Charles Mingus was my first jazz obsession. For a kid that grew up more focused on The Beatles, Jazz seemed aloof to me – at first. My brother had taken up Miles Davis and John Coltrane rather quickly, and I therefore had to be opposed in my formative years, as siblings do.
There is something so exciting and human about Mingus, he’s a cataclysmic character–one of my favorite stories involved his interactions with the famous film director John Cassavetes:
“John Cassavetes, another raging iconoclast, despised “cuteness” from his performing actors. Though he pretended to know a lot more about jazz than he actually did, he had the good sense to approach Charles Mingus to score his first feature, Shadows. Mingus said he’d do the score on one condition: that Cassavetes and his cohorts came to his apartment and cleaned up all the cat shit that was littering his piled-up scores. He did so, then was notified by Mingus that it was too clean in there now, that he was unable to think, that he had to wait for some cat shit to accumulate again before any progress could be made. (The score ended up arriving about two years late.) From this anecdote we can derive one thing about Mingus’ psyche: it is perennially untidy.”
Larger than life in many respects, his personality burned brightest on record. There’s very few Mingus records where you can’t hear Mingus exhorting his bandmates in the background, shouting and growling. Mingus had idolized Charlie Parker and how, “sometimes, he could make the whole room feel like he did”. If there could be any defining mission of Mingus– that is probably it.
He played bass, and played it exceptionally well, but his skill was most manifest as an arranger. Nobody charted horns like Mingus and it was no small thing that his bands included the likes of horn luminaries Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk. His ability to make order out of disorder is the quality that makes him so exciting to listen to, and makes his works sound so human.
It’s particularly hard to note any record as out of the ordinary for Mingus, because there hardly seemed to be an ordinary, but Oh Yeah stands apart from the ’59 triumvirate of Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um, and Mingus Dynasty as well as later works like Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Mingus plays piano instead of bass, something he would revisit with Mingus Plays Piano and even sings on a couple tracks, “Oh Lord Don’t Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me” included.
Predating both the Cuban Missile Crisis and Doctor Strangelove, “Oh Lord” manages to foreshadow the humanism and absurdity of both, a ballad with wonderful piano flourishes and Mingus’s direct emotional appeals.
Sadly, the article from which that Cassavetes quote is sourced is no longer available online, but exists as an excerpt in a comment on a blog here. It was written for Stylus Magazine by Chris Smith.
The whole album is fantastic, though I find myself torn between “Oh Lord”, “Ecclusiastics”, and “Eat That Chicken”.
“Eat That Chicken” is probably Mingus at his most fun, it’s a touching tribute to Fats Waller, another great jazz musician who is responsible for one of my favorite songs ever
An Argument With Instruments: On Charles Mingus found in the October 7, 2013 issue of The Nation by Adam Shatz, is a great overview of Mingus’s character and relation to his jazz contemporaries.