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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Springfield Jazz Orchestra plays all Charles Mingus

Todd Stoll holding a trumpet.
Rod Hatfield photography
Rod Hatfield photography

Lauren Elliot wails on the the baritone saxophone when she plays “Moanin” by Charles Mingus. In high school, she only played alto and tenor sax, but her band director needed a baritone sax player. So he played her this song.

“When I say that song and say that Mingus changed the trajectory of my life,” remarked Elliot. “I’m not kidding. For some reason, the voice of the baritone just resonated with my own internal voice — if that makes sense”

Lauren Elliot is the youngest member of the Springfield Jazz Orchestra, just out of college. Todd Stoll is the band’s leader. When he first heard Mingus, he heard the wild energy of the tent revivals that he used to play in Springfield.

“It was like the holy spirit,” recalled Stoll, “like a Pentecostal, shouting, dancing kind of thing, and Mingus’ music made me think about that. So even though I went to like a white version of that, it felt like people I knew.”

Stoll became a band teacher in Columbus. In the early 90s, he saw the Mingus Big Band in New York. His widow Sue Mingus managed the band and the Mingus legacy. Stoll remembers the character of Sue Mingus. “You know, she was known as being as irascible as Charles. She ran that band with an iron hand. If you rubbed Sue the wrong way, you were out.”

Stoll wanted to bring that sound to Columbus, Ohio. So he asked Sue Mingus if he could buy the charts for the arrangements. He was just a kid in his 20s who didn’t know better.

Springfield Jazz Orchestra group photo.
Rod Hatfield photography
Springfield Jazz Orchestra group photo.

“Look, it’s totally illegal,” Stoll said. “She didn’t have the licensing to sell me those charts, as I know now as a publisher. And she just went down to the basement, ran xeroxes, stapled them, which is also a big no-no, stapled them in the upper left-hand corner like a school teacher, put them in an envelope and sent them to me.”

Stoll used those arrangements with high school and college bands in Columbus. He also had a regular gig playing all Mingus music at a bistro in the Short North district for a decade. Stoll recalled, “We had a 15-piece big band in there. And we used to have a line down the block on a Wednesday night to get in. And people would lose their minds. It was like a riot because no one every heard anything before like it.”

Mingus used his music to protest the racism of his time. In 1959, Mingus wrote “Fables of Faubus.” The song mocks Governor Orville Faubus who ordered the Arkansas National Guard to keep Black students from enrolling a high school in Little Rock.

Columbia Records refused to let Mingus sing the lyrics. Todd Stoll recites a few lines: “Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us. Don’t let ‘em stab us, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us. No more swastikas. Two, four, six, eight, they brainwash and teach you hate.” Stoll said this racism is “going on now. I mean we have more nazis here in America than we’ve ever had.”

Mingus gained the reputation of the angry man in Jazz. He punched his trumpeter, he got kicked out of Duke Ellington’s band after a knife fight, he brandished a shot gun once when faced with eviction. He could also be deeply passionate, sad, and moved.

Lauren Elliot.
Casey Spring

Lauren Elliot said Mingus expressed himself loudly. She tells a story. Charlie Parker and Mingus were back stage deep in a conversation about spirituality.

“They kind of got interrupted by having to play the next set and almost got cut off in mid-sentence,” Elliot said. “And Bird just says to him, “Well, let’s finish this conversation on the bandstand."

We can kind of infer that that stuck with Mingus for the rest of his life based on his music. Mingus just wanted to make the world full of more love and peace, even if he was very direct and aggressive about that, but he was just fighting injustice. And I think bringing more peace into the world is definitely our mission.

The Springfield Jazz Orchestra will play all the music of Mingus used in this story and much more this Saturday night.

For details on the concert, see here.

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community and Ohio Arts Council.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

David Seitz learned his audio writing skills in the third Community Voices class. Since then he has produced many stories on music, theater, dance, and visual art for Cultural Couch. Some of these stories have won awards from the Public Media Journalists Association and the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors. He is deeply grateful that most of his stories address social justice issues in a variety of art forms, whether it be trans gender singing, the musical story of activist Bayard Rustin, or men performing Hamilton in prison.