Butter Goods x Charles Mingus
»I’ve always treated designing somewhat like sampling. You pull from the past to create something new. Hopefully we can introduce a new wave of kids to something they may not have come across before.« This is how Garth Mariano, co-founder of the Australian label Butter Goods, explained the approach he takes when designing new collections. Skateboarding influences meet a deep passion for good music. So it’s crystal clear that Butter Goods is one of our favorite brands, because – do we really still need to explain this? – with this very concept, they’re preaching to the choir.
This season, Butter Goods is paying tribute to one of the all-time greats: Charles Mingus. Honouring and celebrating the life and works of the jazz legend, the brand has created a limited tribute collection in collaboration with the artist’s estate and the Jazz Workshop, Inc. Charles Mingus was a force of nature within the jazz world. A virtuoso double bass player, accomplished pianist, bandleader and composer, he has worked with the likes of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. With over 100 albums and more than 300 compositions, Mingus has left behind one of the largest bodies of musical works in the United States with an unmeasurable impact on modern music.
A real deep dive into the work and the person Charles Mingus would absolutely go beyond the scope here, so we’ll just dip into it a little. Still, this is an undertaking not to be taken lightly, which is why we asked none other than Gereon Klug, author, journalist, DJ and an institution in the Hamburg music scene, if he could write a few words about Charles Mingus for us. Gereon’s »Eight Reasons for Charles Mingus« offers a good introduction and is of course affected by his personal admiration for this exceptional artist.
By the way, the soundtrack for this enriching read is provided by our friend Dexter, who curated a Mingus tribute playlist for us, which you can (must) listen to here:
journal.wav No 7 – Mingus Tribute by Dexter
Listen, learn & appreciate the genius!
Eight Reasons For Charles Mingus
Words: Gereon Klug
Charles Mingus never had it easy. Growing up as a black child in Watts, Los Angeles, with Native American, British and African American roots, he was insulted early on and barely accepted by anyone. Despite great successes as a musician at times, life took him on a roller coaster. He had debts, there was an apartment eviction and a big bust with a school project. But also fantastic tours in Europe and America, the highest recognition of his art in the jazz scene and awards. He also suffered from several illnesses throughout his life, not only of a psychological nature, which no miracle healer could alleviate. His muscular atrophy ultimately led him to a wheelchair. He died of a heart attack at the age of 57. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges river by his wife, like Mingus had wished. Unfortunately he paid the price of a torn genius with enormous power quite early, a genius whom posterity finds so much more terrific and glamorous and exciting than contemporaries. The stamp in his honor came out posthumously, of course.
Charles Mingus was a double bass player. He learned the physically demanding instrument after learning the cello at the age of 8, by ear and not by notes. As a bass player, you’re more of a massaging backbone of a band, less of a stage hog like all the singers, saxophonists and trumpeters or guitarists who blow their solos in your face. That’s probably why Charles Mingus is not as well known as other jazz icons from John Coltrane or Nina Simone to Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra. As a bass player, however, he is THE luminary in jazz, because on the one hand he mastered both the aggressive driving as well as the gentle, loving bowing. But he always played everything with an incomparable grit. Flatness and compromise were not his thing. You can hear it.
The music of Charles Mingus is not that easy, it is even quite often really demanding. Either you’re an expert and have ears that can still hear very well and precisely. Or – and that’s how it will be for most of you – you’ll be flabbergasted by the many works, and realising the amount of things this man has done you’ll have problems understanding it. What kind of music is this? Bebop? Hardbop? Gospel jazz? Modern free jazz? Exactly. All of it. The melodies don’t necessarily make it easier, because Charles Mingus’ songs often have few recognizable patterns to cling to and are seldom suitable as background atmo wallpaper. It is better to concentrate on his pieces one by one. You’ll be well rewarded! For the Mingus songs are emotionally intense, exciting and fun to listen to, even in the more experimental passages, because you can always hear how lively the recordings were. It’s like with children, for whom Mingus demanded: »Let them hear live music! No noise! Let my children hear music!«
»Man, that idiot could never keep his mouth shut! One time he was talking about profound shit, but then again he was letting off stuff lighter than a fly’s dick.« That’s what Miles Davis said about Charles Mingus, whose speaking was legendary. He didn’t put sheet music in front of his musicians, but played or sang his compositions to them. »This way I can give the musicians more individual freedom in playing the movements and solos.« A prime example of oral culture (especially cultivated in the African-American cultural context), which does not open up hierarchies like literature culture, but relies on the principle of exchange. Mingus even spoke a lot to his instrument. He insulted it, praised his bass, and sometimes saw it as an enemy as well as a friend: »You son of a bitch, fuck you, dirty motherfucker, I love you truly!« It all happened.
Charles Mingus wrote a song, covered by dozens of jazz and folk musicians, about a saxophonist’s headgear: »Pork Pie Hat«. He wrote many political songs with a militant agenda: »Fables of Faubus« or »Haitian Fight Song«. He also wrote ballet music (»The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady«) and some love songs (»I X love«). Sometimes you can hear him talking, sometimes sounds from the riots in the streets complement the music, and there is a lot of shouting from him and others in the background. There are long suites with beautiful, but complicated brass movements, most tender stuff and desolate, wild, mindblowing song poems. So the range is enormous. Charles Mingus, amazingly, studied avant-garde musicians early on and fed his music not only with old blues and gospel. Sometimes it had to be six trumpeters at once, but often the classical line-up of five was enough for him. The Mingus interpretations of classics like »Summertime« or »Mood Indigo« are great and some of his songs have also become part of the general canon. As I said, there is a lot to discover with Mingus. It should be done with time and a good attention to detail.
Charles Mingus encouraged young musicians like no other. His workshops beamed with anti-individualistic warmth. Instead of selecting his formations according to the principle of »survival of the fittest« like the dictators Miles Davis or James Brown, Mingus had a great sense of collectivity. He was interested above all in jazz in interaction, in the courageous social component. For him, a musician was only really good if, in addition to his fast technique, he could also play emotionally beautiful (or hard). They had to swing AND be equally interested in further development and invention. As a bandleader, Mingus was highly respected. His cats still praise him to the skies today.
Charles Mingus was not only the »Angry Man of Jazz« because he sometimes smashed a bass on stage or insulted his audience or hit an organizer on the head with a flower bouquet, but because he usually carried out his fight against racism with quite a bit of anger and rage. Especially in the world of jazz, there were still immense injustices in the 50s and 60s based solely on the origin and skin color of the musicians. Mingus was angry that these gentlemen up there were lining their pockets with millions »by sending the most famous jazz musicians to their miserable graves, which for them are the only way out of their invisible captivity.« Often unable to channel his anger, he was loud. And wrote songs about prejudice and persecution, organized festivals without big-headed promoters, and spent his life being an inconvenience for the record companies he deeply (and often justifiably) distrusted.
Charles Mingus spent more than twenty years writing his autobiography. More than a thousand fully written pages and a great many tape recordings preceded »Beneath the Underdog«, until a publisher took it in 1971. Unsurprisingly, the material is more Bukowski than Goethe. There are wild fuck, drug and pimp stories in it alongside incredibly introverted imaginative psychologies about himself – all definitely committed to a different idea than writing a dull jazz biography. Mingus models his biography in the style of a big bad motherfucker and gangster with a political agenda. His alter ego is actually named Bones, a successful and unscrupulous pimp who sometimes made 23 Mexican whores happy in one night. Is that how you should see him? Yes, like that, too! And as a saint, revolutionary and madman.
The Butter Goods x Charles Mingus tribute collection will be available at HHV on February 13th:
Visual Content: Butter Goods