Updates from the road

January 5th 2015

Work on MingusonMingus continues and there have been a few promising opportunities that could help lead the project toward completion. For now I continue to focus on refining the narrative and shaping the score. With that, the month January and my belated observance of seasons change, I would like to share this track of my grandfathers recorded live in January 1959 featuring two interviewees from the film, saxophonist John Handy and pianist Richard Wyands. The after hours session (Mingus in Wonderland)  was sprung on the musicians just moments after finishing a performance at their regular spot in downtown NYC. The music was the framework to the soundtrack of feature film Shadows by John Cassavetes which I would also like to share with you here- https://orangethenblue.com/kst/ ‎

Looking forward,

KEM

June 25th 2014     

Opus 3 (Squeezed Strings) 

Living in out and on four wheels, watching the landscape roll passed the curved window glass, stoping to pick up pieces of my history, I left behind the           instrument that was an integral part of how I expressed myself.” Why don’t you play the flute?” my maternal grandfather used to ask as we stuffed the “bull fiddle” into his Cadillac.  The bass was so big it would extend from the embroidered floor mats to the intemperate oval window in the rear. So big that when I was old enough and he nearly too old to drive, it sat shotgun. The Caddy  road like a yacht and I wanted to carry my  bass around while filming like we   used to in that plush El Dorado, but I had a honda.

The Contrabass/Doublebass/Doghouse/Bullfiddle/Uprightbass/Stringbass/ Kontrabaß is actually 1/3 the size of the vehicle that carried me across the US.  I admit it would have been nice to move beyond words in certain moments of the journey and play music; the impracticality of bringing  the bass shifted focus to   the camera as an instrument.

KEM SmL

Being back to listening and playing the bass again within the framework of the footage reaffirms my feeling that it can support and link the narrative lines of the film. In the coming months I will start to develop the narration in tandem with the score. Till then I’ll have the doghouse in the woodshed.

Yours,

KEM

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June 5th 2014

See the past transparently 

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. 

Maya Angelou      April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014

I know that one persons journey may flash light on unmapped paths but no creative vision is singular in its affect or intention. Mingus on Mingus continues to work towards a moment where this idea/venture/project can be further shared.

Thank you for your presence, support and patience.

KEM

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March 2nd 2014      

Slow March (alt. take)  Over the last year we  continued to film a series of interviews up and down the east coast, from New York City inundated by Hurricane Sandy, to the Carolinas in their full fall brilliance of autumn color.  We explored the archives of the Library of Congress in Washington DC making friends with parking permits to circumvent hourly limitations.  We moved on through the icy streets of the  Northeast and the lonely disquiet of Detroit before we found ourselves tracking recounted memories in the South.  It was an unexpected ride but passing through the South led us closer to a type of residual context of which my grandfather fought against.MLKThe landmarks of history came alive in the details of the lens, connecting images with the sounds of my grandfather’s music in places like Little Rock Arkansas, where he denigrates governor Orval Faubus’ stand on anti-integration in “Fables of Faubus.”2a Little RockTracing the roots deeper through the Mississippi Delta, the imagery seemed to question the presumption of progress and change from the past. We steadily made our way to California, traversing the length of the United States again.

5 sunsetWe began our preparations to visit Mexico, where my grandfather died.  My intent was to find the house where he spent his last days and delve into the mysticism around a faith healer that seemed to promise a cure for his terminal Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

joha

– with Johanna Michaelsen (former assistant to Pachita)

Given months to live and having exhausted alternative therapies in other parts of the world, my grandfather relocated to Cuernavaca and sought treatment under the knife of psychic surgeon Bárbara Guerrero (Pachita). He passed away on January 5, 1979, in the arms of my father.

pachita-Pachita operating as her spirit guide Hermanito

Much of the residual pain held deeply within the bifurcated roots of the Mingus family emerged in the immediate aftereffects of Charles’ death.  He left behind an extended family that originated with his first wife Canilla Jeanne Gross, with whom he had two sons, Charles and my father Eugene.  Concurrently he fathered his first daughter Yonnine with Shirley Chatters. From his second wife Celia Zaentz came his son Dorian.  He and his third wife Judith McGrath brought forth his last two children, daughter Caroline and son Eric.  He also left behind partner Susan Graham Mingus.  Absent from the lives of his children Charles had perpetuated familial patterns of abandonment that have burdened many generations.

