MINGUS AMONG US
Arizona's ties with the world of jazz are flimsy. Trumpeter Art Farmer was raised in Phoenix, and sax giant Charlie Parker probably spent the night in cactus country on his way to a lengthy stint in Los Angeles. And, uh, did I mention Art Farmer?
At first, another Arizona jazz link may seem just as insubstantial. But upon closer inspection, it's obvious that this footnote is also the state's most bizarre connection to jazz history. Bassist extraordinaire Charles Mingus was born April 22, 1922, in the nondescript burg of Nogales, Arizona--not exactly a mecca of jazz influence. And not that the town ever found him to be any big deal, either.
"Only a handful of people in Nogales has ever heard of Charles Mingus," says Yvonne Ervin of the city's most famous citizen. Ervin, executive director of the Tucson Jazz Society, is working with the Nogales/Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce to change that oversight. Together the two groups will be putting on a one-time-only Mingus Festival in honor of what would have been his 71st birthday.
"The Arizona Commission on the Arts offered program funding for projects that required the collaboration of two different organizations on some kind of art project," recalls Ervin of the opportunity that led to her writing and submitting the Mingus grant. They were given the go-ahead. Since then, the jazz society and chamber of commerce have been working frantically with both the stateside and Mexican towns of Nogales to pull off the upcoming six-day event.
"The logistics are pretty crazy," she says, laughing, "trying to get 38 musicians and their instruments back and forth across the border. My Spanish has gotten very good."
Ervin and the others are scrambling to bring attention to a place Mingus himself did not find important enough to mention even once in his eccentric autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Only four months after the appearance of baby Charles, his army sergeant father left the service and moved to Los Angeles. So if Mingus didn't care and Nogales still doesn't, should we?
Yes, we should. Forget the seemingly tenuous connection--if a Mingus fest were held in Montana because they both start with M, it would still be a good idea. Any sort of birthday party for Mingus, held anywhere, will bring long-overdue attention to the most important bass player in the history of jazz.
For starters, his chops were solid enough to merit playing behind saxmen Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and pianists Duke Ellington and Art Tatum--each a monster musical figure in his own right. But on his own, Mingus flew much higher than he ever did with even those connections. The border-born bassist took a wild-assed temperament and transferred it to the most colorless instrument in the band.
Mingus was the first to rip apart the stereotype of the nerd plucking the standup bass. Most bassists in the 40s and 50s quietly settled for merely establishing the beat, while the rest of the band got to blow, pound and wail. Nothing much was expected from someone who'd choose to play one of those goofy, oversize fiddles.
But Mingus showed plenty was possible. His playing and composing grew out of a crazed lifestyle that had nothing to do with the bow-tied dweebs who churned out mindless thunking while staring at the stage floor.
Charles Mingus may have thought little of his Arizona birthplace, but he certainly lived out the spirit of the Wild West long after Nogales was behind him. A 1966 documentary shows him casually testing out a rifle by blasting a hole in the roof of his New York loft. He regularly pimped and courted a bevy of whores. And he cradled a lifelong obsessive rage that falsely maintained his stepbrother had been lynched by a mob of angry whites. Mingus was forever paranoid of imaginary foils, once attempting to murder a fellow band member with an ax over an alleged racial slur. As for cowboy or musician stereotypes, the bassist unabashedly presented himself in Beneath the Underdog as someone equally comfortable with a holster or a bass.
Mingus is remembered today because the music he produced was no less volatile and unpredictable than he was. Once out of the ranks of such smoothies as Getz and Ellington, Mingus assembled more leathery musicians--among them sax screamers like Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and George Adams--forming big bands barely held together by spit and the directions Mingus shouted midtune as though he were herding cattle. Players falling short of the mark would be fired onstage.
The remaining band members swaggered as much as they swung. Mingus whipped the band into playing music with the same ferocity and shattered logic he exhibited in his aggressive interviews. Imagine the rough feel needed by a band to pull off playing, without embarrassment, Mingus compositions with titles like "Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am," "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers" and "All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother."
There is no way to appreciate how adventurous a Mingus band was until hearing his loosely corralled horn sections smearing themselves over his ominous bass lines. The listener doesn't know whether to cower from his anger or laugh at his audacity. Either way, the result is pure south-of-the-border machismo.
