Listen to Charles Mingus’ live recording of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” from 1960 and you hear everything that made Mingus so arresting – and so ahead of his time. From its dense instrumental overlays to its gospel feel that included hand-clapping and shouting from the stage (“Yeah, baby, let’s go baby, go”), the song is a frenetic race against time. Mingus helped break down the barrier between jazz musician and jazz audience, and he established the bass as a musical command center that controlled a song’s tempo and lifted people’s spirits to another realm.
But where is Mingus’ music heard today? Unlike his contemporaries such as Miles Davis, whose Kind of Blue continues to be the best-selling jazz album of all time, Mingus never made wildly popular music. And in the three decades since his death from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Mingus is a puzzle for many people. Yes, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1997 (the same year as Frank Zappa, and a year after Stevie Wonder was similarly honored). And, yes, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Mingus’ honor in 1995 that showed him on bass, with piano keys in the background (acknowledging Mingus’ mastery of that instrument) and a caption that announced, “Jazz Composer and Bassist.” But Mingus’ virtual disappearance from pop culture has inspired actor Barry Shabaka Henley to try and reintroduce Mingus’ work to a more general audience. Mingus Remixed, a cabaret theater piece with Henley portraying the jazz titan, makes its world premiere on Friday, September 5, 7:30pm at San Francisco’s Children’s Creativity Museum.
Henley, an acclaimed actor who’s appeared in a litany of Hollywood movies, like Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal and Michael Mann’s Collateral, wrote Mingus Remixed after researching the musician’s life and interviewing his close family and friends. Delroy Lindo, himself a well-regarded actor, is directing the production, which is sponsored by the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and is also being performed on Saturday, September 6 at 2pm and 7:30pm.
“We have overlooked a giant of American music, not just a giant of jazz,” says Henley. “Charles Mingus was not only a genius but an unsung genius outside of certain circles. In reality, he wasn’t really known outside of jazz circles.”
Henley has long admired Mingus’ music, and the way he navigated disparate cultures to become an artist. Mingus, who had black, Chinese, and Swedish ancestry, was raised in Los Angeles’ Watts section, where he was ostracized by teenage peers who didn’t relate to his interest in the cello and classical music. Throughout his life, Mingus was both embraced and shunned in white and black circles. He never backed off from a confrontation, and the stories of his temper are legendary. Duke Ellington fired Mingus after he punched a band saxophonist during a performance.
But for every story of Mingus’ temper, there is a story of his genius at composing music and synthesizing jazz with gospel and classical music. Mingus could be deeply political, as with his 1959 song “Fables of Faubus,” which was a searing critique of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who prevented African-American students from integrating his state’s schools. The song is a gospel-driven, almost circus-like eruption of shouting and instrumentation that veers from heaving to stylish. The lyrics are vintage Mingus:
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie.
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools.
Then he’s a fool!
On the 1960 album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, which featured a live version of the song, Mingus can be heard warning the audience, “don’t rattle your ice and your glasses” during the performance. Contrast that song with “Moves”, from Mingus’ 1973 album Mingus Moves, which is a tender, mystical, and almost dissonant ballad that narrates falling in love and expressing joy and optimism. Featuring the vocals of Honi Gordon and Doug Hammond, “Moves” is beautiful without being overly sentimental, pleading without being ponderous. In short, timeless. The Pulitzer-Prize winning composer and jazz historian Gunther Schuller has called Mingus one the greatest composers of the 20th century. Henley agrees.
“Mingus, because of the kind of combinations of what he put together in music, and the magnitude of his personality, represents America for me,” Henley says. “Ethnically. Racially. Mother half-Chinese, half-black. Father half-Swedish, half-black. He grew up in all-black Watts, not treated very well by the community. He became an outsider. And music became a sanctuary for him.”
Henley plans to perform Mingus Remixed again in the Bay Area, though dates are still being set. He is also working on a feature film of Mingus’ life, and plans to play him in that version, too. Mingus Remixed opens and closes with Henley’s Mingus in a wheelchair. It’s January 4, 1979, and the musician is about to pass away from a disease that traumatizes nerves and bones.
“When his body was paralyzed but he could still talk, he was humming new compositions into a tape recorder,” says Henley, speaking in a phone interview from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he was shooting his role in the Breaking Bad prequel called Better Call Saul. “What people forget about is that ALS generally kills you fast. Mingus was diagnosed in the spring of 1977, and he died on January 5, 1979. He accomplished so much in his short life, and for me his life covers a very important part of American culture and history.”
Mingus Remixed features a live four-piece band, with 60 percent of the music original Mingus songs, and 40 percent original work written just for the play, most of that by Bay Area pianist and composer Muziki Roberson.
Henley, who lives in Los Angeles, grew up in San Francisco – in the the inner and outer Sunset District – and he maintains close friendship with many people here, including San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, for whom he has campaigned. Henley, who early in his life taught drama in the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, perfected his acting abilities as a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Henley has a resonant voice and a commanding presence, though on the big screen he’s often a character actor. In Collateral, for example, he played a jazz club owner who – suddenly, after riffing about Miles Davis – gets killed by Tom Cruise’s character.
“He was a quick draw,” Henley says of Cruise, laughing. “That’s one of my favorite scenes.”
It shows Henley’s acting range that he can confront Tom Cruise in a Hollywood blockbuster and play a complicated jazz musician in a small San Francisco production. That kind of elastic ability is what’s required of versatile artists. In many ways, Henley identifies with Mingus. It makes portraying him that much easier but also that much more challenging as he reveals Mingus’ greatness and the illness that suffocated and killed him.
Sponsored by the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, “Mingus Remixed” is being performed Friday, September 5, 7:30pm, Saturday, September 6, 2pm and 7:30pm, at the Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Fourth Street, San Francisco. For tickets and more information, go to lhtsf.org.