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Music History Mingus: forceful political engagement

CHRIS SEARLE signals the continued importance of Charles Mingus who infused contemporary jazz’s with uncompromising political comment

APRIL marked the centenary of the birth of the great jazz bass virtuoso, Charles Mingus.

Born in Nogales, Arizona, on the US frontier with Mexico with a father who was a sergeant in the US army and a cosmopolitan lineage of African-American, Chinese and Native American, he grew up in Watts, Los Angeles, a tough and conflicted black neighbourhood.

His innovative music fused with the political realities of the times he lived through — compositions like Fables of Faubus, lampooning the racist buffoonery of the state governor of Arkansas, who in 1957 blocked the entry of black students into the high school of Little Rock with state troopers, or in 1964 his Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters, gave full support to the civil rights movement.

While his Oh Lord! Don’t Let them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me of 1971 anticipated the Cuban Missile Crisis.

His 1965 recording, They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux put his huge cultural weight behind the US Native American movement.

Later titles on his two Changes albums of 1975 exposed the racist prison violence of Lockdown America with his Remember Rockefeller at Attica and the rampaging Free Cell Block F, ’tis Nazi USA.

Always a mentor of huge youthful talent, his bands developed the jazz genius of saxophonists Eric Dolphy, George Adams, Clifford Jordan and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and pianists like Jackie Byard, Horace Parlan and Don Pullen.

Even decades after his death in 1979, the Mingus Big Band still tours the world, keeping his music alive.

And 2022 brings other Mingus delights. Mingus: The Lost Album (Resonance Records) is the first-ever pressing of a jewel of a discovery, its superb sound quality reviving Mingus’s final London performances at Ronnie Scott’s, Soho, in August 1972 with some brilliant confreres: 19-year-old trumpeter Jon Faddis, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, drummer Roy Brooks and two virtually unknown but super-charged sidemen — pianist John Foster and tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones.

It’s a throbbing album, fully redolent of its era — 35 minutes of Fables of Faubus has some superb, flying McPherson with Mingus’s earthy, grounding bass in full accord, a high-note, incisive Faddis, some stop-time rollicking Foster piano and Jones’s audacious horn reinventions before Mingus extraordinarily allusive, witty bass recalls all Americana: When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Over the Rainbow, My Old Kentucky Home, Down by the Riverside and more and more.

Mingus 2022 has been given to us at another Soho venue, round the corner from Ronnie’s at Pizza Express, Dean Street, where seasoned British bassman and outstanding jazz mentor Gary Crosby of Jazz Jamaica, Jazz Warriors and Nu Troop, leads a sextet recalling the tunes of the late-life Mingus album, Mingus Moves of 1973.

And on Thursday May 26, at Camden’s Jazz Cafe, the Blues and Roots Ensemble (BARE) will celebrate the centenary with a special performance.

With him are youthful and powerful jazz talents: trumpeter Mark Kavuma, altoist Aleksandra Topczewska, pianist Alex Ho, tenorist David Kayode and drummer Daniel Smithson, their musical souls deep in the jazz tradition.

Feeding from Crosby’s plunging bass, Ho’s swinging notes and Smithson’s crackling beat, Topczewska’s melodic flair, volleys of succulent notes and piercing flutesong flew through Soho, while Kavuma’s red-hot, sharp-edged sound cut through the air like a re-born Howard McGhee.

Kayode’s warm-toned horn on his debut outing with the band blew a more soothing message. It was a fitting and diverse way to celebrate the music of a great jazz innovator and militant.

Mancunians, jazzlovers all! Don’t miss them when they play at Band on the Wall on May 28! You’re in for another grooving session. Mingus’s music lives on across England too, north and south, with all its heat, subtlety and rebellion.

Celebrating Mingus, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, September 30 2022. Box office (020) 3879-9555, tickets: www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

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