is executed with more freshness in Prayer Meeting, is a saxophone solo accompanied only by faint drumming and the handclaps of the rest of the band. Use of handclaps was a new innovation in jazz, although an age-old device from black churches, where preaching and singing are sometimes blended: "[Booker] Ervin [the saxophonist] preaches hellfire for an entire chorus before [drummer Dannie] Richmond returns to take the people home" (Simon 4). The drums and saxophone swirl together in a turbulent, fervent cacophony at the end of the solo, as if the "preaching" by Ervin has just raised the congregation to a higher emotional level. Mingus lost none of the swinging feeling of the two songs with the handclaps (in fact, he enhanced it), while forging a more direct connection to the earthy, soul roots of jazz. Prayer Meeting and Soul can be appreciated either from a blues or a jazz standpoint, but Mingus' true aim was to unite the two genres, giving blues more structure while avoiding the cerebral sound of modern jazz.

Mingus also gained some technical knowledge from the Holiness church. As Brian Priestley explained, "Mingus learned . . . the crucial importance of an underlying beat sufficiently tight to allow all kinds of rhythmic flexibility on top" (Priestley 4). This is exactly what happens in Prayer Meeting and Soul , as the rhythm section states the beat while some instruments play a chorus, and others have simultaneous, improvised solos. In the two songs, the piano's role as a rhythm instrument becomes even more important than usual, as its syncopated chords give the song much of its gospel, hard-driving feeling. The combination of big band sounds and gospel music, which Mingus seems to join so intuitively, may be a throwback to the choice of instruments in the Holiness church. Some of the gospel singing had a big band tone because of the use of instruments that were named in the Bible, such as cymbals and trombones (Priestley 4).

Earlier, the radio was the source for another important inspiration. When he was six years old, he happened to come across a (probably live) broadcast of Duke Ellington's East St. Louis Toodle-oo. He had never heard anything like it, and from then on he was fascinated by the brassy, orchestrated big band sounds, constantly trying to find more of the same music on the radio. Mingus recalled that "It was the first time I knew something else was happening besides church music" (Mingus, "Ah Um" 13). More importantly, it captured his interest in music in general, leading up to his adoption of the trombone. A few years later, Mingus' friend Britt Woodman took him to a Duke Ellington concert, which had been a long-time wish of Mingus. As he described it, "I nearly jumped out of the bleachers. Britt had to hold me. Some place, something he did, I screamed" (Priestley 7). Mingus didn't believe that he resembled Ellington, at least in terms of his musical style. He believed that any similarities to Ellington appeared in his compositions subconsciously, just because he had so much respect for him (Moon 70).

The trombone was the first instrument that Mingus took up. He was around eight years old when he received it for Christmas. Mingus' main reason for choosing it was his familiarity with it from the Holiness church (Priestley 5). As he explained in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, the trombone was "the only interesting-looking musical instrument he'd seen up to that time" (Mingus, Underdog 24). His early experience playing the trombone, and his exposure to it in church, explains his frequent use of it in his compositions. After Ellington's heyday, Mingus was the only major composer to continue to use the trombone in his music (Priestley 5). Because of poor teachers, he was ultimately unsuccessful in learning the instrument, and his father traded in the trombone for a cello. An itinerant teacher named Mr. Arson tried to teach him how to play, but as soon as he realized that Mingus was naturally musical, Arson taught him the fingerings while skipping the lessons on sight-reading. Mingus writes, "I'm sure Mr. Arson hadn't any idea his shortcut method would turn out to be great for jazz improvisation, where the musician listens to the sounds he's producing rather than making an intellectual transference from the score paper to the fingering process" (Mingus, Underdog 25). Exposure to the cello sparked his interest in classical music. Later, in high school, his interest deepened, and he became familiar with Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Debussy, and others (Priestley 9).

Another result of this lazy teaching was that at age fifteen his sight-reading skills were still lacking, and he almost gave up the cello because of the derision shown him by his music teacher. He persisted, and when he was seventeen, he was advised by his friend Buddy Collette that he should switch to bass. For one thing, Mingus would be able to join a swing band run by the Union, a private musicians' club in Watts, California, his hometown for most of his childhood. Also, as Collette pointedly said, "You're black. You'll never make it in classical music no matter how good you are. You want to play, you gotta play a Negro instrument." Mingus switched instruments again, and taught himself the basics by playing along with the radio (Mingus, Underdog 69). By this time he was such a versatile musician that after three days of practice on his new bass, he played it in a concert (West, "Charles Mingus" P4).

His first major teacher on bass was Red Callender, who helped Mingus to develop his penetrating tone. Later he worked with Lloyd Reese, who taught him how to deconstruct musical compositions and to learn the role of each instrument. Reese helped Mingus to understand a simple concept that was fundamental to his later style of composing: the music that one person hears can be translated, either through written notes or direct playing, so that many others can also play it.