8 Wedding

Since completing the major task of principal photography (filming for 18 months), we are excited to move the project into the next phase of production.  The breath and scope of the project has grown into something truly beautiful.  We have amassed a tremendous amount of material over the course of making this film.

Kiki Mingus

-with Caroline Mingus

There are nearly 100 hours of interviews, in addition to supplementary footage related to multiple narrative story lines of the film.  Hidden in all of this raw footage is a rich retelling of more than just the documentary, it shows the process and the journey. The development and growth are accompanied by great potential. As with any film project of this scale, the task of logging and transcribing the work into a trim, manageable sum is time consuming.

Paul

-with Paul Jeffrey

joni2– Joni Mitchell

Morris Eagle

– Morris Eagle

Peggy Hitchcock– Peggy Hitchcock

4 bigjay

– with Cecil “Big J” McNeely

The more we can accomplish before we put it into the hands of an editor will lessen the cost and length of post-production.  While we have been moving forward and building the project, we have been very fortunate in that the interest in it has also swelled.

The sense of urgency with which I approached the initial stages of filming has come full circle.  I would like to acknowledge the loss of Shirley Chatters, Yusef Lateef, George Barrow and Buddy Collette.  These individuals gave their time and energy to this project and have since passed on.  This is an unpredictable art form not unlike the music that carries it and of the many changes in the course of making this film the loss of life is the most profound.  Our condolences go out to their families.

IN MEMORY

Shirley Chatters, Charles with Yusef Lateef and George Barrow

Following 28,002 miles on the road, four countries and an uncountable amount of setup and brake downs, I am back behind a desk fervently working towards the next steps of the project.  This is a challenging and evermore inspiring process that would not have been possible to get underway without the support of our backers.  Narrowing your focus, shifting priorities and commitments to what can from the outside seem like intangible or even abstract details has its consequences.

3 SwampI  began this project favoring a view towards the lost embraces of a father, the missing bond of a brother or the unspoken fellowship of a friend, rejecting the ego composed in the history that is Charles Mingus.  But the confrontation of choice is a swift teacher and fortunately through the stories and time spent with those touched by Charles, I am beginning to understand the delicate intricacies that shaped him.   It’s my hope that it will not be long until I can share these moments with you.

KEM

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April 22nd 2013

I’ll Remember April

– with Randy Weston

While basing ourselves in New York City we visited a few northern American cities including Detroit, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin. We travelled to interview Marcus Belgrave and Richard Davis. On the return trip we visited Amherst and Yale Universities to sit with Yusef Lateef and Willie Ruff.

– with Richard Davis

Our visit to Detroit was emotionally impactful for us. Formerly the seat of American automotive glory and African American cultural riches and lore, the “Motor City” has been economically and culturally devastated by the exportation of its manufacturing base over several decades and most recently by the real estate securities crash and economic recession.

The city is literally a shell of its former self, having lost 25% of it’s population in the last 10 years and 60% since 1950. The once great city attracted Southern African Americans in droves in Post World War II looking for work and a better future.

– with Yusef Lateef

The density and diversity gathered in Detroit created a potent cultural mix that gave birth to a rich musical legacy spanning every genre of Black Music from gospel to jazz and everything in between. Motown Records became the crown jewel of what was then the royal city for African American music through the 60s.

Unfortunately, today mostly abandoned homes and dilapidated factories are all that remain. Entire neighborhoods are barren. Witnessing the decay and ruin of a place with such an incredible history was truly difficult to bear. Nevertheless, hope remains as a new generation of artists seeks to help this city rise from the ashes.

