Charles Mingus was born on April 22, 1922, at an army post in Nogales, Arizona, where his father served with a Buffalo Soldiers unit.
The revered jazz bassist and composer was a toddler when his family moved to Los Angeles, where he was largely raised in the Watts neighborhood.
But every spring, Nogales hosts a Charles Mingus hometown jazz festival to honor his connection to the city.
This year’s celebration will include the dedication on Saturday, April 23, of a Mingus memorial at the former entrance to Camp Little, where Charles Mingus Sr. served.
The festival on that day will also be the third and final leg of a tour of southern Arizona commemorating the Mingus Centennial by the Mingus Dynasty Quintet featuring Jack Walrath with special guest Charles McPherson.
The two musicians have worked extensively with Mingus.
On Thursday, April 21, the quintet will kick off their tour with a concert at The Nash in downtown Phoenix.
On Friday, April 22, they will celebrate his birthday at Arizona’s newest major jazz club, the Century Room at the Congress Hotel in Tucson.
The name of the club celebrates 100 years of Hotel Congrès and the birth of a jazz legend in Nogales.
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Creation of the Charles Mingus Memorial Park
The tour was organized by Alan Hershowitz, whose late wife, Yvonne Ervin, was the driving force behind the festival and the establishment of the Mingus Memorial Park in Nogales as Chairman of the Mingus Project Board of Directors.
“She was responsible for pretty much everything Charles Mingus had to do with in Arizona,” Hershowitz said.
Ervin’s endeavors in Nogales began with “Jazz on the Border: The Mingus Project”, which featured the world premiere of a long-lost “Epitaph” movement by Mingus conducted by Walrath in Nogales.
It was in 1993.
“So we will come full circle with the dedication of the memorial, which Yvonne considered her most enduring achievement,” Hershowitz said.
“And now, with a plaque for her on it, it’s also her own epitaph. So it started with an epitaph and it ends with one.”
Ervin, who also founded the Tucson Jazz Festival and developed the Tucson Jazz Society, died in December 2018.
His original vision of Mingus Memorial Park was a park where performances could take place.
“When selecting a site, they decided it made more sense to place it in the small triangle of land where the gates to the camp were originally located,” says Hershowitz.
“It’s a small piece of land. And the idea was to put up a wall and have art projects on it, including a portrait of Mingus, the story of Mingus and the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, which have always been an integral part of the festival.”
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How Charles McPherson joined Mingus’ group
McPherson was 20 when he started playing saxophone for Mingus, taking over from Eric Dolphy in 1960.
“Eric Dolphy was the saxophonist at the time and Mingus also had a trumpeter named Ted Curson,” McPherson recalled. “These two musicians were leaving. And Mingus wasn’t so happy about it, especially that Eric was leaving.”
It was Yusef Lateef who recommended McPherson and trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer as suitable replacements in need of a gig.
“That’s how we got into the band,” McPherson says.
“And for at least about two weeks, Mingus had two saxophonists, Eric Dolphy and myself, and two trumpeters. After two weeks, those two guys quit. But that was the start of my career with him.”
The relationship lasted about 12 years, from 1960 to 1972.
“I learned a lot from Mingus, especially in terms of songwriting,” McPherson says. “His writing, especially his ballad writing, was compelling to me. He was kind of a Renaissance man.”
He was also something of a complex individual.
Why is Charles Mingus significant?
“He was very intelligent, very sensitive and everything you could hear about him,” McPherson said.
“He was unstable. He could be confrontational. There are a lot of moving parts with Mingus. However, all of that put together, all of those little moving parts, is what made Mingus what he was.”
Mingus’ complexity was reflected in his music.
“Some people have a comfort zone,” McPherson says.
“But Mingus represented all the muses. He could represent sadness. He could represent anger. He could represent empathy and tenderness.”
There were compositions inspired by erotic love but also agape, says McPherson – the unconditional love one might feel towards God or a relationship that transcends the sensation of erotic love.
He also wrote his share of protest music.
“When I arrived it was in the early 60s,” McPherson says.
“The world at that time was pretty much on the move. You had the civil rights movement, the right to vote, the Vietnam War and all the protests about it. You had a social flux going on. Social revolution. “
Being based in New York has put Mingus and his band at the heart of all that social flow, McPherson says.
“And Mingus being not just a bassist or a musician but a thinker, had his way of thinking about what he thought was right, what he thought was wrong. And he wrote about it all. C So it was a wild ride.”
The ability to express all of these aspects of the human experience in his music is part of what McPherson says made Mingus so important in a way that went beyond his impact in the jazz world.
“To me, this should be the gold standard for all art and for everyone involved in it,” McPherson says.
“Can you, through your particular medium, express the whole human condition? He pretty much could. That’s why he’s such an important artist. And jazz is just an art form .”
Another thing that made his music stand out in McPherson’s ears is that he drew on such a wide range of inspirations, from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, Western classical music, gospel and latin jazz.
Was Charles Mingus a good bassist?
He also had amazing technique as a bassist and composer.
“When you have technique and inspiration for holding hands and communicating with each other, then you have great art,” says McPherson.
As for Mingus’ unstable side, McPherson was spared the fearsome temper that led to Mingus being considered the angry man of jazz.
McPherson credits a benefit concert they did for the bandleader’s friend Kenneth Patchen, a writer who had fallen ill.
At the end of the concert, Mingus went around and handed out $5 or $10 to each musician.
“When he came up to me, I said, ‘What’s $5 going to do? Just give it to him. That’s why we do it in the first place,” McPherson recalls.
“He looked at me for three or four seconds, and I saw his eyes look good up. He just stared. And then he said, ‘Thank you, Charles.’ From then on, he treated me differently than everyone else.”
He saw McPherson as a nice young man, which also meant he let him get away with things he would never have tolerated in those other players.
“I might be a little awkward at the bandstand because I’m young,” McPherson said.
“And so, I act like you might expect a 20-year-old to act. And he wouldn’t look. He just wouldn’t pay attention. As long as I wasn’t too ridiculous . If I was late, he would have a whole different attitude towards me.”
This is due to his complex personality.
“Besides being angry and ready to fight physically in no time, he had this other side,” McPherson said.
“If he recognized some kind of humanity in you, any fairness or authenticity, he put you in a different category and treated you a little differently. As confrontational as he might be, he wasn’t just a guy who was totally unbalanced.”
McPherson headlined the 2013 Mingus Hometown Music Festival in Nogales and was featured the next day at a Mingus concert in Tucson.
Mingus Dynasty and McPherson teamed up in 2018 to present the Mingus classic “Tijuana Moods” live for the first time in San Diego, followed by Mingus Dynasty performances and educational events in Phoenix, La Jolla, Portland and Tucson Jazz Festival.
McPherson’s latest album, “Jazz Dance Suites,” which topped the Jazz Times 2020 reader poll, was inspired in part by Mingus.
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