The Thingus About Mingus

The following is a guest post from Processing Technician Pam Murrell.

Cover for Charles Mingus’s album, Epitaph

In addition to being an adroit cellist, bassist, and pianist, Charles Mingus was also an accomplished composer. During his lifetime he wrote over three hundred scores, creating his first concert piece, “Half-Mast Inhibition,” at the age of seventeen. Ultimately, he aspired to be a spontaneous composer who presented a fusion of styles and instruments, sweeping orchestral works interspersed with improvised solos that kept the audience rapt and guessing. In the liner notes of his 1970 album Let My Children Hear Music, he specified that he wanted to write a three or four hour classical suite with ad-libbed sections evocative of Charlie Parker. With Epitaph, which many consider to be his magnum opus, Mingus achieved his lofty musical goals. The colossal symphony comprises 19 movements, 4,235 measures, and ranges from swinging melodies reminiscent of Duke Ellington to thunderous jolts similar to those heard in Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. At a two-and-a-half hour performance time, he was convinced that the piece would never be performed in his lifetime and he was correct. It wasn’t until 1993 that the composition made its world premiere, performed by a 31-piece jazz orchestra under the direction of conductor Gunther Schuller.

Epitaph was not the only Mingus work to make a posthumous debut. “A Chair in the Sky,” “Sweet Sucker Dance,”and “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” were first heard five months after his passing. The songs were a part of a collaborative effort between Mingus and Canadian folk musician Joni Mitchell. No longer able to write at the piano due to the paralyzing neurodegenerative disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Mingus sang his creations into a tape recorder. Afterwards, Mitchell set lyrics to these pieces and they were released on the album Mingus in June of 1979.

Three years prior, “All the Things You Could Be Right Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother” was copyrighted by the Jazz Workshop. The company was a publishing entity founded by Mingus and the song was a composition he wrote while hospitalized in the 1950s. At the time of his admission, which he recalled in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, he claimed that he had not slept in three weeks. “I was sped up, tired out, I couldn’t think who I was, I wanted to lay down.” In his state of sleep deprivation, he walked into the hospital thinking that staff would merely provide him a bed to rest and release him afterwards. Unsurprisingly, he was admitted for days, during which he wrote the aforementioned piece and thought of the title of another: “It’s Nice of You to Have Come to My Funeral.” Originally a poem, Mingus transmuted it into a song. And a copy of both works as well as drafts of his memoirs and copyist manuscript scores of all three Mingus-Mitchell collaborations can be found within his collection at the Library of Congress. Multiple pencil holographs and ink copyist manuscripts of his masterwork Epitaph are likewise available. Finally, a carbonless paper copy of the extensive music catalogue created by Mingus scholar Andrew Homzy, who discovered the orchestral masterpiece, is also accessible to researchers.

The Charles Mingus collection, which holds approximately 15,000 items, was the institution’s first acquisition of a jazz composer’s works and personal papers. It was also the first multi-format jazz collection processed by the Library of Congress Music Division. The purchase of this collection was celebrated by a press conference and lecture on June 1, 1993 by Sue Mingus and Homzy. The event culminated three days later with a performance by the Mingus Dynasty hosted by the Music Division. Inspired by an upcoming gift of six framed music manuscripts which hung on the walls of Sue Mingus’s home, staff are now revisiting this extraordinary collection for additional conservation. Researchers may also appreciate complementary material pertaining to Charles Mingus found within the processed papers of his contemporaries, Eric Dolphy and Max Roach.

5 Comments

  1. Bob Dobalina
    April 22, 2020 at 11:47 am

    Please let us know when those manuscripts arrive and the Library is open to the public again to see them.

  2. Cait Miller
    April 22, 2020 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for your interest, Bob! You can follow the Library’s status by checking the website (www.loc.gov) or any of our social media platforms, such as the Performing Arts at the Library of Congress Facebook page (www.facebook.com/libraryofcongressperformingarts/). This Facebook page would also be a good place to follow for news about our music collections and finding aid updates.

  3. Carter Rawson
    April 23, 2020 at 9:16 am

    Thank you for shining a light on Mingus once more. I had to pause when I thought about the fact that the collection was donated over 25 years ago and that Mingus “discoveries” keep emerging some 60 years after Mingus Ah Um.

  4. anne mclean
    April 23, 2020 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for this excellent blogpost! So good to know that the Mingus Collection is being highlighted in this way and that LC will be receiving the additional manuscripts soon.

  5. Rodger Green
    April 26, 2020 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you so much for these jeweled facets of Mingus that I was not fully aware of. I only know that I liked and followed his work. I will now listen to his body of work with a more informed ear.

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