Indeed, Detroit is a symbol of similar cities with similar histories such as Watts, CA where Charles Mingus was raised. In the heart of Los Angeles, largely an industrial city, Watts was a vibrant center of African American culture, also created from southern immigration seeking economic opportunity in Post Second World War America. Much like Detroit, segregated Los Angeles kept African Americans dependent on one another economically and socially. As a result, they created jazz clubs, orchestras, literary societies, businesses and institutions to fulfill all of their needs. For a time, this culture flourished on Central Avenue, the heart of what was then Black Los Angeles.

– with Marcus  and Joan Belgrave

Sadly, the oppressive and racist Los Angeles Police Department continued to enforce discrimination sanctioned by larger society. In Watts, as in Detroit and many cities in the US, the improving economic conditions and changing social relations forced the nation to confront its underlying racism, exploitation and oppression. Uprisings broke out in Watts and Detroit in the 1960s as African Americans continued their resistance to their plight in the US. Today, the clubs, theaters and halls that were once the pride of South Central Los Angeles and Watts have been demolished or transformed into hair salons, laundromats and small markets, leaving only a nearly vanished memory of what was once a proud and dynamic scene.

– with Willie Ruff

Our travels also carried us to the nation’s capital, Washington DC to review The Charles Mingus Collection in the US Library of Congress. Called “the most important acquisition of a manuscript collection relating to jazz in the Library’s history”, the collection was sold to the Library by Charles’ last wife. She was given an undisclosed amount for the collection, though tragically none of Charles’ descendants were offered any of the items or personal effects (including hair) for inspection, or keeping as family heirlooms and treasures.

The collection includes music, writings (by and about Mingus), business papers, printed collateral, iconography, personal documents and sound recordings. Thus far, we have spent more than 100 hours listening to audio material and perusing documents in the archives. Reviewing personal artifacts within a public institution gave us pause to reflect on the nature of such collections; begging the question of what is sacred and appropriate for public consumption as it relates to the Mingus family and their inheritance, their legacy.

Nevertheless, our research led us into interesting territory as we traced the lineage of the Mingus family. We drove to North Carolina where we visited the Mingus Mill in the Oconaluftee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains.The Mill was built in 1886 and at that time, it was the largest in the Smokies, serving approximately 200 families.

Charles Mingus’ father, Charles Sr. was born here in 1877. We learned a lot about him and the resident farmers and slaves living in the area at the time during our visits to research facilities nearby and in the State capital, Raleigh. What we learned was enlightening when compared to existing information in biographies of Charles Jr., confirming some notions while contradicting others. We look forward to sharing our understanding of the information in the presentation of our film.

Currently we continue our travels, with an eye to returning to the West Coast to film more interviews and revisit some locations with a new perspective. We will happily keep you updated in the coming months about our progress.

KEM & Valeria

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Fall and Winter 2012- 2013

New Fables

…rushing cars, endless avenues, boundless skyscrapers, hoards of taxicabs…the ceaseless honking and honking…the swelling of voices from people all around you…from all over the world, the larger than life advertisements….bright lights in the Big City. You guessed it! We set up shop in New York City, aka the “Big Apple”.

We arrived to the East Coast and NYC as the summer ended, in search of friends and colleagues who shared this great city with Charles Mingus when he lived there.

Charles joined a migration of musical talent to NYC following others enjoying a Post-War economic boom that lured artists and musicians pursuing their own paths in a turbulent and changing society. Just as the societal change by the First World War had set the stage for African American artistic expression and activism that flourished in what we know as the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s & ’30s, so too did the Second World War have the effect of stretching the racial and social boundaries in New York City far beyond the norms of much of the rest of this country.

– with Toshiko Akiyoshi

The jazz music of this time often spoke out boldly against the oppression and vicious exploitation African descendants continued to face despite broader opportunities in society. Jazz was a potent artistic voice of the Civil Rights Movement and Liberation Struggles of the middle decades of the twentieth century. Yet and still, African American artists faced arduous obstacles despite their enormous contributions to American culture and society.

