For him, the word jazz was a racist stigma. He didn’t want to be called a jazzman, associating the term with discrimination and “the seat in the back of the bus.” He also lived in constant conflict with the music industry, which he accused of being racist and bloodsucking. His widow’s book is full of bizarre episodes: Mingus showing up at the Columbia Records accounting department, dressed in a safari suit and a shotgun, to ask about the delay of the royalties of his records; Mingus sharpening his nails with a knife while negotiating a contract with an executive. He called it “creative anger.” In the 1950s, he founded his own short-lived label, Debut Records, with drummer Max Roach, another black power activist.
The roots of Mingus’s music are as mixed as his genes, a blend of gospel, blues, seminal New Orleans jazz, swing, bop, Latin rhythms and contemporary European music. Critic Leonard Feather defined his legacy as a cross between “old and half-forgotten styles” and avant-garde improvisation. He was a versatile and curious musician, and he found inspiration for his own compositions in the sounds of various continents. Inspired by one of his trips to Mexico, he recorded the album Tijuana Moods in 1957. The album’s final piece is titled “Los Mariachis (The Street Musicians).” It is a jazzy take on Mexican folk music, evoking the nuance of the serape and the sadness―the blues?―of the charro trumpeter.
Mingus’s work also delves deeply into spirituality, personal identity and black culture. In The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963), another of his major works and a masterpiece of modern jazz orchestration, many of the texts that accompany the album release were written by his psychologist. Unlike many of his colleagues, Mingus was a fairly sober musician who detested the use of drugs for inspiration. That was the case, at least, until the pain of the disease pushed him to abuse painkillers, amphetamines and cocaine, according to another biography, Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus (Gene Santoro, Oxford University Press, 2001).
Drugs pushed Mingus’s explosive and paranoid personality to extremes. Convinced that the state was spying on him for his civil rights activism, he urinated in juice bottles that he kept lined up on shelves. He even wrote brief instructions on how to train a cat to relieve itself in the toilet, in a text titled “Cat-alog for Toilet Training Program.” After he died, his wife scattered his ashes in the Ganges River in India. Mingus had written that he wanted to spend eternity away from the music industry executives, the agents, club owners and “mobsters” he always considered his enemies.
During Mingus’s time in Cuernavaca, a city 85 kilometers from the Mexican capital, he traveled with his wife and son in an adapted van with a wooden ramp for his wheelchair. He had time to visit a brothel, go to the bullfights, listen to the mariachis in Plaza Garibaldi and receive a visit from his friend Joni Mitchell, who would dedicate a tribute album to him after his death. In any case, Mingus already knew Mexico City. He had traveled to the capital in 1977, shortly before being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), to play in the Nezahualcóyotl Hall of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). Mexican double bass player Agustín Bernal attended. He remembers Mingus as “a fierce, fearsome, intimidating jazz guru.”
Mingus went to see Pachita, a famous healer at the time, because of his ALS diagnosis. At age 54, he could no longer play the double bass, an instrument that he had been a pioneer of. His third wife, Sue Graham, described the operation in her book Mingus & Mingus. In a dark room smelling of alcohol, Mingus lay face down on a bed and Pachita showed up with a kitchen knife. After it was over, the musician said he felt like Christ when he was lanced, and that “she knows how to cut, just between the pores. From God to Pachita!” The musician was bandaged and left the house full of faith.
His wife was more skeptical and took advantage of a moment when Mingus was napping to peek under the bandage. There was no cut and no blood. They never told him, and instead kept changing the bandages for him. Mingus was in good spirits for days afterwards, and never stopped believing that Pachita had removed a kidney. In her book, Graham wondered about the healer’s miracles, and whether she might be able to cure pain and disease through the subconscious. “Was that her magic? Could disease be cured through personal will?” In any case, her husband died a few months later, on January 5, 1979, from a heart attack triggered by the disease.