Charles Mingus and Civil Rights

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Charles Mingus was one of the most influential and groundbreaking jazz musicians and composers of the 1950s and 1960s. The virtuoso bassist gained fame in the 1940s and 1950s working with such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and many others. His compositions pushed harmonic barriers, combining Western-European classical styles with African-American roots music. While examining his career is valuable from musical standpoint, his career also provides a powerful view of the attitudes of African-American jazz musicians (and Black America as a whole) towards the racial inequalities in America during that time. In addition to being a successful musician, Mingus was a very outspoken social commentator. Through his music, Mingus expressed the frustrations of African-Americans and supported Black Nationalism.

Racial prejudice began to affect Mingus at a very young age. Mingus grew up in the racially diverse Watts area of Los Angeles. His father was half-black, half white and his birth mother was half-black and half-Chinese. Mingus had very light colored skin, which made him a target for prejudice from the darker African-Americans, the Latinos, and the whites. Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s experienced a sort of segregation that was not too unlike the situation in the Deep South. Mingus’s father denounced his own Black identity and attempted to run his family in a “respectable” manner that conformed to white standards.

One of the ways his father attempted to keep his family “respectable” was to require that his children study classical music. Mingus played trombone briefly and then moved on to the cello. The young Mingus proved to be very talented and eventually joined the Los Angeles Jr. Philharmonic. He aspired to play for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and to become a classical composer. Unfortunately, the music industry was not immune to the racial inequalities of the 1930s. It was nearly impossible for an African-American to land a spot in a major symphony orchestra or to find studio work during this time. Noticing his extreme talent, an experienced African-American musician told Mingus’s father: “Why don’t you get him a bass? Because at least a black man can get employment with a bass, because he can play our music (Santoro, 200).” The man was referring to jazz and blues. While black jazz musicians had to conform to white standards to become financially successful, jazz was still something that belonged to African-American culture. Mingus picked up the bass and began studying jazz and continued to study classical music. The 1940s marked the start of his professional career as a jazz bassist. He got his first big playing with the Barney Bigard Big Band in 1942. Mingus was just 20 years old. Soon Mingus was touring with Louis Armstrong and playing with Lionel Hampton. Even though he had turned to jazz to avoid segregation, it was still affecting his career. Segregated musician’s unions in California reserved the better paying nightclub gigs for white musicians. This decade also marked the beginning of Mingus’s political activism. Mingus was a member of the desegregated branch of the Los Angeles American Federation of Musicians, however the other branch of this union remained segregated and denied membership to non-whites. Mingus fought to integrate this branch during the 1940s. The two branches merged into a single, non-segregated branch in 1953 due to his efforts. In 1952, Mingus started an independent record label called “Debut” with drummer Max Roach. The idea behind the label was to have greater control over their own artistic production and to free themselves from the white controlled industry. By the 1950s, mainstream media dominated American culture. This media preached white, suburban values and minorities were expected to conform to them. Starting his own record label and recording studio was a sort of declaration of independence for Mingus. Debut...
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