UPDATE: Charles Mingus: A Beginner's Guide to the Late Jazz Great
True story: once, we were entertaining some people at home and my rat terrier, Mingus, got loose and began mingling with the guests. Because he's an insufferable attention-seeker and since people are nice and tend not to be threatened by terriers, a woman petted him and asked what his name was.
I told her and she said, "Oh, yeah, like the kid from Boy Meets World. Is there another one somewhere named Topanga?"
The woman was asked to leave my home immediately.
Okay, that last bit isn't true. But I did have to momentarily shelve my jazz snobbery and explain that 1) the fictional TV nerd's name was actually Minkus; and 2) my dog was named in honor of one of jazz's geniuses, Charles Mingus.
This past Monday, April 22, is Mingus's birth date and, though he died at the very early age of 56 in 1979, musicians everywhere will be celebrating his music this week. In Arizona, his birth town of Nogales hosted its fifth annual jazz fest in his honor. His legacy bands will perform shows in New York City and Italy this week. And fans like me and my goofy rat terrier will just throw a CD into the stereo and enjoy what he shared with us all.
If, like my guest, you also believed Mingus was the wimpy kid Cory Matthews picked on in Seasons 1-3 of the stalwart ABC television show which once was a cog in the network's TGI Friday programming (my God, why do I know so much about this??) then stop watching too much TV and start knowing Mingus with these five songs:
5. "Better Get It In Your Soul," Mingus Ah Um
The first track from Mingus's first album for Columbia Records is arguably his best-known song and serves as a proper introduction to the man. By the time it was released in 1959, a banner year for jazz music, Mingus had recorded albums, begun his revolutionary jazz workshops and played with some of jazz's biggest names, people like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.
But way before that, and even before his formal music training
as by Herman Reinschagen, principal bassist for the New York Philharmonic, Mingus' musical influences came from the church. The gospel music he heard as a youth in Watts never left him, evident in songs like this one, "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and "Ecclusiastics."
4. "Haitian Fight Song," The Clown
Mingus took seriously the position that music could be used as a form of protest. When The Clown was released in 1957, the civil rights era was emerging and Mingus was outspoken on its issues. He penned "Fables of Faubus," also from Mingus Ah Um, in response to then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus' attempts to stop integration. His father was biracial and his mother was white, so Mingus had a depth of perspective on these matters.
He attached the Haitian revolution of the late 1700s to what was happening in the America he was experiencing as an African-American artist. The song begins with his lone, trademark pizzicato bass. He lays down the central tune in the opening moments, like an idea that will soon build into a militaristic frenzy and, ultimately, will bring the song and its struggles to a dignified end.
3. "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers," Let My Children Hear Music
This is probably a lesser-known Mingus composition and usually doesn't work its way into primers for those who don't already know the music; but, it's a personal favorite and, you have to admit, it's got a cool title.
Another reason to include it is because it showcases Mingus' versatility as a composer and the ambition he had for the jazz genre. He wrote this selection for a big band in the mid-1960s. By that point in his career, he was trying to broaden jazz to more musicians, oboe players and bassoonists and cellists. It's no coincidence it's the opening song on 1972's Let My Children Hear Music.
"As I say, let my children have music," he wrote in the liner notes. "Jazz - the way it has been handled in the past - stifles them so that they believe only in the trumpet, trombone, saxophone, maybe a flute now and then or a clarinet. But it is not enough."