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The genius of Mingus? It was all in the strings

Charles Mingus, photographed performing in Germany in 1972.
Ullstein Bild
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Getty Images
Charles Mingus, photographed performing in Germany in 1972.

As a broadcaster and a bass player, I often end up in discussions about the all-time most influential bassists. Charles Mingus is a common, and correct, mention — a multifaceted trailblazer whose musical acumen, imagination and technical facility transformed progressive music from its roots, beginning in the 1950s.

However, there is so much attention paid to Mingus' prowess as composer and his sometimes-turbulent persona that his most fundamental talent — as king of the low end — is sometimes obscured. Even Rolling Stone, which lists Mingus as the second-greatest bassist of all time, points out that it can be "easy to forget how much of a force [Mingus] was on his instrument." The observance of his centennial provides the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at the scope of his particular instrumental brilliance.

Since his death in 1979, Mingus' spirit and legacy have been cherished in concert, most notably by the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty ensembles that regularly feature a who's-who of New York's finest improvisers. Mingus' reissues and unearthed recordings, such as a new three-disc set The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott's, add to the legend.

However, the most arresting evidence is now just a click away: Search for "Mingus in Greenwich Village" on YouTube and be immediately transported to a front-row seat before the master, who is fervently mid-solo on the classic standard "All The Things You Are." Watch him unleash an unaccompanied tapestry of notes, full of melodic invention, as the audience hangs on every phrase. After injecting a trace of the main melody of the song into his improvisation, Mingus' abrupt silence elicits exuberant applause, confirming that the listeners were under his spell the entire time. And after a count-off, Mingus' rhythmic drive catalyzes drummer Dannie Richmond — his longest-tenured sideman, known for his dazzling swing — while simultaneously raising saxophonist John Gilmore into the outer realms of the music, something Gilmore knew well from his time with Sun Ra. As he plucked and bowed, often verbally exclaiming — both a musical punctuation and a vehicle for admonishing collaborators — Mingus galvanized the groups that carried his name.

Mingus possessed a deeply distinct and personal tone, the sum of several elements. Firstly, since widespread amplification of acoustic instruments would not begin until the late 1960s, Mingus' sound was largely formed in his hands: They were the source of the character and color of his identity on the bass. Secondly, Mingus used gut strings on his basses from his start through the '60s, as opposed to the steel that would become popular a short time later. There was a certain physicality in Mingus' sound on these strings, as he crafted his action (the distance between the strings and neck) fairly high. Playing that way required additional strength to manipulate the strings, but also boosted the instrument's sonority. The strength in Mingus' hands greatly developed during his early experience in the 1940s, while a bassist for Lionel Hampton's dynamic big band. As a key member of the rhythm section, he played to be felt and heard in support of a team of brass, woodwinds and the leader's vibraphone.

One other crucial element was a deliberate choice to intonate sharply by a few semitones. During an interview and listening session in the late '50s, Mingus remarked that his playing on his instrument normally rang slightly sharp. "My singing teacher told us you should do that," he said. "As you get older and go flat, you'll still be in tune." A good example of this is found on Duke Ellington's landmark trio session Money Jungle, which features the pianist in trio with Mingus and drummer Max Roach. On the title song, Mingus rings out a few semitones over, and he also employs a unique, loping pattern. Sometimes, the pattern is forward on the beat and other times it lays back — not unlike the unquantized, groundbreaking loops that producer J Dilla would program some 40 years later. If this Ellington recording had never listed its personnel, chances are we would be able to guess who was behind the bass.

Mingus' pulse, tone, and sonic presence were uniquely foundational to me; I first heard him leap out of my Fisher-Price turntable at 7 years old. I had come across the words "Charles Mingus" in a book on Black improvisers — the man's surname stood out, and his demeanor in the photograph looked like serious business. With help from my father, I bought two reissues of material taken mostly from two albums, Tijuana Moods and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus.

The turntable I had at the time was more designed for 45s and children's singalong sides, but the first few seconds of tune "Dizzy Moods" richly poured out of the single built-in speaker. After a tight, six-second horn fanfare in the opening passage, Mingus plays a seven-second solo that musically paints a drunk stumbling down a pathway, eventually crashing to a fall. What happened next remains with me until this day. As the full band entered with the melody of the tune, I could clearly hear and feel Mingus' bass vibrations through the floor a few inches away. Drums, guitar, horns and pianos and electric instruments usually cut through, but acoustic bass was often tough to hear on this rudimentary system. These Mingus records, though, revealed a primal and spirited vibration — they conjured images, told stories. It was as if I were in the studio right beside the musicians.

When I later picked up the electric bass and stepped onto the bandstand for the first time at 19, listening to Mingus had helped me to understand the responsibility of the role and the importance of clear, concise musical and (sometimes) verbal cues with bandmates. His daring also challenged the stereotype of the bass as an unresponsive background instrument: In Mingus' hands, the role of bassist is not to be an anchor, but the captain.

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Greg Bryant