From the shadows a giant steps forth. A towering, absolute bear of a man, a figure every inch the match of that huge, powerful voice. He stands behind an upright bass and plucks out a thick, lowdown, spine-throbbing line. He trades roars and growls with a saxophonist, belts out hot, angry blues in jagged, blood-flecked chunks. He dispenses poetic couplets of a highly unsettling nature—something about smashing his hand with a hammer.
Meet Eric Mingus. He makes quite an impression.
If the last name sounds familiar, you’re right: Eric, 43, is indeed the son of legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus (his mother was the jazz giant’s third wife, Judith). But in the presence of Eric’s own art, a powerfully moody, darkly cool, Beat-inspired combination of rock, blues, soul, jazz, and sung/spoken poetry, the family legacy is rendered a mere footnote. In an age when the descendents of too many jazz icons—Duke Ellington’s son, Mercer; Cab Calloway’s grandson, C. Calloway Brooks—have been all too content to earn a crust by milking their heritage in tribute shows, Mingus has always done his own thing. Though it hasn’t always been easy.
“It was funny,” Mingus recalls with a laugh. “When I was younger and decided I wanted to play the bass, [longtime Charles Mingus drummer] Danny Richmond said to me, ‘Man, do you realize how good you’re gonna have to be?’—meaning that people would be expecting me to play like my dad. That was pretty intimidating at first, but then it became more of a challenge. It got me to try to sound different, to come up with my own approach to the bass and to music. Yeah, my dad’s name has opened a lot of doors for me, which I’m really grateful for. But I try to stay conscious of that, and I always try to take as many other people with me as I can when I go through those doors.”
“You could say Eric’s blues are dyed deep in his marrow, and it’d be true,” writes music journalist Gene Santoro in the liner notes to Mingus’s new album, Healin’ Howl (Intuition Records, 2007). “But his blues aren’t Charles’s blues, though there are some family resemblances. [Mingus has] lived the blues, he’s given away his heart and had it smashed, but he’s never sold his soul. In that way, Eric is his father’s son.”
Born in New York City, Mingus was eight years old when the family moved to the area, first to Stone Ridge, then Rosendale; Mingus attended Accord’s Rondout Valley High School. In addition to unavoidably discovering music at an early age, he also found poetry. “Of course, music was always very much around the house when I was kid, and I got to meet a lot of great musicians,” he says. “But I also got turned on to Langston Hughes and T. S. Eliot. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Micheline were good friends of my dad, and they both were really encouraging to me when I was starting to write my own stuff.”
Another early love was boxing. “After my dad died [in 1979], I was pretty angry and was getting into a lot of fights at school,” Mingus says. “I guess I have a fighter’s mentality, and boxing was the obvious way to channel that. So I ended up training with [late boxing legend] Floyd Patterson in New Paltz. It’s been years, but lately I’ve started to get back into training. To me, there’re really a lot of parallels between boxing and music. I mean, Muhammad Ali is like a jazz master, you know?”
In the mid ’80s, Mingus moved to Boston to study voice and bass at Berklee College of Music but only lasted “a semester and a day,” he says, citing a clash of ideals with the conservatory’s faculty. “Everything was too by-the-book there,” he grumbles. “For one of my performance classes, I played a version of [jazz standard] ‘Misty’ and I did it kind of ‘out,’ in free time. They told me it wasn’t good because people couldn’t dance to it. But what’s really funny is that, years later, they asked me to teach a couple of workshops there.”