By Ashley McKenna
In the 1950s, the musical genre of jazz began to mature as it developed into an American psyche. For the first time, the stories of jazz were coming together in full force while jazz was recognized for its newsworthy characteristics.
As part of the Brown Bag Series, guest speaker Gene Santoro visited the Mayo Concert Hall on Friday, April 4, for “The Resurrection of Charles Mingus’ Epitaph.”
Gene Santoro, author of “Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus” and columnist for The Nation and the New York Daily News, gave insight about Charles Mingus, a pivotal composer of the jazz era who changed the way people viewed jazz with his improvisation style.
Santoro described Mingus as 5’ 8” famous for the way he brawled with musicians. Known as “The Angry Man of Jazz,” the highly influential American jazz double bassist, composer and bandleader learned to channel his emotions into something artistic by retaining his fierce and soulful feel of hard bop. He refused to conform to musical integrity, which led to many eruptions on stage, fights and even dismissal of his members.
“He slapped trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth,” Santoro said. “He took Sy Johnson (a jazz pianist and arranger) and started yelling at him and shoved him off the piano bench.”
A dramatic performance was the art of his set, and music was the key part of the show.
According to Santoro, Mingus wanted his side men to “perform in the moment.” The band members didn’t always know what the set would be.
“It was a drama workshop in progress,” Santoro said. “He wanted something new — something that would have voice not be borrowed.”
Santoro had his audience chuckling after describing a time when Mingus sat down and ate his dinner right on stage in the middle of the set because he was so bored of what his musicians were performing.
“I’m a guitar player,” senior music major Steve Thompson said. “So I found the comparisons between Mingus and Jimmy Hendricks really captivating.”
When Mingus’s mother passed, his actions changed dramatically and he started acting on ambition by writing suites to elevate his music and reflect his experiences.
“His music was his life,” said Santoro as he described the romantic artist who toured the world non-stop for over half a century.
With Duke Ellington as his mentor, Mingus brought a range of thematic ideas into his music, including human evolution. He pushed the boundaries of what jazz was able to do and instilled that it carried other weight and value besides itself.
“I thought that he was interesting because he was frustrated with racism, and when he could have passed for being white he chose the challenges he’d have to face as a black male instead,” freshman communication studies major Cristina Rodriguez said. “I just thought his story was pretty cool because he chose his life and was proud of it.”