Charles Mingus was one of the most influential and groundbreaking jazz musicians and composers of the 1950s and 1960s. The virtuoso bassist gained fame in the 1940s and 1950s working with such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and many others. His compositions pushed harmonic barriers, combining Western-European classical styles with African-American roots music.
While examining his career is valuable from musical standpoint, his career also provides a powerful view of the attitudes of African-American jazz musicians (and Black America as a whole) towards the racial inequalities in America during that time. In addition to being a successful musician, Mingus was a very outspoken social commentator. Through his music, Mingus expressed the frustrations of African-Americans and supported Black Nationalism. Racial prejudice began to affect Mingus at a very young age. Mingus grew up in the racially diverse Watts area of Los Angeles.
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His father was half-black, half white and his birth mother was half-black and half-Chinese. Mingus had very light colored skin, which made him a target for prejudice from the darker African-Americans, the Latinos, and the whites. Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s experienced a sort of segregation that was not too unlike the situation in the Deep South. Mingus’s father denounced his own Black identity and attempted to run his family in a “respectable” manner that conformed to white standards. One of the ways his father attempted to keep his family “respectable” was to require that his children study classical music.
Mingus played trombone briefly and then moved on to the cello. The young Mingus proved to be very talented and eventually joined the Los Angeles Jr. Philharmonic. He aspired to play for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and to become a classical composer. Unfortunately, the music industry was not immune to the racial inequalities of the 1930s. It was nearly impossible for an African-American to land a spot in a major symphony orchestra or to find studio work during this time. Noticing his extreme talent, an experienced African-American musician told Mingus’s father: “Why don’t you get him a bass?
Because at least a black man can get employment with a bass, because he can play our music (Santoro, 200). ” The man was referring to jazz and blues. While black jazz musicians had to conform to white standards to become financially successful, jazz was still something that belonged to African-American culture. Mingus picked up the bass and began studying jazz and continued to study classical music. The 1940s marked the start of his professional career as a jazz bassist. He got his first big playing with the Barney Bigard Big Band in 1942. Mingus was just 20 years old.
Soon Mingus was touring with Louis Armstrong and playing with Lionel Hampton. Even though he had turned to jazz to avoid segregation, it was still affecting his career. Segregated musician’s unions in California reserved the better paying nightclub gigs for white musicians. This decade also marked the beginning of Mingus’s political activism. Mingus was a member of the desegregated branch of the Los Angeles American Federation of Musicians, however the other branch of this union remained segregated and denied membership to non-whites. Mingus fought to integrate this branch during the 1940s.
The two branches merged into a single, non-segregated branch in 1953 due to his efforts. In 1952, Mingus started an independent record label called “Debut” with drummer Max Roach. The idea behind the label was to have greater control over their own artistic production and to free themselves from the white controlled industry. By the 1950s, mainstream media dominated American culture. This media preached white, suburban values and minorities were expected to conform to them. Starting his own record label and recording studio was a sort of declaration of independence for Mingus.
Debut allowed Mingus to fully express himself. He saw jazz as not merely popular dance music, but as a legitimate art-form in the same vein as classical music. He begins to interweave the two genres. His music featured written out structures, composed solos, and counterpoint mixed with jazz melodies and rhythms. He was criticized for tainting African-American jazz with white classical music. However, his philosophy was that “music is one”2 and it need not be labeled or have racial connotations. One of his first releases on Debut was a song entitled “Eclipse. This was a social-commentary piece, inspired by Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit. ” The lyrics describe the troubles an inter-racial couple experience: Eclipse, when the moon meets the sun, Eclipse, these bodies become as one. People go around, Eyes look up and frown, For it’s a sight they seldom see. Some look through smoked glasses Hiding their eyes, Other think it’s tragic, Sneering as dark meets light. But the sun doesn’t care And the moon has no fear For destiny’s making her choice. Eclipse, the moon has met the sun. Eclipse, these bodies have become one. Mingus, 1992) Mingus’s piece differs from Holiday’s, however. “Strange Fruit” deals with segregation and Jim Crow laws. “Eclipse” speaks more about white, suburban conformity and how the couple is looked down upon merely because they’re breaking the norm. The way this piece blends classical and jazz elements is a metaphor for the couple in the lyrics. It is also an effort by Mingus to eliminate racial inequality in music and in society in general. The arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1st, 1955 was one of the most critical moments in the Civil Rights Movement.
It might not be such a coincidence that Mingus releases his most socially relevant album only 2 months later. Pithecanthropus Erectus was Mingus’s first album with Atlantic records as a band leader. The title track on this album is meant to be a commentary on race relations in the US during that time. It is also the beginning of Mingus’s shift towards Black-Nationalism. It is a metaphor for the African-American struggle for equality. The structure of the tune was very experimental for the time. The piece alternates from structured material and chaotic improvisation. The tune is broken into 3 sections; A, B, and C.
The A section features composed melodies, played in unison, and it follows classical European harmonization. The B section breaks from this structured idea and goes into a collective improvisation and brings out blues inspired inflections. The C section goes into complete chaos with wild, atonal improve meant to mimic human screams and animal calls. The A section is meant to represent a tyrant oppressor and his attempts to suppress his enslaved subjects. The B section represents the empowerment of the enslaved and their attempts at freedom. The chaos of the C section is meant to imply the destruction of the oppressor by the no free slaves.
The premise behind this tune goes in line with the political consciousness of the jazz community and their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Jazz musicians used their music as a form of non-violent protest that adhered to the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement. Mingus felt it was his duty as a jazz musician to speak out against injustice through his music and speech. Mingus Ah Um (1959) marks the point when Mingus drops all white, classical influence from his music. This album draws all its inspiration from the very roots of African-American music. Mingus brings out Negro spirituals, gospel music, and work songs on this album.
His goal for this album was to give jazz back to African-Americans. He wanted to strip it of all white influences and make it a purely black art form. He had become so disheartened with the racial situation in America that he had to abandon his previous philosophy of “music is one. ” This album features Mingus’s most politically charged tune. “Fables of Faubus” comments on Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus and his summoning of the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957. The lyrics are clear, there is no metaphor in their meaning; Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us! Oh, Lord, no more swastikas! Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan! Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie. Governor Faubus! Why is he so sick and ridiculous? He won’t permit integrated schools. Then he’s a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists! Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan…) (Mingus, 1999) Mingus’s development as a composer reflects the situation of African-Americans in the mid-20th century in America. He began by conforming to white standards in order to succeed and make a living as a musician.
He then becomes more outspoken and empowered, eventually refusing to adhere to any white standards and fully embracing his Blackness. Through his music ,Charles Mingus was a very powerful voice of the Civil Rights Movement. Works Cited Mingus, C. (Composer). (1999). “Fables of Faubus”. [C. Mingus, Performer] On Mingus Ah Um. Sony Records. Mingus, C. (Composer). (1992). Eclipse. [C. M. Octet, Performer] On Debut Rarities Vol. 1. Concord Records. Santoro, G. (200). Myself When I am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus. New York: Oxford University Press.