MINGUS AMONG US

BORN IN NAGALES, BASSIST CHARLES MINGUS SPENT HIS LIFE EXTENDING THE FRONTIERS OF JAZZ. NOW HIS HOMETOWN IS THROWING HIM A 71ST BIRTHDAY PARTY.

No doubt all of it will seem rather strange booming from the streets of the dusty dual cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico.

Not that it should. His birthplace may not have figured much in his life, but a part of Mingus was definitely shaped south of the border. Mexico inspired the best-known album of his career, one that embodied his free-wheeling machismo and long, melodic lines at the same time.

Mingus found himself going through "a very blue period of my life," he wrote of the mid-'50s. "I was minus a wife, and in flight to forget her with an expected dream in Tijuana. But not even Tijuana could satisfy--the bullfight, jai alai, anything that you could imagine in a wild, wide-open town. After finding myself with the sting of tequila, salt and lime in my mouth and burning my nostrils, I decided to benefit musically from this experience and set out to compose and re-create what I felt and saw around me."

So wrote Mingus in the liner notes of his matchless album, Tijuana Moods. Mingus took the romantic 60s cool jazz sensibilities of Los Angeles and moved them south, coupling them with the similarly romantic coolness of flamenco-laced Spanish/Mexican music. The combination has since inspired dozens of south-of-the-border projects, from guitarist Jim Hall's Concierto de Aranjuez to George Benson's White Rabbit. It was Mingus who showed that the sweet, smart jazz emanating from Los Angeles in the 50s and 60s mixed perfectly with the gut-wrenching romanticism found in Mexico. Any jazzman baring less of a snarl than Mingus would have turned the project into a simpering bit of Spanish sentimentality. But Mingus wrote and played Tijuana Moods with his angry sense of realism that forced listeners to remember that Mexico was not all sunsets and sombreros, but dirty water and cheap girlie shows, as well. It's no surprise that Mingus would choose to spend his last days in the country that inspired him the most.

Buddy Collette, who will play the Nogales festival, was one of the final visitors of the ailing bassist. When Mingus died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1979, Collette was chosen to inform the press of his death. It was a passing marked by appropriately romantic overtones: Mingus was 56 years old when he died, and on the coast of Mexico on January 5, the day of his death, 56 whales beached themselves. Local officials burned the corpses, making an unintentional funeral pyre for their near-native.

Now, a few Tucson and Nogales fans would rather celebrate the border birth of this bass giant. But they may find themselves and the invited bands sharing near-empty halls.

"We certainly hope to break even," says Ervin with a sigh. "We're only halfway to our ticket goal, which is $10,000. It's a $60,000 project."
Mingus the compelling composer, and Mingus the wild-eyed bandleader who stretched his jazz to near-mayhem, could be celebrated anywhere. But the Mingus who found jazz and macho-melodic Hispanic influences a natural combination deserves a Nogales party. If enough local fans and musicians felt the same, Arizona could become the incubator of beautifully unique dark-skinned jazz. Mingus handed us the roots of a potential local jazz sound we've not yet germinated. Blow off his musical trailblazing into Sonora and all we've got to show the jazz world is Art Farmer's picture in a high school yearbook.

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