Jazz icon’s son, teammate Charles McPherson, speaks ahead of UC Irvine event – Orange County Register
When Eric Mingus was a boy in the 1970s, his father Charles Mingus took the family from their home in New York to visit Los Angeles, where the legendary jazz musician and composer had spent the first half of his life.
“It was really, really influential,” says Eric Mingus of Los Angeles’ role in his father’s life and career. “The reason he started playing bass from the cello was because of his friends that he grew up with.”
Mingus, who would have turned 100 on April 22 this year, grew up in the Watts neighborhood. One of Eric Mingus’s clearest memories of the trip was visiting Watts Towers, which artist Simon Rodia began in 1921, a year before Mingus was born.
“It was a huge deal,” Eric Mingus said by phone from New Mexico. “He pointed out stuff that he picked up as a kid that was part of the tricks. My dad, when he was a kid, would bring him stuff, stuff like hubcaps that they found.
“He literally showed me like, ‘These pieces here, I brought this and this.’ They were hanging out there a lot, so for sure it had a big influence on his creativity in his way of thinking.
“Not just Watts Towers, that company,” says Mingus, 57, a year older than his father when he died in 1979. “Where he grew up in Watts, it was very important for some parents to make sure that their children had a musical education.”
Eric Mingus hasn’t done many interviews about his father, tired of questions about Charles Mingus’ temperament, depression, violence, and other topics that aren’t strictly about his genius as a bassist and bandleader. orchestra.
But when the University of California, Irvine invited him to join a virtual panel called “Centennial: 100 Years of Charles Mingus,” Eric Mingus said yes.
Others, including saxophonist Charles McPherson, who played in Mingus’s band for more than a decade, and Morris Eagle, who promoted Mingus’ early gigs, are also on the schedule, which begins at 5 p.m. on January 26. . (To register for the free event, go to Eventbrite.com and search for Charles Mingus.)
“Because it’s his 100th birthday, and I think it might be healing for me to kiss him a little too, I’m going to give it a shot,” Mingus said.
Eric Mingus only ever knew his father as the talented, admired, if not always understood, musician that was Charles Mingus.
“As kids we would go to shows and concerts and rehearsals, so it was very present that he was where he was in his career,” he says. “But at that time, there were also opponents and people who didn’t necessarily accept his music. He was not then what he is now.
Eric Mingus, singer and bassist, started like his father on the cello, Charles Mingus teaching him the classical method which he had also learned as a child.
“I also have to say that when I moved on to another cello teacher, I got in trouble for everything he taught, like expressing yourself in music,” he laughs.
Her father also taught her to follow her own creative instincts even in the face of criticism. At times, Charles Mingus faced obstacles because of his mixed-race ethnicity — too black for some, not black enough for others, says Eric Mingus.
“He had mixed-race groups and women in his group at that time,” he says of how Charles Mingus viewed the world. “In his world, if you could play music, you could stay.”
In the years leading up to his death, the neurological condition ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, slowly took away his ability to play instruments. But he continued to work on projects, including Joni Mitchell’s album “Mingus,” which extended his popularity beyond jazz.
“I was there at the table when they met in Manhattan,” Eric Mingus says of his father and Mitchell. “You know, there’s something that was never really clear to me. I always thought my dad was making a record and then she was going to be on it.
He adds that he thinks there are still unreleased tracks from the “Mingus” sessions still unknown to the public.
“I was at sessions that I never heard again,” Mingus says.
“I remember Stanley Clarke coming in and playing bass, and there were some tapes my dad was listening to that were of it,” he says, quickly adding that bassist Jaco Pastorius, who’s on the album, and the rest of Mitchell’s “Mingus”. group was fantastic.
He also remembers his father asking someone to deliver sheet music to Mitchell and his response, “Oh, I can’t read that, it’s like a chicken scratch to me.”
“My father grimaced,” he said. “But they eventually got through it and they really cared about each other.”
Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson left Detroit for New York at age 19 or 20, heading there in 1959 with his trumpeter buddy Lonnie Hillyer in search of a well-paying band.
“I had enough money to go there for a month, maybe two months, just long enough to see if I could get along with a named band,” says McPherson, 82, from his San Diego home. . “Just as my money was about to run out, Yusef Lateef, a tenor from Detroit, told Lonnie and me that Mingus needed a trumpeter and an alto saxophonist.”
Mingus was told he could catch McPherson and Hillyer in a regular afternoon jam session at a village cafe, and one afternoon in late 1959 he walked.
“He came to the bandstand and asked the session leader, ‘Can I play one?'” McPherson said. “We played and Mingus said, ‘OK, you’re hired. So that night we played at a club he was playing at. And that was the start.
Although not without a lot of nerves that first night, McPherson says.
“It was quite intimidating,” he says. “We were maybe 20 and Mingus almost 40 at the time. And he’s a towering figure. I mean, he was 300 pounds at the time and almost 6 feet tall. And he had the reputation for being confrontational and fighting with people.
“So we knew it was a dangerous gig, but, you know, very young and it worked really well.”
Mingus, born between saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and trumpeter Miles Davis, grew up on bebop jazz in the 1940s. With influences such as Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton, one of the first virtuoso jazz bassists, Mingus moved past that to become its own sound, McPherson says.
“The musical soup that kind of makes Mingus who he is is Jimmy Blanton, lots of Duke Ellington, a really good dose of Charlie Parker and beboppers, and of course Western classical music and tradition,” McPherson says. .
“You mix it all up, you add the ingredients of what Mingus came wired with himself, that’s him, and that’s how you get a Mingus.”
Put on a show
Morris Eagle was halfway through his doctorate in clinical psychology in New York when, in the early 1950s, the “frustrated non-musician” had the crazy idea of working with the jazz musicians he admired.
“I remember thinking that if classical musicians could have concerts, why not jazz musicians? said Eagle, 93, from his home in Marina Del Rey. “It’s as fine a quality of music as any classical music.”
So he picked up his phone and called the editors of Downbeat and Metronome, the jazz magazines of the day, and put Bill Coss of Downbeat on the phone.
“Instead of hanging up or laughing at me, he said, ‘You know who would be interested in this? Mingus,” Eagle says. “‘He’s so sick of playing in clubs with all the noise and booze.’ So he said, ‘Let me give you Mingus’ phone number.’ “
Their first show was at Carnegie Recital Hall and went well. Next is the largest room in City Hall, where Eagle invited pianist Thelonious Monk to join the band for a gig that didn’t require a cabaret license, which Monk had lost after a drug bust, which brought him down. kicked out of the clubs.
“Then, again in this incredibly naive way, I say, ‘What if I called Steve Allen’ – the first host of NBC’s ‘The Tonight Show’ and a jazz pianist himself – and see if we can bring the band to the coast at – Coast TV?,” Eagle says.
And, of course, it worked too.
Eric Mingus says the music he connects to the most is “the music no one’s heard but me and maybe my sister Keki, him at home playing piano, playing bass and those melodies” .
But the most powerful music he had ever heard his father play came in the unlikely venue of a music store on New York’s 48th Street, against a backdrop of racial prejudice that Mingus faced, challenged and on which he wrote music throughout his life.
Eric Mingus was only 7 or 8 years old when he and his father drove to town from their upstate New York home to buy a cello.
“They were really not nice to him,” Mingus says of the white men behind the counters. “He said, ‘I want to buy my son a cello, and the way they looked at it, it was really awful, and I was upset. I wanted to leave.”
But her father persevered, Mingus said, and asked to see one of the cellos hanging on the wall.
“He sat down and they handed him the bow almost sarcastically,” he said. “And he started playing, and the whole place went silent. He played for 20 minutes, solo. He got up, he paid it, he left.
“They had no idea who he was or anything, but that turned it around. And I walked out very proud.