WQCS Header Background Image
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Fresh Air' marks the centennial of jazz great Charles Mingus

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. One hundred years ago today, the great jazz bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Ariz. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Mingus was a larger than life and often difficult figure, a complicated man of deep feeling whose music reflected his outsized personality.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "MINGUS FINGERS")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: "Mingus Fingers," 1948. Charles Mingus always thought big. He had big passions and appetites he exaggerated in his zingy, autobiographical novel "Beneath The Underdog." A virtuoso bass player with a forceful sound, he liked big gestures and had big ambitions. In the 1940s, idolizing Duke Ellington, he'd record as Baron Mingus. Duke's example showed him how to blend a rich ensemble fabric with vivid solo voices. And the jazz art songs Billy Strayhorn wrote for Ellington left their mark on Mingus ballads like 1946's "Weird Nightmare."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEIRD NIGHTMARE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Weird nightmare. Take away this dream you've born. Weird nightmare. Mend a heart that's torn and has paid the cost of love a thousand fold. Bring me a love with a heart of gold.

WHITEHEAD: That was recorded in Los Angeles, where Charles Mingus came up. In New York in the 1950s, he had a breakthrough, reconciling divergent strains and contemporary jazz. He liked a busy texture, and flirted with a polite brand of improvised counterpoint practiced by cool jazz musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "PURPLE HEART")

WHITEHEAD: Also in the '50s, a new wave of hard boppers flavored their jazz with proudly African American shouts, blues and gospel strains. That was just what Mingus needed. Now he wrote pieces with titles like "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" that caught the rollicking call-and-response dynamics of the Black church. On 1959's "Moanin'," Pepper Adams's baritone sax preaches as five other horns murmur or shout support.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "MOANIN'")

WHITEHEAD: To coax such sounds from his players, Mingus would sing them their parts. The horns mirrored the timbre of his voice. The bassist made that connection between voices and instruments explicit in dialogues with bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "WHAT LOVE? (LIVE)")

WHITEHEAD: Charles Mingus live on the French Riviera in 1960. By then, he was a bona fide jazz star. In 1962, he played himself in the jazz movie "All Night Long," recorded a gloriously combative trio album with Duke Ellington and Max Roach and played a famously chaotic concert-slash-open rehearsal at New York's Town Hall with an overstuffed band. That show ended when stagehands closed the curtains during an encore, but it yielded some unforgettable music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM")

CHARLES MINGUS AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Freedom for your daddy. Freedom for your momma. Freedom for your brothers and sisters. But no freedom for me.

WHITEHEAD: Mingus didn't shy away from politics. He wrote a lyric denouncing segregationist Governor Orval Faubus that the major label Mingus recorded for wouldn't touch. He gave pieces polemical titles - "Prayer For Passive Resistance," "Remember Rockefeller At Attica." In the 1960s and '70s, Mingus toured extensively in Europe, and it only seems like every concert he ever played there has been issued or bootlegged. Those recordings are still coming out. His bustling little band sounded bigger than they were. His orchestral projects were that much more sprawling. This is "Don't Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid Too" from 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "DON'T BE AFRAID, THE CLOWN'S AFRAID TOO")

WHITEHEAD: Charles Mingus died of neurodegenerative disease in 1979 at age 56. His music has been played often since then, much but not all a credit to his widow Sue Mingus, who assembled repertory groups like the Mingus Big Band. His centenary has prompted a bumper crop of reissued and rare recordings and an impressive array of tribute albums and concerts. Mingus music's continued currency makes sense - it's bluesy, heartfelt, intricate and infectious. The high spirits and passion are built in.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "REMEMBER ROCKEFELLER AT ATTICA")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film."

On Monday's show, we speak with actress Michelle Yeoh. She's starring in the new film "Everything Everywhere All At Once," a sci-fi mind- and time-bending adventure comedy. It's her first lead in a Hollywood movie. She started her career in the mid-'80s in action and martial arts films and was in the movies "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the James Bond thriller "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "Crazy Rich Asians." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Tina Callique (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "REMEMBER ROCKEFELLER AT ATTICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.