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Text by: Omar Naqib

Issue name: The Explosive Issue


Who was tougher than Charlie Mingus? A man with so much roar he sent musicians running offstage just by reputation of rage. Mingus the double bassist was 6 foot and then some. A novelist described him as "two men sharing a suit". If a cash register rang or people talked too loudly in a club Mingus stopped playing and stared them down. Not for nothing is the double bass nicknamed a "bull fiddle". He made the instrument look small.

Growing up in Watts, Charlie regularly got called a nigger by white kids and Hispanics on his way home from school. Charlie's dad didn't like niggers either and would tell him so, sometimes while giving him a beating. Mingus Sr. was the black parent in the family. Mingus' mother was half white-half Chinese.

It was Charlie's stepmother who took him to hear gospel music. The shouting and hollering in church reminded him of jazz, which he heard on the radio when his father wasn't home. He learned cello and accompanied his sisters on violin and piano in the living room. Mingus Sr. didn't like music and was proud of his white roots: his own father had been a black farmhand who bedded his employer's Swedish grand-daughter.

Charlie began to refer to himself in the third person.

He had three ambitions: to play in Duke Ellington's band, to sleep with a white girl, and to play with saxophonist Charlie Parker. 

He became a member of Duke's band and was instantly fired because he bullied everyone.

The first white girl he slept with had two brothers who told everyone he raped her and set out to beat him to a pulp.

During his gig with Charlie Parker, the pianist Bud Powell had a schizophrenic breakdown onstage. Parker was so high that he cheered Bud on. A week later Parker died of substance abuse.

Mingus referred to himself  as "Our Boy", maybe because Mingus belonged to no one but himself.

I am bored of "greatest jazz albums of all time" lists. For some of you that sentence is self-explanatory. However I am bored because I only ever see two contenders for best album : Miles Davis' Kind of Blue -which also functions as good dinner music- and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme -which is great dinner music if your date arrived in a pair of sandals.

Somewhere in the the list you might find The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady. It is Mingus' masterwork and is terrible music for any social function of any kind, unless you plan on your guests brawling, screwing, and savaging your liquor cabinet with eyes full of tears. 

In 1968 Thomas Reichmann made a documentary about him, shot in Mingus' apartment in New York.   Mingus stands in a silk robe, his teeth chomped about a pipe. There is no furniture.  Mingus is the interviewer and interviewee. He asks the questions and is almost surprised by what he\'s been asked: New York real estate, love, Nazi concentration camps, Jesus Christ. Thoughtfully, Mingus snaps open a rifle and loads a cartridge into each chamber. "Come on Tom," the rifle snaps shut, "I'm-a-show you summin'". By the film\'s end the apartment has a blast in the wall and Mingus is evicted. 

Mingus' speech was a lot like his music: grandiloquent phrases and classical motifs morph into demotic, demonic blues riffs. Each were fighting for top-space in Mingus' mind:

Which one of you is Charlie?

M: Tis I, Charles.

M: Talk a walk cracker, I'm Charlie.

The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady. The name alone tells you Our Boy was conflicted. The album is divided into four suites for dancers, and the whole piece has the narrative drive of a ballet.  Mingus' approach to horn arrangements is so distinct that Radiohead happily admitted they lifted it for "The National Anthem". Trumpets and saxophones are blown up into cartoon-sized characters. On their own they can be drunk, goofy, over-sexed, spiritual, yearning; together they sound like a stampeding mob tearing down streets. The melodies can still be whistled in the shower.

Maybe The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady is Mingus' greatest album because the fight between the many Minguses (Mingi?)  is at its fiercest, its most eloquent. But also, because here Mingus come closest to forging them into a psychic whole- "myself when I am real"-  as he named one of his other albums. 

I am not Mingus' therapist, but his therapist did provide the liner notes to the album.