The Fascinating Story of How an Illiterate Italian Artist and Jazz Great Charles Mingus Have Been Supporting LA Arts for More Than 50 Years
As a child, the revered jazz composer, double bassist, pianist, and bandleader Charles Mingus was considered musically illiterate and rejected from the local youth orchestra. To add insult to injury, despite being an accomplished cello player, he was unable to take up the instrument professionally because 1930s classical music was essentially closed to black musicians. However, Mingus’ dedication to his own craft and deep affection for the arts in general ultimately led to a unique pairing of the jazz great’s adult resources and a Los Angeles landmark cobbled together from glass, stones, and steel assembled by Italian immigrant and construction worker Sabato “Sam” Rodia between 1921 and 1954.
During the early stages of the construction of what is now known as the Watts Towers, Mingus and other neighborhood children often brought offerings of broken glass and pottery to Rodia in hopes of having them added to his great and mysterious project, which he called Nuestra Pueblo (our town). Most of the offerings were rejected in favor of shards from Malibu Pottery, where Rodia worked, but Mingus never forgot the towers, which eventually numbered 17, and ultimately his Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center would hold (and continues to hold) art classes at the Watts Towers Arts Center for youth and special needs adults.
Mingus was raised in the Watts area of Los Angeles, where Rodia spent 33 years building the Watts Towers. When Rodia’s construction was completed in 1954, Mingus would have been entering the most productive and creative years of his career. While Mingus likely spent a great deal of time as a very young child scavenging materials for the exciting and eccentric Rodia, by his early teen years he was far busier writing the advanced musical pieces he would later record in 1960 with conductor Gunther Schuller and gaining a reputation as a bass prodigy thanks to tours with former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard and, subsequently, Louis Armstrong.
By the mid 1940s, Mingus was recording in LA and playing with jazz greats including Teddy Edwards, Bill Davis, and Howard McGhee. Mingus also received a great deal of acclaim thanks to his involvement with a jazz trio comprising himself, Red Norvo, and Tal Farlow, but he was ultimately forced to leave the band due to club owners’ issues with black performers. Ongoing racial conflict in his chosen profession exacerbated Mingus’ already short temper and, ultimately, he garnered the dubious honor of being one of only three musicians ever fired personally by Duke Ellington. That firing took place after Mingus got into a fight onstage with Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol.
After the Ellington firing, Mingus appears to have accepted his short temper as a handicap to playing in other people’s bands and opted to accommodate that temper rather than change it. He became a famed bandleader himself in addition to co-founding Debut Records so that he could handle his own recording career and support young musicians. He also created a group of rotating musicians called the Jazz Workshop, which many historians credit with the ultimate emergence of free jazz because Mingus insisted the musicians creatively explore their own music literally on the spot when they were working with him. His intense dedication to this process led some participants to dub the group “Jazz University” and others to select the nomenclature “Jazz Sweatshop.”
Mingus died in 1979 at the age of 56, but his legacy continues in many venues. Not only does the Mingus Big Band play weekly in New York City but the Mingus Orchestra and the Mingus Dynasty bands are managed by his fourth wife and widow, Sue Mingus. His masterpiece, Epitaph, a two-hour, 4,235-measure jazz composition, was, fittingly, discovered after his death and premiered by a 30-piece orchestra and fellow musician and recording artist Gunther Schuller.
Certainly, the Mingus association with Rodia and the Watts Towers is one of the musician’s subtler lasting cultural contributions, but it stands as a testament to Mingus’ own youthful struggles to enter and excel in the arts. As Mingus himself wrote in his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, and an Observer reviewer paraphrased, this deeply talented jazz legend grew up “in a world that [was] not only trying to stop you being an artist but has tried to stop you being human in the first place.” Perhaps his fascination with Watts Towers, which he mentions in that autobiography, was another manifestation of Mingus’ determination not just to exist in the antagonistic world of the arts in his lifetime, but to forge a new sound from it and thrive.