By 1960, bassist, composer and leader Charles Mingus wasn't a jazz musician in the traditional sense. He was an activist, and if the new Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 (Mosaic) box is any indication, his music was two years ahead of Huey Newton's Black Panthers and the Black Power movement in general—both of which were launched in 1966.
Mingus' activist roots likely date back to September 1951, when he wasn't permitted to join Red Norvo and Tal Farlow with vocalist David Thorne on WCBS-TV in New York. The official reason was that Mingus didn't have a Local 802 union card. Mingus viewed the ban as racism and left the trio after the incident.
Fast-forward to 1957, when Mingus, along with the rest of the country, watched on television as federal troops were dispatched by President Eisenhower to protect nine African-American students who were trying to enroll at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. They were being blocked by the Arkansas National Guard, state police and local toughs. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 giving African-Americans that right, many states and cities found ways around the decision through intimidation and worse.
Mingus' response was Fables of Faubus, a song that took Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to task for his segregationist stance. First recorded in 1959 on Mingus Ah Um (Columbia), the track did not feature vocals. Lyrics came a year later in October 1960, when the track was recorded on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus for the Candid label, produced by Nat Hentoff.
By 1964, when the first concerts on the new Mosaic box were recorded, racial tensions in the U.S. were ratcheting up. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his I Have a Dream speech in August 1963, President Kennedy had been assassinated, the Beatles had arrived in February 1964 and were a national sensation, Cassius Clay also was putting on a brazen media show in his Miami training camp that month in advance of his first fight with Sonny Liston, and Malcolm X was giving bold, strident speeches advocating for African-Americans' separation from white society.
If jazz had a musical version of Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—exceptional African-Americans who were speaking out forcefully against segregation and racism—it was Charles Mingus. You really can't listen to this Jazz Workshop box without a sense of the period during which the material was recorded and the highly charged atmosphere framing the concerts.
Without this knowledge and context, the music will sound jagged, heavy and at times annoying. But with the overlay, you hear much more—the sounds of justified complaint, frustration and a general annoyance with the slow pace of fairness and equality.
Mingus was always about art and control. In the mid-50s, he had formed his own publishing and recording companies to protect and document his growing repertoire of original music. He also founded the Jazz Workshop, an ensemble that gave young composers an opportunity to have their original works performed in concert and on recordings.
Five Jazz Workshop concerts were held—at Town Hall in New York (April 1964), in Amsterdam (April 1964), two in Monterey, Calif. (September 1964 and 1965) and in Minneapolis (May 1964). Many of the pieces performed had a stormy, freewheeling feel that drifted between expressionist performance and more traditional forms of jazz. In nearly all cases, the sounds of the Civil Rights movement echoed in the music.
For example, Meditations on Integration, recorded in Monterey, is a 23-minute action piece featuring Jack Nimitz on bass clarinet and Buddy Collette on flute. Or the nearly 31-minute, up-tempo Fables of Faubus, which by the dates of these concerts no longer needed lyrics get its chiding point across.
Not every piece included in the boxed set was distinctly political, of course. The Duke Ellington Medley (Monterey), Arts of Tatum and Freddie Webster (Monterey) and Cocktails for Two (Minneapolis) are among the straight-up jazz works that are in stark relief with the heft of the statement pieces.
Perhaps the track that captures the time period best is A Lonely Day In Selma, Alabama/Freedom (Minneapolis), which conveys the blues and advocates for change. But like many of the pieces here, Mingus is no longer asking politely. This is bossy, big music—fit for a time when racial hostility was growing and putting a musical finger in the listener's chest. It was the only way to get the point across. Musically, that is.
JazzWax thanks to Sue Mingus, Charles Mingus' widow, for offering Mosaic unreleased Mingus tapes in her archives. According to Mosaic's Michael Cuscuna, in a press release accompanying the box, Of the seven discs in this boxed set, only one of them has ever been available on an authorized CD. Almost two full CDs have never been available on CD at all, and more than two hours worth of music include the new discoveries—appearing for the first time in any form."
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 (Mosaic) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Don't Let It Happen Here, from September 1965 at Monterey, Calif., featuring Jimmy Owens on trumpet...