Memorable Mingus Moments: Recalling a Jazz Legend

Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Memorable Mingus Moments: Recalling a Jazz Legend

37 years ago, the world lost jazz legend Charles Mingus, who succumbed to the effects of ALS on this day in 1979. There's no point in trying to sum up Mingus's musical contributions in the span of a short article - they're far too substantial and deserve a lengthier look than what we're in a position to offer up at this very moment - but we can, however, spotlight a few particularly unique moments in his career that you may or may not know about.

1. Mingus and his band recorded three hours of music for the soundtrack of John Cassavetes' 1958 film Shadows. Alas, virtually all of his contributions were excised when the film went through a dramatic reworking the following year, but the new music still had a Mingus connection: it was composed by Shafi Hadi, Mingus's saxophonist. Thankfully, the original soundtrack music found its way to listeners eventually, including “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” but it's just a shame that it lost its original spot in Shadows.

2. Mingus turned up as himself in the 1961 British film All Night Long, starring Patrick McGoohan, Marti Stevens, and Richard Attenborough, the latter playing a wealthy music promoter. Other jazz legends making appearances: Dave Brubeck, John Scott, Kenny Napper, Tubby Hayes, and Philip Green.

3. The jazz great was the subject of a very enlightening, often disconcerting documentary in the late 1960s: Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968. Directed by Thomas Reichman, the film features concert footage of Mingus, but the most powerful moments have nothing to do with music, such as when he and his daughter are evicted from the studio where Mingus had intended to start a new jazz school for non-payment of rent. It's hard to say that the film has a happy ending, given that it concludes with Mingus being arrested, it's a document of who Mingus was as a person, and even though he had a notorious temper, there's plenty of evidence to show that he was a brilliant musician and a multifaceted individual.

4. Although Mingus's ALS prevented him from playing bass in the last years of his life, he still continued to compose and, indeed, to keep people guessing as to what he might do next. It's likely that few would've suspected that his final musical endeavor would be contributing music to four songs on a Joni Mitchell album. It's true, though, and it's also why that particular album was entitled - you guessed it - Mingus.

5. There's a small percentage of Mingus fans who first found their way into his fanbase indirectly, having first learned of his work via Weird Nightmare, a 1993 documentary directed by Ray Davies. Yes, that Ray Davies. The film features appearances by Elvis Costello, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, and Vernon Reid of Living Colour, along with legendary music arranger Hal Willner, who produced a similarly-titled Mingus tribute album that included contributions from Costello, Richards, Dr. John, Robbie Robertson, and Chuck D of Public Enemy.