– with Richard Wyands

Charles Mingus left California and a segregated Los Angeles musicians union to join the already integrated musicians union in New York City. The musicians union in Los Angeles would be integrated not long after he left, in no small part because of the work of fellow Angeleno musicians Buddy Collette and Gerald Wilson, amongst others. Despite the progress being made with union labor support and involvement, Charles, like all African American musicians of his time continued to face the systemic prejudices of American society. Nevertheless, Charles continued to find creative ways to resist endemic racism, discrimination and oppression.

– with Jimmy Owens

After then Governor Orval E. Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to go to Little Rock in 1957 to prevent nine African American teenagers from integrating Little Rock Central High School, Charles composed the famous “Fables of Faubus” in protest. As was practiced at that time, the lyrics to the song were censored as the record label Columbia deemed them inflammatory and too controversial for public consumption. Thus, the first issuance of the song on the “Mingus Ah Um” album in 1959 was recorded as an instrumental.

– with David Amram

Charles was politically conscious and active and not merely an “angry black” jazz musician. He consistently and courageously spoke out against injustice whenever and wherever he saw it. He did this despite being fully conscious that such action could be life-threatening for him. In continued resistance, Charles recorded “Fables of Faubus” again in 1960 on the Candid Label; this time with lyrics. Due to contractual agreement with Columbia Records, the song was recorded as “Original Fables of Faubus”.

– with George Wein

Charles had long developed an ideology and practice of self-empowerment for African Americans against the exploitation he witnessed and experienced in the world of music. He was actively fighting for a better world in a time where people where silently conforming. As early as 1953 he joined with Celia Mingus and Max Roach to establish Debut Records. At the time, a record label owned by musicians was extremely rare, but it afforded Mingus control as to how he recorded, distributed and profited from his own music. Conversely, since Debut Records did not have the immense financial backing of the major labels, its catalog was not widely distributed, though many releases were critically acclaimed and highly sought after by those fortunate enough to hear them.

– with George Barrow

During its brief existence, Debut Records recorded a galaxy of bop and progressive-minded jazzers, as it viewed itself as a means to showcase new and daring talent that the major labels either wouldn’t record or would compromise in doing so. Debut Records‘ first release was an album called “Strings and Keys”, a piano and bass duet between Charles (bass) and pianist Spaulding Givens. The album was released in 1953 though it was originally recorded for the Discovery label in Los Angeles in 1951. Altogether, Debut Records released 26 records from 1953 to 1958, until the label was transferred to Fantasy Records, owned by Celia Mingus and her then husband Saul Zaentz.

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September 6th, 2012

West Coast Ghost.

June and July have been very exciting months. Mingus on Mingus is moving forward and deeper into the world of Mingus.
We have met some family members: Celia Zaentz-Mingus, the second wife of Charles Mingus, Dorian Zaentz-Mingus, his third son and Shirley Chatters, his friend and mother to his first daughter. They have shared with us intimate and unique moments of Charles’ life, as well as the effect he had on them.

We also interviewed some of his musical colleagues: John Handy, Ernie Andrews, Charles McPherson and Gerald Wilson. Their genuine experiences and musicality has added an interesting and important view of Charles, reflecting on a time when life and music seemed to collide for him.

– with John Handy and Celia Zaentz

Meeting all of the interviewees has been an invaluable experience, both personally and in terms of the project. It’s clear that the subtleties that are present in the spoken word cannot be captured on paper, and those subtleties or nuances add color to the way we see our past. All of them are reaching back into their memories and opening their hearts, walking us along this journey, with all the pain and joy that this process can bring.

– with Gerald Wilson

During our time in California we frequented Central Avenue in Los Angeles. The vibrant avenue was at the heart of a creative movement that blossomed from the 1920s to the 1950s. Sadly it has seen little recognition and the fading artifacts of the past are overlooked and undervalued. In its day it thrived with hotels, theaters, music clubs and after-hour jams, all flourishing in a community rich with talent and character yet fiercely marginalized.

– Shirley Chatters

Today, most of Central Avenue’s soulful spirit has been lost as these historical venues are replaced or forgotten. The clubs and jams have been demolished or converted to laundry shops and hair salons. Like the venues themselves many influential artists and figures have also faded over time.

