Legendary jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus Jr. was born at the Camp Little Army Hospital in Nogales Arizona on April 22, 1922. His father, Sgt. Charles Mingus Sr., was stationed at the camp overlooking Mexico with his wife, Harriet Phillips Mingus, and their two daughters, Vivian and Grace, who were born at Camp Little before Charles.
Although the family soon left Nogales for a new life outside in Watts California, the fact that this jazz great was born in Nogales is reminder of the legacy of African Americans in southern Arizona. Many were a melding of races, as Mingus was: African, European and Chinese with, perhaps, some Mexican and Native American blood added to the mix.
While rumors exist of Mingus visiting Nogales and playing in clubs in Sonora, there is no proof of this romantic notion. But he did spend time in Cuernavaca Mexico seeking a cure for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and died there on Jan. 5, 1979.
Nevertheless, Mingus has revisited this border town in spirit through projects generated by southern Arizona music fans and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. “Jazz on the Border: The Mingus Project” was produced in April 1993 by the Tucson Jazz Society and the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce. It included youth education, a performance of Mingus’ Epitaph and the world premiere of a long-lost movement from that masterwork, and free concerts in on both sides of the border.
The Santa Cruz Advocates for the Arts was formed in 2007 to renew the celebration of Mingus’ legacy by producing the annual “Charles Mingus Hometown Music Festival,” and by building a memorial park at the former entrance to Camp Little at Western and Bejarano streets.
The Mingus Memorial Park is a public/private partnership, the City of Nogales having donated the land, infrastructure and upkeep. A pocket oasis of plants and art, the park can be easily transformed into a performance facility. The mural portrait is not only stunning but durable and graffiti-proof.
The Pimeria Alta Historical Society and Museum, 136 N. Grand Ave., houses materials from the original Mingus Project as well as documents and photographs from Camp Little. Visitors to Nogales will find other interesting things to see including the restored 1903 Santa Cruz County Courthouse perched on a hill overlooking the charming little town of about 20,000 friendly people.