When I think of the jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (1922–79), the word “canvas” comes to mind, for a couple of reasons. Non-visual artists who create works broad in scope are often said to work “on a large canvas,” a phrase that certainly applies to Mingus’s compositions. And his works bring to my mind’s eye—I have just realized this—an image that is very much like a painted canvas, a wide, Jackson Pollock–like work: abstract, full of energy and simultaneous happenings, dark here, humorous there, turbulent, explosive. The strapping Mingus was no stranger to fistfights, sometimes drawn in by racial slights, real or imagined, that no doubt recalled for him the abuse he suffered at the hands of benighted teachers in his youth. His humor is evident in his works as well as in many of their titles, notably “Bemoanable Lady,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers,” and the prize winner—a riff on the title of the jazz standard “All the Things You Are”—”All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.” He dealt with his feelings about racism in intellectual/compositional as well as physical ways, titling one of his works “Fables of Faubus,” after the segregationist Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, and another “Meditations on Integration,” also known simply as “Meditations.” Recently, the bassist’s widow, Sue Mingus, discovered tapes containing performances of those two works—each a half-hour in length—along with other tunes recorded at a 1964 concert at Cornell University. In 2007 Blue Note released the recordings as a two-CD set, under the title Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy-Cornell 1964.
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