PRINT May 1997


Charles Mingus

CHARLES MINGUS probably didn’t believe that old saw about less being more. To him less was less, more was more, and the only reason you might want people to think otherwise was because you were endeavoring to pull the wool over their eyes or sell them something. As an African-American born in the racially charged America of the ’20s (Mingus would have turned seventy-five this year), the late bassist, composer, and band leader had little stomach for ideas that didn’t add up, a fact that came through in song titles like “Fables of Faubus,” “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife (Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers)” or “All the Things You Could Be (if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother).”

As a result, Mingus spent much of his life in frustration. The bassist’s compositions are nothing if not the products of a voracious sensibility that desired more of everything—more notes, more sex, more fame and fortune. One might say that what was not fleshed out in his writing was manifested in Mingus’ dealings with those around him: reputedly the only musician ever fired by reluctant taskmaster Duke Ellington, Mingus later dismissed musicians in front of audiences, and would interrupt his bands midsong if things weren’t to his liking. At one point, from local gangsters, the bassist even committed himself to the infamous psychiatric ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, an experience he recounted in his provocative freeform autobiography, Beneath the Underdog.

As justice and the passage of time would have it, though, Mingus’ memory is in better shape now than it was when he died in 1979. Sue Mingus, his widow, accepted a lifetime achievement Grammy on his behalf this year, and the Library of Congress archives now shepherd his copious scores, compositions, memorabilia, and letters. But perhaps the most satisfying tribute to his memory resides in the Mingus Big Band, a wild, woolly, miraculously accomplished workshop orchestra that Sue has been running for the past five years of Thursdays at Fez, a cozy nook underneath New York’s Time Cafe. The mobs that flood the place weekly would no doubt have impressed Mingus, but not so much as a band of this caliber—rife with a new generation of musicians undaunted by the mix of blues, gospel, and extensive harmonic expressionism in pieces like “Sue’s Changes” or “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife.” If somehow Mingus has managed to hear Live In Time (Dreyfus), the big band’s fantastic new, direct-from-Fez, double CD, he’s probably laughing, having always known that, musically at least, his idea of more would win out.

K. Leander Williams