Jazz Con Class Radio

Mingus and “Play Yourself”

Photographs ©Jerry Stoll and MJF Archives


Most all Jazz fans have heard Charles Mingus’ coined phrase, “Play Yourself” and have an idea of what he was trying to get across. Mingus had a very temperamental personality that spilled over onto his musical recording direction, when in the studio and even during his live sets. during recording his compositions. The combination of his upbringing along with the complexity of his tunes has much to do with it. There was never any doubt concerning his portfolio. He was already a master of music composing and multi-instrumentalist, a musical genius, and a born prodigy. Mingus was an accomplished musician that mastered the Piano, the Trombone, the Cello, and the Double Bass, where besides being considered one of the most influential musical composers in the history of music. Most of his rich complex Jazz masterpieces were, of course, composed on the Piano. When it was time to record, he alter himself and would transform into an intricate band member, as he proudly lead the sessions with his double bass. Mingus insisted that his fellow recording musicians play their very best and basically demanded the musicians to play “his way” but in the same breath would allow them to improvise within the parameter of their given solos. “Play Yourself” he insisted, as there really were only two ways to handle his criticisms in the recording room. You either play the song how it was written, the “exact order,”or grapple with him uselessly for a few minutes, only to embarrassingly stand corrected and perform the composition “exactly” how he wanted it done. Voluntarily or with great resistance these legendary co-recording musicians eventually took his precious advice and accepted his direction. Most musicians he worked and recorded with were very grateful and considered him to be very instrumental to their own development. I’m sure many here are not aware that he composed over “300” scores and recorded over “100” albums, that’s very impressive! The ONLY website you would need to go to and find out the most about Mingus, “in general,” is CharlesMingus.com. Included, is this very interesting video presentation that would help you further understand Mingus’ musical concepts and the influence it has on all who perform his music:

Here are a couple quotes to learn more of Mingus’ way of thinking. From this detailed 2013 article by Edward Mendelowitz, PhD. Click here to read it all…

These spontaneous remarks about self and becoming, freedom and destiny, struggle and release disclose a surpassingly thoughtful man and psychological acuity that is of a piece with many of our most cherished third force utterances and ideals. “ ‘Play yourself!' he used to holler to his musicians and the world"

My music is as varied as my feelings are, or the world is, and one composition or one kind of composition expresses only part of the total world of my music. At a concert or nightclub, I call tunes in an order that I feel is right for the particular situation and what I'm trying to say in that situation. Each composition builds from the previous one, and the succession of compositions creates the statement I'm trying to make at that moment. The greatness of jazz is that it is an art of the moment. It is so particularly through improvisation, but also, in my music, through the successive relation of one composition to another.

Photographer: Ted Williams

Yes, it’s certainly true, he was very authoritative but there was a purpose behind the madness and why his music conquered! He was genuinely a good person with plenty of love in his heart. There is surely no lack of emotion in “all” his music, that’s certainly obvious throughout all the complexity of his compositions. The verbal disruptions between Mingus and his recording band members worked out to be very positive in most cases. Mingus’ unorthodox style was his teaching tool and surely was  effective in the recording studio. It cleared up the air and resolved all those precious minute note changes. There are many “rhythm changes” in Mingus’ music and that’s putting it lightly. Take a look at this explanation of Jazz “chord progressions” from a musician.

Here’s a “Live” rehearsal of Mingus with his SUPER septet during their 1964 European tour, incredible stuff, ENJOY!:

There are many books written on Mingus and several  biographies. The closest one to being an “autobiography” is his very first “Beneath the Underdog.” There’s a very interesting interview conducted by Studs Terkel in 1971 that has been preserved by the Chicago History Museum. It could definitely help prepare you if you have not read it before and/or could help you better understand and clarify any obstacles you encountered while reading the book in it’s entirety. Here, listen to this excellent “live recorded interview” with Charles Mingus, May 20th, 1971. I personally gathered three major distinct critiques concerning this book. First you have the ones who thoroughly loved the book in it’sentirety.” Secondly, you have the ones that enjoyed the book, read it entirely but were not very pleased with the unnecessary “non-musical” conversation/language throughout most of the middle of the book that understandably interrupts the train of thought until it finally picks up again. The third opinion of the book was total dissatisfaction. Most of these readers were appalled and actually felt like they were held hostage by all of Mingus’ antics with women. The negativity varied from complete disgust to a complete letdown. You be the judge! Here’s the Amazon link for “Beneath the Underdog,”check the feedback also.  

“Triumph of the Underdog” (Above) was a 1997 documentary honoring Charles Mingus and his life. It premiered 18 years after Mingus death and served its purpose of educating a fresh generation of Jazz musicians to pass the torch to.

Here you have a small list of interesting articles written about Mingus and ongoing events:

1. “The Multilayered Music of Charles Mingus’   

2. Every Year the Charles Mingus Institute conducts the “Annual Charles Mingus High School Competition.” The 15th (2023) is coming up very soon (Feb 18th & 19). Here’s last year’s, the 14th (2022), it was virtual:

National Postal Museum: Issued September 16, 1995

3. Here’s a great article from Cait Miller, located on a Library of Congress Blog.

4. U.S. Library of Congress: Charles Mingus Collection

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