At least one former band member thinks the troubled Mingus used a feel for craziness to stave off his rage and endless disdain for life ruled by a racist music scene, dishonest club owners and his own manic depression.
"A lot of people don't recognize his humor," says trumpeter Jack Walrath, one of several former Mingus cohorts who will be playing at the Nogales gathering. "They play off the negative aspects of him being a tortured soul who led this very solemn, unhappy life. But there's a lot of humor in his music. That's where his energy and depth came from."
Walrath played in his band from 74 through 78, when health problems permanently put an end to the tempestuous bassist's playing. Angry and proud to the end, Mingus died in 1979 of a heart attack. A decade later, Walrath found himself fronting the Mingus Dynasty, a group widow Sue Mingus put together to keep her departed husband's music alive. "Mingus showed me how to keep the music fresh and unpredictable," Walrath says. The influence is obvious from Walrath's own Blue Note albums, where he has tunes titled "Meat!," "Beer!" and "Village of the Darned." He even recorded a jazz version of a Hank Williams song with Willie Nelson supplying the vocals.
Pianist Sy Johnson underlined the rowdiness of a typical Mingus project when writing in the liner notes of a 1979 Mingus anthology, Passions of a Man: "When he felt the band had become too facile--just swinging along--he'd destroy that ambiance because he wanted us to think about what we were playing. He'd suddenly switch from four to six beats to the bar, and it was like slipping on a piece of ice on the street. You'd fall on your ass. He never thought his function was to support the soloist, but rather, to stir him up."
Mingus goaded his band into its best with the same assaultive tactics he used on his enemies. If it hadn't been for his sense of humor and the beauty of the music, a band member would most likely have found himself unable to tell if Mingus were about to offer him a solo or punch him in the mouth.
His quick-draw leadership and angry humor would have been enough to guarantee him a permanent mark in jazz. But Nogales and the rest of the world continue to overlook his most subtle contribution--one that places him high among the best composers in jazz.
"He also instigated the long, melodic line," Walrath reminds us. "Most jazz before Mingus was built on riffs and short phrases, built over certain chord patterns that were commonly used. But Mingus would write the melody first, and then work out the chord pattern to support it. He came up with these very long musical phrases that had probably only been in classical music before his time."
The uniqueness of his composing style is most evident in his tribute to saxophonist Lester Young, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat." It's a theme familiar even to children. The title doesn't sound familiar? You'd recognize it if you heard it. Mingus knew how to write jazz themes so catchy children would hum them. "I know every version of 'Porkpie Hat' there is," laughs Yvonne Ervin, "from Rahsaan Roland Kirk's to Joni Mitchell's. My very favorite tune when I was 3 or 4 was 'The Boogie Bossa Nova' on an old Quincy Jones album, which is just a bossa nova version of Mingus' 'Boogie Stop Shuffle.'"
Mingus knew he was a hot--as well as hotheaded--composer and, for the years prior to his death, secretly worked on an overview of his musical compositions to be called Epitaph. Gunther Schuller, a critical musician-writer equally versed in jazz and classical music, admiringly called the piece "composition in the truest sense." Discovered years after Mingus was dead, the piece was found in a trunk in the house of his widow by the music scholar Andrew Homzy. The two-hour-plus piece served as a worthy overview of the crazy man Mingus, the uncomposed composer. It debuted in New York, and found its way onto disc in 1990. Every jazz rag in the world gave it coverage.
Nogales will make Mingus and Epitaph news again.
"Andrew Homzy was at the New York Public Library doing some research on Benny Goodman," recalls Ervin. "This was after Epitaph had been premiäred in New York. The librarian asked him if he would be interested in seeing the music from the library's two other collections of jazz composers, Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus. So Andrew opened the file on Mingus and found this missing movement from Epitaph. Mingus, not the most organized person, had lost the piece before taking it to be copied back in 1962. So we got Sue Mingus' permission to premiäre that movement from Epitaph."
Mingus had titled the lost segment "The Inquisition." Ervin states that the composition is not only somber, but also, appropriately, has a definite Latin feel. An 18-piece band, the Tucson Jazz Orchestra, will perform the recently found piece. Former Mingusites Walrath and bassist Ray Drummond will join them, giving "The Inquisition" a tie to the old bands Mingus led. Even famed jazz critic Gene Santoro will make an appearance to lecture on the importance of Mingus in jazz history.
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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