Charles Mingus was a world unto himself, larger than life and determined to swing the world around by its tail. He was a bass player, but also performed on piano, a composer but also a master improvisor, a performer but also a bandleader and one of the few bass players to take on all these roles. He was descended from a mix of African, Chinese, Native American, German and Swedish ancestors— no wonder the world inside him was so complex and vast!
But the way things work in a land dominated by White Supremacy, any percentage of black ancestry makes you a black person denied the same status and rights as the white folks. So it was that Charles was denied opportunities to play cello, his first love, in classical music orchestras. Inspired by Duke Ellington, he switched to jazz and changed to bass. But as happens for all black people in America, the scars of racism left their mark.
So in 1957, when nine black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, enrolled in the all-white Central High School to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas, ordered the state National Guard to prevent them from entering. President Eisenhower eventually persuaded him to remove the troops (influenced somewhat by a public comment Louis Armstrong made!) and brought in the nation’s National Guard to protect the students, but still the governor approved of the ongoing resistance to integration by the white community.
And so it was that Charles Mingus used his voice to compose The Fables of Faubus, a composition critiquing the Governor and his racist decisions with lines like: “Two, four, six, eight, They brainwash and teach you hate” spoken over the powerful instrumental composition. It was not recorded until 1959 and Columbia Records did not allow the words to be included, but a second recording on another record label finally did in 1960.
Mingus composed over 300 works and this was one of the few with an explicit political message. But like all jazz musicians, his ongoing struggle to affirm the glorious humanity of African-Americans through his expressive art helped move the needle closer to liberty and justice for all.
LISTENING: Fables of Faubus