Charles Mingus (1922-1979)
Today's "Movie Night" is Charles Mingus: Triumph Of The Underdog. As a die-hard Mingus fan, I found this documentary to be incredibly enchanting and insightful. Below are some of my reflections on the man's genius.
Though Mingus loved music, he despised two things with a violent passion—the tendency to label things and the perceived limitations of instruments. In the case of labels, he hated it when people categorized music into arbitrary divisions, differentiating R&B from Swing or Classical from Jazz. To Mingus, it was all just music. Well, if you thought he was a great bass player, you would be correct. But that would be missing the point. Mingus was, first and foremost, a great composer. He didn't want people to overanalyze what the instruments were playing. Surely, it's rewarding to hone in and study his compositions. However, his music was only meant to be experienced and loved on the same level as Duke Ellington's, Mingus's biggest inspiration.
Mingus had a difficult time finding musicians to play with him. Part of this was because he needed someone who was both technically great on their instrument and incredibly open-minded—a quality most other musicians didn't have. Even if you were open-minded, you didn't necessarily have the the sort of unrestrictive mind that Charles Mingus needed to perform his music. It wasn't uncommon for players to take their sheet music back home with them, inspect it and think "huh? You want a trumpet to hit THAT note?" Or "wait, a sax can't do that." Mingus called bullshit on those attitudes. Incidentally, many of the musicians interviewed in this documentary comment that Mingus's compositions were some of the hardest they ever played.
And then there were the actual limitations—the inability for people in his band to understand what the music was supposed to sound like. Mingus went crazy composing his magnum opus, a piece called "Epitaph," much in the same way Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys did when he was trying to make Smile, the follow up to Pet Sounds. That his musicians couldn't enter his head and figure out exactly what he wanted made Charles Mingus furious. When he attempted to perform "Epitaph" live, he thought it was an epic failure and it depressed him.
Part of the pleasure of watching Charles Mingus: Triumph Of The Underdog is listening to Charles Mingus speak. You learn that he wasn't just a genius composer and musician, he was also a genius thinker and was able to convey what was in his mind with a beautiful—and often hilarious—elegance. Enjoy the movie. I've also included some of his best albums which serves as a great introduction to this fantastic artist. There's A LOT of music, but all of it is essential listening.
Charles Mingus: Triumph Of The Underdog
Blues and Roots
The Black Saint And Sinner Lady
Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus
Town Hall Concert
Mingus At Antibes
Let My Children Hear Music