Very sensitive, he had a short temper on stage and sometimes with his band; he was dubbed the “Angry Man of Jazz” at a time when the genre was hopping on cool. (His infamous memoir, “Beneath the Underdog,” showcased this sometimes fleeting passion.) Mingus’s legacy is best reflected in the unruly beauty of his recordings, including “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” a plucky 1963 album of with the roots of Baptist gospel and the blues, the language of Blackness and the sound of togetherness. He wanted to stray from the labels that put black music in prescription boxes and purged it for the mainstream market. This was it – the anger, the swing, the beauty and the confusion.
Still, no album sums up Mingus’s live-wire brilliance. What follows are edited excerpts from conversations with a wide variety of jazz musicians active today, including one who played with Mingus and many who carry his torch. Each chose a pivotal song from his career and explained its powers.
Saxophonist, 82; played in Mingus ensembles from 1960 to 1972
Mingus was a complicated person to me, and he had a lot of moving parts, which can translate into a musical dimension. I would use the term “Renaissance man”. I see him as a world thinker. He had feelings, thoughts and opinions about the world and he expressed all this in his compositions.
If we played his music, if we were too clean, he’d say, “I don’t want it to sound edited. It’s too pristine.” And if we weren’t so organized, he’d be like, “Well, that’s too ragged.” He would say, “I like organized chaos.”
He called his group the Jazz Workshop. So when you come to Mingus, you don’t just come to a performance, but also to a Process† Sometimes he just stopped a tune there, in front of 200 people, and gave advice to the musicians. And then he turned to the audience and said, “Jazz Workshop process. You are witnessing the creation in real time.”