One of Mingus' most important contributions to jazz is the role he had in advancing the bass as a multi-purpose instrument. A forerunner of Mingus who set the stage for him was Duke Ellington's bassist Jimmy Blanton, who showed the wide range of tones and emotions which the instrument could convey. In the late 1940s, two talented and versatile bassists, Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford, appeared on the scene. Their influence was limited because of the broad popularity of bebop, which expanded the creative role of the drums without doing the same for the bass. As a result, the primary responsibility of the bass became keeping time. One critic notes that "Most bassists were so steeped in their roles as timekeepers that during their solos, they would simply continue to keep time, but with a more interesting choice of notes" (Goldberg 134). Mingus looked for new technical uses for the instrument, choosing, for instance, to play with his third finger as often as he could, just because it normally was under-utilized by bass players (Hentoff 164). The tempo changes which Mingus popularized also contributed to a more dynamic role for the bass. Mingus commented that "I really can't enjoy music if I have to play 'boom', 'boom', 'boom', 'boom', 'boom' all night" (Moon 70).

Along with expanding the bass' role, Mingus searched for inspiration in the under-appreciated corners of jazz history. Besides gospel music, he explored the music of Art Tatum and Jelly Roll Morton, to name just two influences. Eventually, he understood Morton's music well enough that he could poke fun at his style in two songs, on the Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um albums. Early in his career, he left Kid Ory's New Orleans band, not because he was unhappy with it musically, but because the other musicians made fun of his affinity for "old timey" jazz, calling him a "square." Mingus never adopted new styles just for the sake of their novelty. He bristled at Fats Navarro's criticism, "That's not it, Mingus; that's what they used to do" (Hentoff 167).

By the same token, Mingus never encouraged - or even allowed - his musicians to emulate the styles of other famous jazzmen, especially Charlie Parker. As much as Mingus admired Parker, he would always admonish his musicians, "Don't play like Charlie Parker. He can do it better. Play yourself. Be an individual" (West, "Charles Mingus" P4). At the same time, Mingus expected his musicians to conform to the overall vision of a particular song. He would not hesitate to stop in the middle of a song, even while performing in a club, and correct his musicians' playing. Mingus wanted to keep his music fresh, and did not want his players to become "glib and facile" in their style (Priestley 80). His ultimate goal was to bridge the gap between improvisation and orchestration. He noted that a classical musician will perform a song as it was written, but often with the wrong treatment. On the other hand, a jazz musician will tend to improvise, but in doing so, will replace the composer's original vision with his own. Mingus conceived compositions in his head, worked them out on piano, and played them for his personnel. This gave his musicians an idea of the musical structure Mingus expected them to follow, but allowed them flexibility in their execution of it (Mingus, "Pithecanthropus").

Musicians new to Mingus' bands struggled with this radical form of playing. A critic summed up the demands he placed on them:

He expected his soloists to carry the spirit of his melodies into their improvisations, and demanded no-bullshit soul-baring - all strictly reverent to the rhythmic pocket, and of volcanic intensity. You joined Mingus' band, you came to work (Moon 68).

In the 1950s, Mingus introduced a new musical device to facilitate his style of composing and playing: the jazz workshop. The music for the first jazz workshops in 1953 had generally been written down before the performance, and Mingus was unsatisfied with the results. He felt that improvisation was so intrinsic to jazz that a musician should not be restricted to written scores. In 1956 he developed a new kind of jazz workshop which "[dealt] with nothing written," in his words. This new focus was reminiscent of a powerful lesson he had received from Roy Eldridge when he played with Mingus' high school band. Someone had written out a part for Eldridge to play, and he declined. When Mingus pressed him, Eldridge told him, "You see this horn. I play what I feel on it. That's jazz. You'd better find out about the music of your people. Some day you're going to thank me for this" (Goldberg 137).

The first album to come out of the Jazz Workshop was Pithecanthropus Erectus, which took the music world by surprise in 1956. The title track, especially, was an indication of what was to come: a programmatic yet flexible style, raw emotion, and blues elements. Another track, A Foggy Day, was controversial because Mingus had sampled sounds of cars and boats and incorporated them into the song. He also tried to play some of the sounds musically, but critics tried to accuse him of being gimmicky. Mingus noted, though, that this was the only song where he used that technique (Goldberg 138). In 1959, one of Mingus' most influential albums, Mingus Ah Um, was released. This was the first album showing strong gospel influences. Better Git It in Your Soul became a hit in New York, prompting Atlantic to release Blues & Roots, a compilation of similarly-influenced songs recorded earlier than Ah Um .

