Charles Mingus was one of the most influential and groundbreaking jazz musicians and composers of the 1950s and 1960s. The virtuoso bassist gained fame in the 1940s and 1950s working with such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and many others. His compositions pushed harmonic barriers, combining Western-European classical styles with African-American roots music. While examining his career is valuable from musical standpoint, his career also provides a powerful view of the attitudes of African-American jazz musicians (and Black America as a whole) towards the racial inequalities in America during that time. In addition to being a successful musician, Mingus was a very outspoken social commentator.
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He begins to interweave the two genres. His music featured written out structures, composed solos, and counterpoint mixed with jazz melodies and rhythms. He was criticized for tainting African-American jazz with white classical music. However, his philosophy was that “music is one”2 and it need not be labeled or have racial connotations. One of his first releases on Debut was a song entitled “Eclipse.” This was a social-commentary piece, inspired by Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The lyrics describe the troubles an inter-racial couple experience:
Eclipse, when the moon meets the sun, Eclipse, these bodies become as one. People go around, Eyes look up and frown, For it’s a sight they seldom see. Some look through smoked glasses Hiding their eyes, Other think it’s tragic, Sneering as dark meets light. But the sun doesn’t care And the moon has no fear For destiny’s making her choice. Eclipse, the moon has met the sun. Eclipse, these bodies have become one. (Mingus, 1992)
Mingus’s piece differs from Holiday’s, however. “Strange Fruit” deals with segregation and Jim Crow laws. “Eclipse” speaks more about white, suburban conformity and how the couple is looked down upon merely because they’re breaking the norm. The way this piece blends classical and jazz elements is a metaphor for the couple