Eric Mingus: Mingus Dynasty

August 2010 / Village Voice, December 2007

Maybe you were there, inside the yawning cavern of the Muddy Cup coffeehouse upstate in Kingston on that hot August night. If so, you remember what you saw, what you heard, what you felt. From the stage near the front door, the emcee introduces the headliner. And somewhere deep in the back of the room, a shout begins. It gets louder. Closer. Deeper. It becomes a full-throated, gospel-testifyin’ field holler. Louder. It batters the tall brick walls of the space, rattles the massive glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows. The floor trembles. Closer. Louder. Deeper.

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. Lumbering onstage, he towers behind an upright bass and plucks out a thick, low-down, spine-throbbing line, while with his larynx he trades roars and growls with a saxophonist, belting out hot, angry blues in jagged, blood-flecked chunks, seething poetic couplets of a highly unsettling nature—something about smashing his hand with a hammer.

Meet Eric Mingus. He makes quite an impression.

Yes, Eric, 43, is indeed the son of legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus. (His mother is 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—contentedly earn a crust by milking their heritage in tribute shows, Eric has always done his own thing. Though it hasn’t always been easy.

“It was funny,” he 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?’ 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 the younger Mingus’s new album, Healin’ Howl (Intuition). “But his blues aren’t Charles’s blues, though there are some family resemblances. [Eric 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.”

Eric was born in New York City, though the family moved upstate when he was eight. “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 he quickly discovered poetry as well. “I also got turned onto 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,” Eric 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, he moved to Boston to study voice and bass at the Berklee College of Music, but only lasted “a semester and a day,” Eric grumbles. “Everything was too by-the-book there. 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.”

The requisite move back to NYC came next. He read his work at gritty rock clubs (“I didn’t want to do the typical ‘jazz poetry’ scene like everyone else”) while holding down a gig as a martini mixer at the staid Old Granddad whiskey bar in midtown. In 1993, after he had toured as a vocalist with the bands of jazz pianists Carla Bley and her daughter, Karen Mantler (whose group has also featured Jonathan Sanborn, son of saxophonist David Sanborn), Eric was introduced to the Kinks’ Ray Davies, who was then directing Weird Nightmare, a documentary about Charles Mingus. The following year, Davies invited him to help work on the film in London, where Eric soon formed a duo with trumpeter Jim Dvorak (alas, no relation to the famed Czech composer). The two recorded an album, 1999’s This Isn’t Sex, but after he’d spent two years on the U.K. and European jazz circuit and taught vocal improvisation at London’s Community Music House, Eric ran into visa snags and left.

Of course, the prodigal son must always return. These days he lives in West Shokan, commuting here once a week to teach vocal techniques. “Everything’s come full circle,” Eric says. “I had to leave and come back to the area I grew up in to actually appreciate it.” He has released four albums as a leader since moving back to the States, occasionally sings with his organist neighbor Bruce Katz’s band, the Organiks, and sometimes performs at Levon Helm’s star-studded Midnight Ramble sessions. In addition to regularly headlining in the U.S. and Europe, lately he’s also toured with downtown guitarist Elliot Sharp’s avant-blues unit, Terraplane.

Another frequent collaborator is Woodstock saxophonist Erik Lawrence, whose father is the late post-bop sax king Arnie Lawrence. “Eric is by far one of the most intense performers I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “Before he goes onstage, he goes into this incredibly deep, almost meditative state. And then he just totally bares his soul when he performs.”

In May 2007, Eric met Irish-born saxophonist Catherine Sikora at a memorial event for drummer Lance Carter. The symbiosis was instant, and the two decided to form a duo, Clockwork Mercury, which takes its name from a line in “Silverfish,” a piece by poet Bernard O’Donoghue. “Right away, we really clicked,” Eric says. “Playing with Catherine has really reinvigorated what I do. In fact, it doesn’t feel like I’ve ever notplayed with her.”

“Playing with Eric is [an experience of] pure sound,” agrees Sikora—a like-minded boxer and poetry lover. “It’s the purest, most focused concentration on sound and melody. I always feel like I’m all ears when we play together, which is the pinnacle of playing, really.” The unsigned twosome has a haunting, addictively atmospheric debut in the can and recently toured Italy with an expanded lineup in support of Eric’s own Healin’ Howl.

All this activity can leave someone somewhat torn. “Sometimes I wish I could just dive right into the poetry full time, but it’s really hard for me to separate the two,” Eric says. “I just can’t imagine other people reading my stuff. I don’t write it with that in mind. When I write something it always feels like I’m singing it.”

The Clockwork Mercury track “Blue Steel,” for example, makes it easy to see his point. A slithering, diabolical ode to a beloved handgun, the half-sung/half-spoken piece would lose much of its menacing impact were it to appear only in cold print, devoid of Sikora’s smoky sax and Eric’s nimble bass—not to mention his jittery, serial-killer vocal tics at the close.

A devoted and focused artist, Eric has no plans to settle down and start a family anytime soon. “No, I couldn’t have kids. I’m on the road too much,” he says. Should he ever change his mind, though, those kids would find themselves in a tough place. With a dad like him, they’d have a lot to live up to.