Now Playing:

Giant Steps: Charles Mingus

Wednesday, 08 February 2017 15:46

Throughout the month of February, music student from across the US an d the world are learning the repertoire of a man who once wrote a how to manual on how to train a cat to go to the toilet, a man who was fired by his first big boss, Duke Ellington, a man who wore his heart on stage and struggled with the politics of identity...The man was Charles Mingus Jr. I’ll get back to those  students in a short while.

You can’t find a more physically or musically daunting figure in jazz than the hard bop, free jazz maestro Charles Mingus, born April 22, 1922 and died January 5, 1979 - . The bandleader bassist, sometimes pianist, sometimes cellist and prolific composer was a genius...never content to lay down, never letting his audience feel too comfortable with the music or his onstage antics. His much talked about  prickly disposition as a showman was, according to those closest to him part of his personal struggle.

 He grew up in a time when his complexion - his father being half black/half Swedish and mother half black/half Chinese  led to the kind of inner conflict seen mostly in comic books. Who am? Where do I belong? What do I do with this power? Am I good or evil?  There were so many pieces to his complex puzzle.

So Charles Mingus Jr. set out to be a part of the  jazz world that was a jagged yet somehow beautiful fit in the puzzle.  He often felt disrespected as a black musicians -stung by once being refused a gig because of his colour, but his complexion was  light enough to raise eyebrows among his black peers. Through it all the idiosyncratic bass prodigy continued to create at a frenetic pace, 100’s of recordings, compositions, unrequited treasures written and strewn about his chaotic home.

Every musical genre needs an edge, that’s where Charles Mingus Jr was most content, sitting on that edge. As biographer Gene Santoro put it, “For Charles Mingus Jr., the neurotic contradictions of American racism were personal—highly personal. Paradox was at the heart of his darkness.”

This month thousands of students will take part in the the annual Charles Mingus High School Competition and Festival in New York,  paying homage to a giant complex paradoxical talent.  

New York Festivals Awards

The Jazz Messenger

Sign up to receive our weekly e-newsletter, The Jazz Messenger.

Jazz Calendar Login

Forgot your password? Forgot your username?