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."