Charles Mingus is one of a handful of the most important jazz composers of the 20th century. He was a giant of jazz, an innovator whose music blends classical, bop, and free jazz to create something else again. In addition, in the volatile time that he lived, he was an unapologetic advocate of civil rights in the United States.
Today we celebrate the anniversary of his birth, April 22, 1922.
Two distinctive documentaries have been made of his life: Mingus: Charlie Mingus, 1968 and Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog. The former is currently out of print, but was issued in both VHS and DVD formats (maybe you’d like to try to interlibrary loan it). Shown by many PBS stations across the country, Mingus 1968 chronicles a harrowing eviction from his East Village apartment, during a particularly troubling period of his life, as well as some perfomance highlights. Some of this footage was used in the later Triumph video, which presents a good, balanced view of his career with some fine performance footage. If you’re jonesing for a more complete live performance on DVD, check out Charlie Mingus: Live in ’64 (with the incomparable Eric Dolphy) for concerts in Belgium, Norway, and Sweden.
Mingus was no stranger to the written word: his Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus is an excellent autobiography, well worth the read. Also on the personal level, there is Sue Graham Mingus’s Tonight at Noon: a Love Story by wife and keeper of his legacy. For perhaps more objective points of view, there are Myself When I am Real: the Life and Music of Charles Mingus by Gene Santoro (2000), Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs by Janet Coleman and Al Young (1989), and Mingus, A Critical Biography by Brian Priestly (1982).
Ultimately, it is the music that matters; there is plenty to be had in library collections throughout the county and more performances seem to be discovered every year. In the last year and a half, three excellent concerts have been released: Charles Mingus in Paris: October 1970, the Complete American Session, Cornell 1964 (perhaps his finest live set ever) and Music written for Monterey, 1965: not heard – played in its entirely at UCLA, September 25th, 1965. Music written for Monterey was originally issued on vinyl on Mingus’s own label, one of the first independent releases of its kind and a precursor of today’s thriving indie music movement. The breadth and depth of Charles Mingus the man and Charles Mingus the musician are immeasurable; in an era of giants, such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, Mingus stood very tall, indeed.
And, oh, yeah, let’s not forget Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus: “Better get hit in yo’ soul!”