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Gunther Schuller: Heralding Charles Mingus

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The idea that improvisation is the most important thing worth considering in jazz is still very much alive with far too many people. That is changing, but there is still not a sense of equivalence between the composition and improvisation.
Gunther SchullerGunther Schuller, one of jazz's foremost scholars, arrangers, composers and conductors, takes the stage with the Mingus Orchestra at New York's Merkin Hall this month. All About Jazz spoke with the octogenarian musical icon about his longstanding association with [bassist/composer] Charles Mingus and his travels through the jazz and classical music genres.

All About Jazz: Could you tell me about the upcoming Merkin Hall concert?

Gunther Schuller: I am simply what we normally call a "guest conductor. The orchestra will be performing at least twelve pieces. I am only involved with two or three pieces. Sue Mingus would like me to arrange another piece, besides "Noon Night and "Half-Mast Inhibition, for this particular orchestra, taking into consideration the unique instrumentation.

AAJ: So you will just be conducting two tunes?

GS: At least two. I don't know if I will have enough time to arrange another chart so quickly, given the enormous work I am putting into some other projects, but I'm going to try. We haven't even decided which tune it might be. Mingus wrote something like fifty, sixty, seventy pieces, so there's a lot to choose from, but some things would not fit for this orchestra. This group is the smallest of Sue Mingus' orchestras, with a French horn, bass clarinet and instruments that are not normally used in jazz. There are only eight instruments in this group that play pitches, so if you have a piece that Mingus wrote where there are twenty-five notes being played simultaneously, how can you reduce that to eight? Certain of Mingus' pieces will never be possible for this orchestra to play.

I'm amazed that I was able to take a piece like "Half-Mast Inhibition, originally for at least twenty-eight instruments, including eight brass. How do you reduce those harmonies, which are just the background, not the melodic thematic material that's in the front ground; how do you reduce that to eight instruments, none which can play a double stop? Somehow I managed to do it. I've been doing these things all my life; so you learn how to kind of move things around. There are some pieces that are beyond the possibility, "Half-Mast Inhibition I was lucky with.

AAJ: Why, in particular, are the French horn, bass clarinet, and bassoon employed in your arrangements for "Noon Night and "Half-Mast Inhibition ? Is that your musical concept, Mingus' wish, or Sue Mingus' idea?

GS: That's Sue's idea. As well as I know her; I never really knew why she wanted that instrumentation for this group. I was a French horn player a long time ago, playing in the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Numerous times I had mentioned to her that I felt that it was a shame that Mingus had never used a French horn, so I think that's where she got that idea. In Epitaph there is a bassoon that Mingus did write for. So now she has a bassoon, French horn, and a bass clarinet, which is unusual and gives it a very special color. Once she created this orchestra, it became a question of, "What charts are we going to play? Of course there was no existing repertoire for it, so Cy Johnson, who has been the main arranger in last ten-to-fifteen years, made most of the arrangements for this particular group and then Sue asked me to arrange some also.

AAJ: How did your longstanding association with Mingus and his music come about?

GS: Well that goes all the way back to 1955, which is a half a century ago. I first saw Mingus, I didn't even know his name or who he was, but I know in retrospect that I heard him play the bass with the [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton band, and that goes back to 1947, I believe. I loved the bass and I always admired the fact that there where two orchestras that had not one jazz bass, but two. Ellington started using two basses in the 1930s, which was highly usual. Hampton finally used two basses right after World War Two, in the mid-1940s. It turned out that both of Hampton's bass players were very tall, huge guys, and I remember writing in my diary that they looked like two Tyrannosaurus Rexes, when these big guys were leaning over their basses.

Years later I found out that this amazing bassist was a composer named Charles Mingus. Even to this day, far too many people do not know that Mingus is one of the greatest jazz composers. Everybody knows that he was a terrific bassist, and that he was a terrific bandleader and that he also had a very volatile temper. There are lots of stories about him, of course his autobiography is full of interesting things too, but the important thing for me is that next to Ellington, Mingus is so far the greatest composer we've had in jazz. By composer, I mean someone who sits down and writes out the music. Improvisation is obviously also a form of composing, instantaneous composing. Mingus is that rarity amongst jazz musicians, who actually wrote a lot of music just like a symphony composer. Epitaph is one of the longest pieces in jazz history. It is two-and-one-half hours long and consists of nineteen movements.

I became aware of Mingus as a composer with the first piece that he recorded; it is called "Pithecanthropus Erectus (circa 1953). Then I met him through John Lewis, the pianist with the Modern Jazz Quintet. The three of us would sit for hours in the Carnegie Hall Tavern and talk about solving all the problems of the world. I eventually got to know more of his compositions and became an admirer his works. I commissioned Mingus to compose a work for a concert that Brandeis University asked me to organize. This was an historic concert, where three classical composers' (Milton Babbitt, Harold Shapiro and I) and three jazz composers' (Mingus, George Russell, and Jimmy Giuffre) works were featured.

After this collaboration, we became very close friends. I went to a lot of his gigs, because I admired his playing so much. We had another close relationship because probably his most admired saxophonist to work with was Eric Dolphy. Eric Dolphy and I were very close, so we all did a lot of hanging out together. I performed his music and published his music in my publishing company.


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