The name "Jazz Workshop" implies a school, or a place of learning. For many musicians, that's exactly what it was. Some referred to it as a "university". Mingus would usually work with fresh, undiscovered talent. In the process of getting them to play his style of music, the new musicians developed their own style and vision. Mingus discovered a drummer named Dannie Richmond in the mid-1950s, who had recently switched from saxophone. Mingus approached him after a performance, and asked him to join his group. This restored Richmond's confidence in his playing, and over the next months, Mingus helped him to refine his style. Richmond played with Mingus for the rest of Mingus' career, and was an important part of his sound (Priestley 75).

Paradoxically, many other players felt compelled to leave when they reached the point of discovering themselves musically. This caused setbacks for the Mingus bands, since he wouldn't write down the individual parts for songs. Each new member of the personnel would have to learn the songs from the ground up, causing delays for everybody else (Goldberg 139). Still, Mingus felt that this was the most honest way to work. Dannie Richmond reflected on the luxury of experienced players that other band leaders had:

"People think Miles Davis is the great talent scout. But Paul Chambers was already winning polls before he went with Miles . . . . And all the musicians knew what a great drummer Philly Joe Jones was. He was there. He was complete. There was no work to be done" (Goldberg 139).

Despite the probability that his musicians would eventually leave, Mingus was careful to note each player's characteristics and write songs with specific individuals in mind. In this respect, he resembled Ellington (Moon 68).

Mingus had strong feelings about free jazz. He was always able to tell when someone was playing genuinely, and when they were pretending at improvisation. At the same time, he was wary of free-form jazz: " . . . if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something . . . . Most of the time they use their fingers on the saxophone and they don't even know what's going to come out. They're experimenting." Mingus believed that a jazz musician had no more of a right to "experiment" in front of an audience than a doctor has the right to experiment with a brand-new technique on a patient, improvising as he goes along. While Mingus was constantly trying to get his players to expand their skills, he did not believe in playing beyond one's abilities. There was sometimes even a finer distinction between experimentation and Mingus' working style, though. During some Jazz Workshop performances, he would tell the audience that it might take his band a few tries to get a song right, because it was a new composition. Unlike the free-form musicians that he criticized, however, Mingus always had a specific musical vision he was working towards. Audiences usually appreciated the chance to see a song evolve, and applauded when the composition came together. This was reassuring for Mingus, who had a practical as well as an aesthetic reason for creating the jazz workshops: "I couldn't afford to pay for rehearsals" (Moon 64).

While Mingus had a practical side, staying true to his musical vision was always his overriding goal. Mingus was an emotional man, with a fierce temper, a tender streak, and strong political beliefs about society and the music industry. This aspect of Mingus is outside the scope of this paper, but its influence on his music is another important topic of study. The 1950s saw the expansion of a style that had matured in the 1940s. Mingus' jazz workshops, begun in the 1950s, produced a wide array of talented musicians who shared his discipline. His emphasis on jazz' roots and on orchestration had a strong countering influence on trends that were rendering jazz more cerebral and free-form. One musicologist compared Mingus to his hero, Duke Ellington, noting that "Like [Ellington], Mingus was able to compose over the blues structure with such strength, beauty and sophistication that the listener is not aware of the music's humble origins" (Mingus, "Ah Um" 18). Charles Mingus' compositions challenged both his musicians, his listeners, and himself, in his attempt to create a musical style that transcended jazz.

Works cited

Birnbaum, Larry. "Mingus Meditations." Down Beat. Oct. 1992: 30-33.

Coleman, Janet, and Al Young. Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs . New York: Limelight Editions, 1991.

Goldberg, Joe. Jazz Masters of the Fifties . New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965.

Harrington, Richard. "Mementos of Mingus." The Washington Post 2 Jun. 1993: B1.

Hentoff, Nat. The Jazz Life . New York: The Dial Press, 1961.

McDonough, John. "Doin' 'em Proud." Down Beat . Jan. 1997: 16-21.

Mingus, Charles. "Mingus Ah Um." Liner notes. Columbia Records: 1959.

Mingus, Charles. "Pithecanthropus Erectus." Liner notes. Atlantic Recording Corporation: 1956.

Mingus, Charles. Beneath the Underdog . New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1971.

Moon, Tom. "The Black Saint's Epitaph." Musician Jun. 1989: 60-121.

Perry, David. Jazz Greats . London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996.

Priestley, Brian. Mingus: A Critical Biography . New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.

Simon, Marcel-Franck. "Annotated Mingus discography." http://www.siba.fi/mingus/mfsimon.html

West, Hollie I. "Charles Mingus." The Washington Post 14 Jan. 1979: P1.

West, Hollie I. "Jazz Bassist, Composer Charles Mingus, 56, Dies." The Washington Post 9 Jan. 1979: C4.

West, Hollie I. "Mourning Mingus: His Widow Stokes the Fires of His Legend." The Washington Post 9 Oct. 1979: C3.

Zenni, Stefano. "The music of Charles Mingus in California." http://www.siba.fi/mingus/zenni/survey.html.

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