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  Charles Mingus and Censorship  
  by Dustin Garlitz  
     
 

November 2004:

There was once an ancient Japanese art form that challenged the artist to be spontaneous and improvise…yet that particular nation-state never did censor its art’s poetics.  Unfortunately this was not the case in 1950s America, when a jazz musician was censored by a major record company.  It is already awful enough that traditional education in the U.S. neglects the arts; yet it is even worse that the artistic condition of a cultural phenomenon/aesthetic is challenged and inhibited by the media of that society-at- large.  When Mingus recorded Fables of Faubus in 1959 (during his stint with Columbia Records) his label wouldn’t let him recite the poetry that accompanied the song’s melody.  However, when he performed live in Paris with Eric Dolphy in 1964, the French gave him the artistic freedom to sing the poem.  Sure Mingus was quite the character -- he had his clinical psychologist write the liner notes to one of his albums in the 1960s, and he was also caught wearing a real miniature pistol around his neck during the 1970s.  Unfortunately though, Columbia Records couldn’t look past his eccentricities during the 1950s.  His fundamental constitutional right to freedom of speech was violated by his record company, just the same way that same record company violated my legal rights in 2000 when one of their high profile recording artists at the time wouldn’t let me into one of his concerts at a major jazz club.  

I guess it is understandable that Columbia had to censor the Mingus composition in 1959, given the political hegemony exhibited by Governor Faubus at the time…however it doesn’t make things right.  It just goes to show that America isn’t ready to appreciate the full extent of its arts. Still today, musicians’ controversial views (such as Charles Gayle’s pro-life, right winged standpoint) make it difficult to find work in the U.S., in many cases causing them to emigrate or seek asylum in the more progressive European countries. These nation-states have a greater liberalized socialistic view of capitalism, which leads to a more sophisticated cultural sphere that is free of censorship.  Two of my music instructors in college (Jim Snidero and Andy McKee) were long time members of the Mingus Big Band led by Sue Mingus, and most of their playing with that band was done overseas as well.