– with Dorian Mingus 

Moving forward the plan is to set up base in NYC to reach out to those on the east coast for the months of September and October. We still have a lot of friends, family members and musicians to meet and film! NYC will be a very interesting location as we look at a part of Charles’ life where he moved closer to his goals and dreams as an artist but left a broken trail behind him.

– with Charles McPherson

Thank you for your support, this project is possible because of all of you! And a special mention to those who have opened their homes to us.

Best,

KEM & Valeria

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June 24th, 2012

Headed West

The journey has begun! Nogales, Arizona was the first spot where I started tracing my grandfather’s roots. It was here where Charles Mingus Jr. began his journey as well. The city had little relevance in my grandfather’s life, he was there for only a few months after his birth before the family packed up and moved out to Los Angeles. But its impact on me and the context of its growth somehow parallel the Mingus story. It is a border town surrounded by the desert and divided by two cultures, two countries and one wall. Silently the steel fence traces the valley, somehow a witness and cause to the intentional breach.  What was once a mark in the sand, a spec of an idea barely visible a hundred years ago, now stretches hundreds of miles with clear intention.

My wish was to find Charles’ house but it was a very difficult task. Most of the houses have been demolished or rebuilt and there is little documentation available. Walking along the streets with old pictures helped me to imagine how the town once was and orient myself geographically.

My great-grandfather was a staff sergeant stationed in Nogales, an auxiliary post controlled by Fort Huachuca. He married my great-grandmother Harriet Sophia Phillips and had three children: Vivian, Grace and Charles Jr. In the year Charles was born they moved to Los Angeles as many other people did, attracted by a new real-estate boom and the promise of work. The successive waves of settlers during the 1930s would have a profound effect on the economy and culture of California.

Now I am writing from LA, where I traveled to visit the places where he grew up, where he discovered his passion for music, struggled to grip an identity, fell in love for the first time, became an artist and had his children. Seeing all of these places as well as talking to the family and his friends is helping me sort the subtle and overt complexity of his life. In the days to come I’ll be interviewing Ernie Andrews, Charles McPherson and some of the wives and children of Charles.

This is no doubt an intense and introspective journey. Slowly I am discovering where I am coming from and hope it helps me to know where I am, moving forward. Thank you for making it possible.

KEM

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April 22nd, 2012

Happy Birthday Charles Mingus!!!

After a cold and dark winter in Berlin, Germany, we are back in the States happy to have prepared and completed all the documents, permissions and visas required for filming in the USA.  We are about 90 miles and exactly 90 years away from the city where Charles Mingus was born, Nogales, Arizona.

Located along the southern boundary with Mexico, Nogales Arizona borders a city of the same name, Nogales Mexico.  The two cities are known together as Ambos Nogales. Despite the easy, friendly and relaxed two-nation border town image, Nogales is known for being one of the most heavily used entry points for illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. The border frictions with Mexico go back to the beginning of the 20th Century and no doubt tension in the region can be traced to the USA’s westward expansion (view map below). But its ultimately the Mexican Revolution of 1910 that leads  Charles’ father to the frontier serving the Army  to ward off threats from the commander of the División del Norte,  José Doroteo Arango Arámbula aka Pancho Villa.

The area is full of history and despite a unified effort to protect the nation, the US army as an institution was segregated. While Charles Mingus Sr.  joined  the army freely it was not uncommon for the generation before him to be forced to serve. Mingus Sr. is said to have been stationed in Camp Little (picture below) a newer settlement near the well established Fort Huachuca which served as the base for the 10th Cavalry Regiment known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” beginning 1913 and the following 20 years.   Located in the Huachuca Montains of the Sierra Vista the fort is still in use and houses a museum and archive.

The goal over the weeks to come is to visit Nogales, Fort Huachuca, and delve deeper in to the historical context in which Charles Mingus was born.   After that,  and before to heading to California we will travel to Las Vegas, Nevada, to talk to Jimmy Scott, the great jazz vocalist famous for his unusually high contralto voice.

As we move further into production we look forward to keeping you on track with the project’s development in future updates.

Thank you for your support and encouragement throughout this process. 

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