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Charles Mingus: a century of musical anger

Born on April 22, 1922, Charles Mingus was initially destined for the cello, with the dream of becoming a composer and classical musician. But it is still hard to imagine in the United States bringing a black musician into this world. His admiration for the immense Duke Ellington then made him turn to jazz and the double bass. It is here that Mingus finds the perfect platform to channel his anger and tireless insubordination. Nicknamed ” the angry man of jazz », Mingus will make his jazz a banner raised against racism and the slave trade in America.

Bringing together the religious music of his childhood, his classical ambitions and his admiration for the blues of Duke Ellington, the music of Charles Mingus is thus in his image. But there is one essential ingredient missing from this musical recipe: a bubbling anger that is sure to overflow the pot.

Mingus, a musician rooted in reality

Music is, or was, a language of emotions. If someone is running away from reality, I don’t expect them to like my music, and I would start to worry if such a person really started to like it. wrote Charles Mingus to Miles Davis in a public letter published in 1955. The message is clear: it is impossible to appreciate the music of Charles Mingus without facing the reality of his world. As a black jazz musician in the midst of American segregation and a struggle for civil rights, the musician’s reality is one of protest, anger, racism and injustice.

Like Ellington before him, Mingus seeks to elevate the status of black Americans through his music. He will do so, however, with an even more politicized musical voice, designed to unite and express the anger of an entire people. Mingus will thus use his stage as a platform to address subjects such as the civil rights movement, in It was a lonely day in Selma, Alabamablack self-determination in Haitian Fight Song,* and even nuclear proliferation in *Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me.

Sensitive to questions of injustice and racism, Charles Mingus is not, however, a political agitator, preferring to express his vision of reality in a more subtle way, through his music or sometimes by announcing aloud in full concert the provocative titles of his compositions: that will sometimes be enough to have him censored. During a tour in Yugoslavia in the 1970s, Mingus added his song to the program Remember Rockefeller at Attica, a sharp critic of the brutal reaction of the American government following an uprising in a prison in New York. A highly controversial song in the United States, the American embassy forbade the musician to announce the titles of his songs during his concert.

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“Fables of Faubus”

While Mingus’s commitment can be read in the titles and notes of his compositions, a significant event will push the double bass player to express his anger through words.

On September 3, 1957, in Arkansas, nine African-American students enrolled in the Little Rock Central High School. Although the Supreme Court of the United States ended racial segregation in public education on May 17, 1954, students are prevented from entering the establishment by the authorities of Arkansas, under the order of the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, the latter wishing to maintain the segregationist laws of his State.

As a result of this great racist injustice, the angry jazzman Charles Mingus then begins to compose his powerful Fables of Faubuswith a committed lyrical exchange between Mingus and his drummer Dannie Richmond, typical of protest songs at the time:

Oh Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us! / Oh Lord, don’t let them shoot us!
Oh Lord, don’t let ’em stab us! / Oh Lord, they don’t stab us!
Oh Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us! / Oh Lord, don’t let them tar and pluck us!
Oh Lord, no more swastikas! / Oh Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan! / Oh Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie / Give me the name of someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie
Governor Faubus! / Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous? / Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools
Then he’s a fool! / So he’s a fool!
Booo! Nazi Fascist Supremists! / Boo! Nazi Fascist Supremacists!
Booo! Ku Klux Klan (with your evil plan) / Boo! Ku Klux Klan (and your evil plan)

The song is recorded for the first time on the album Mingus Ah Um, but the Columbia Records label found the lyrics too controversial, and the song would only be released in its instrumental version. It was not until 1960 that Mingus managed to add the lyrics to his music, in the album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, released by independent label Candid Records. Due to a contract issue with Columbia, the song cannot bear the name Fables of Faubus, and will therefore be called Original Faubus Fables.

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Poignant and satirical, Original Faubus Fables is a song that sheds light on the grim hardships the black American community then faced on a daily basis.

A century after his birth, Charles Mingus, the most angry man in jazz, still embodies the most committed part of the history of jazz, constantly affirming the musical posture of a jazzman trained in the face of reality. and injustice. 100 years later, the angry work of Charles Mingus sounds as fierce as it is topical.

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The epitaph of Charles Mingus, gigantism in its purest form

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