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Mingus and the Harlem of the West



    This last week marks the 32nd anniversary of the death of bandleader, composer and activist Charles Mingus.

    The “angry man of jazz” achieved legendary status during his 56 years, playing alongside such other greats as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.

    Pushing the boundaries of not only jazz but music itself, Mingus and his pioneering double bass technique garnered a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys, grants from the Smithsonian Institution and the Guggenheim Foundation, and an award from Yale University. The pianist and bass player also spent a short tenure in Duke Ellington’s band but was personally fired by the big band leader after getting into a physical altercation with another player onstage. Despite the gig getting cut short, it was a fulfillment of a lifelong dream, as Ellington was someone who had heavily influenced Mingus growing up.

    Ellington, another formidable jazz legend, made many San Diego stops over the years at the city’s Hotel Douglas -- known by many as the the Harlem of the West. Located downtown on Market Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues, the hotel and its Creole Palace nightclub hosted an incredible array of talent during the '30s and '40s, including Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

    Opened in 1924, the Hotel Douglas provided accommodations for African-American visitors and performers during the time of segregation. Demolished to provide space for a mixed-use residential and commercial building in 1985, only a small bronze plaque on the sidewalk now serves as the sole reminder of its existence. It may be hard to hear with the downtown din of traffic, tourists and pedicabs but those who listen close enough just might be able to make out the echoes of jazz greats the next time they’re walking down Market.

     Blogger Scott McDonald covers music in San Diego for a few different publications and is the editor of Eight24.com