Jazz music, with its long history in the traditions of black people in America, acted as the background music to the civil rights movement in the late 50s and into the 60s. Gospel played that role within the communities, connecting the people in their churches, in the movement’s meetings and on marches. In contrast, Jazz musicians added a different outlook when playing music that could stand on its own as art, but also face the difficult issues of that time. Some of the best musicians of the period had a multitude of reactions to specific events. John Coltrane mourned the death of young girls in the Birmingham bombings in 1963 with Alabama. Nina Simone angered over the same horrific event and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi Goddam. Max Roach protested and was defiant in his controversial album We Insist! that featured the sit-in movement photo. Charles Mingus, who was never shy of expressing his strong opinions on race, took a different approach. Instead of displaying rage on stage or a recorded piece of music, he decided to show a moral superiority over the folks who are behind the racial injustice by expressing mockery.
In 1959 Teo Macero signed Mingus to a one-year contract with Columbia records. Mingus had previously recorded great material for Atlantic records, most recently the excellent album Blues and Roots. On May 5 1959, three months after that Atlantic recording session, he went into the studio with a similar band that included John Handy on Alto Sax and Clarinet, Booker Ervin and Shafi Hadi on Tenor and Alto Sax, Jimmy Knepper on Trombone, Horace Parlan on Piano, Mingus on Bass and Dannie Richmond on Drums. The session, which yielded five tunes that would appear on his album Mingus Ah Um, started with Better Get Hit In Your Soul, a magnificently arranged cacophony of horns, hand claps and yells which resembles Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, recorded three months earlier.
The third song recorded on May 5 was Fables of Faubus. Mingus used the beginning of the melodic line from Dizzy Moods, a piece he recorded two years earlier for the Tijuana Moods record. But Fables of Faubus is a completely different thing altogether.
Mingus was after Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who in 1957, against federal orders to dismantle segregation in public schools, ordered the state’s national guard to block nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. Perhaps the most cynical part of this idiotic decision was the motivation behind it. It was a calculated move by an otherwise progressive democrat to collect votes in a state where waving segregationist ideas incited people to support the candidate.
A meeting between Faubus and president Eisenhower came to nothing, infuriating even the mild Louis Armstrong, who in a newspaper interview said: “Mt people, the Negroes, are not looking for anything, we just want a square shake. But when I see on television and read about a crowd spitting on and cursing at a little colored girl, I think I have a right to get sore and say something about it.” Armstrong was planning a good-will tour to the Soviet Union for the State Department at the time, and he sarcastically commented: “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country, what am I supposed to say? The way they are treating my people in the south, the government can go to hell.” Quite a strong statement in the 1950s to put the enemy as morally superior in the same sentence that curses the establishment that funds the tour.
Eisenhower finally put the foot down and sent the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to protect the nine students and admit them to school. Faubus’s list of ridiculous acts did not stop there and the next year he shut off all four Little Rock high schools, causing turmoil in the education system of that town in what is known as The Lost Year in Little Rock. If you seek to enlighten yourself with his proposal to privatize the public schools system, click here to read his racist propaganda hiding behind a legal scheme to employ “laws which give us a legal way to maintain a private system of education”.
The above tale gave Mingus the idea of mocking Faubus not only with the music, for which he wrote horn lines that sound like a group ridiculing someone, but also include a vocal exchange between him and Dannie Richmond to eliminate any confusion about who is the subject of that ridicule. The exchange included the following text:
Mingus: Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie.
Richmond: Governor Faubus.
Mingus: Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
Richmond: He won’t permit us in the schools.
Mingus: Then he’s a fool!
Dannie Richmond recalls: “At the beginning it didn’t even have a title. We were playing it one night and the line ‘Tell me someone who’s ridiculous’ just fell in with the original line, and I happened to respond with ‘Governor Faubus!’ At that time, Mingus and I had a thing where if something of musical importance happened on the bandstand, we’d leave it in.” That exchange proved to be too much for Columbia’s exec’s stomachs and they demanded to keep the piece instrumental. Mingus yielded, but not for long. A year later he recorded the piece again, this time for the newly founded, cause-friendly Candid label, with producer Nat Hentoff.
This time the full exchange and more was recorded with a quartet including Ted Curson on Trumpet, Eric Dolphy on Alto Sax and Dannie Richmond. Mingus starts by introducing the piece: “Dedicated to the first, or second or third, all-American heel, Faubus.” Heel is a slang used in pro-wrestling for a contemptible player who will employ dirty tactics to win. The resulting album was Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. For contractual reasons the piece is named Original Faubus Fables on this album.
In later years Mingus continued his commentary on political and unjust events in pieces such as Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me from Oh Yeah (1962) and Remember Rockefeller at Attica from Changes One (1975). However Fables of Faubus remains his most biting reference to an historical event, at a time when civil rights and racial tensions were top of mind for many jazz musicians.