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Boris Kozlov: Mingus and Much More

Boris Kozlov: Mingus and Much More

Courtesy Anna Yatskevich

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After 25 years of being in the band, I still experience that special Mingus force.
—Boris Kozlov
The music of Charles Mingus can be like the man himself—multi-faceted, intimidating, blusterous, marked by mood changes. Whatever it is, the world is better for it. And fans of music can still hear and feel it live via bands, from orchestra to small group, that perform his pieces all over the world.

Those bands—Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Orchestra—were first put together and promoted by Sue Mingus, widow of the titan bassist/composer (and recently named an NEA Jazz Master). The difficult job of musical director was handled by horn players at first, but for over two decades now the reigns have been in the hands of someone who plays the same instrument as Mingus, the formidable bassist Boris Kozlov.

His respect for Mingus is deep. "He was a pioneer," Kozlov says.

"Combining the academic form and jazz aesthetic. That's one true pioneering trait that didn't go unnoticed by many people to follow," he says. "Another thing is, he's amalgamating. Not just of the jazz and classical. He grew up in church. His stepmother would take him to this old sanctified church. And there was a kind of music that he heard in that church. So that is a huge part of who he is. He didn't write that many songs that would directly feature that style, but it's prominent in his writing in pieces like 'Better Get Hit In Your Soul' and 'Monday Night Prayer Meeting.' Songs that you will not necessarily right away associate with church. And then of course the blues, the classic southern blues that runs through. The way he amalgamated all those things was really unique. It's still unique, but it's still to this day, whatever makes Mingus Mingus. After 25 years of being in the band, I still experience that special Mingus force."

Kozlov was born in Russia, but as a youngster in the then-Soviet Union, jazz was a music he loved and he immersed himself in it. Being a bassist, he held Mingus in deserved high esteem. And though there were philosophical and political divides between the Soviets and much of the rest of the world, America's art form, he says, was favored during his youth over another villainized music form: rock and roll.

"In the '70s, the Soviet government realized you can't fight it (jazz). If people want to play and hear it, they'll find a way," he says from New York City, which he has called home for many years. "But they viewed rock music, and especially The Beatles and everything and the craze that followed it, as an ideological danger zone." There were many philharmonic organizations around the country, whose leaders and players were on salary. Jazz crept in through those bands.

"It's an interesting story, how jazz went from a bastard child to a celebrated genre. In 1978, the Central Committee of the Communist Party called a union of composers meeting" where it was determined that rock music had appeal, but presented an ideological problem to the Socialists and the Communist Doctrine. "To counter that, they decided to create the official philharmonic jazz bands. And they decided to create it in each of the republics, of which we have 15.

"And that," says Kozlov, "was the beginning of the official jazz education in Soviet Union, as we know it now. That whole thing started in 1978. They instituted philharmonic bands and in 1979, right before the Olympic Games, they opened the Department of Contemporary Variety Music. So, I would have to say I'm a product of Soviet socialism." To get into tese musical programs, musicians had to prove their ability. Just being interested in music wasn't enough. "I had a merit entry. And I was getting a stipend every month just to study there for four years, Like being paid to study. And not just me, but every student who had a merit entry. There were only merit entries back then. Now they have money entries too. If you want to go, you take a couple exams, and pay."

First Things First on that label.

Born in Moscow, he began his studies on piano before switching to bass.

"I was impressed with my uncle, who was playing accordion" and showed an interest in music. His parents got him involved in after-school music programs that were available in Russia. As he progressed on bass he eventually won the Gnesin Music Academy Competition to enter college at just 15. He started playing professionally at 16.

"There was no word 'jazz' in the Soviet Union. It was called Contemporary Variety Music Department. All the teachers were self taught. Classically trained, but self—taught jazz musicians. The whole peer pressure was on jazz and learning bebop and so forth. So by the time I finished college in '87, I went to the army and served two years in Ukraine, which is being torn apart now. Along with my heart... All my boys in their 50s now are being called to duty again. It's just horrible," he says.

In 1989 when he came back from the military, there were bands interested right away in hiring the young bassist. He joined a studio band that recorded on the government label, Melodia. "They were well equipped. They had their own instruments and everything. I could control my own schedule. If I couldn't do certain record days, because I was on tour somewhere in Finland, there was no problem. They would just sub me out.

"I remember that time period as extremely exciting, and full of opportunities and learning so much. Because all of a sudden everything opens up and all of a sudden I could go to Finland, go to a record store, especially a used record store. Not even having any Finnish marks, I could exchange a few bottles of vodka or a few cans of caviar for whatever LPs I wanted." Teachers and others he knew would also get LPs and make copies, which young musicians would devour. "They would tirelessly make copies for all the students who wanted it because you couldn't just go to the store and buy it. So I have the best recollections about the 1980s and that time. There was no suppression of jazz. There was no problem with this. It was supported on the philharmonic level."

In 1991, he won a competition dubbing him as the top bassist in the system. "And that was a horrible thing, because I knew I was just a little piece of shit, you know? I barely learned how to construct bass lines and deal with harmony and all that. I really didn't know where to go next. And I think I absolutely had to move to New York."

Working with Melodia, the band would play live at some high-end restaurants in Moscow. One of those restaurateurs decided to open a restaurant in Mineola, Long Island. "They were auditioning bands for classic swing dances," he recalls. "There were not that many to start with. But Melodia was perfectly positioned for that kind of gig because there was a front line of five or six horns and a tight rhythm section. And stylistically, everybody was really attuned to everything ... the old swing music and modern funk and everything else." The band got visas to go perform at the establishment in the U.S. "The first stage of the contract was for a month. Then they extended it from one month to five. So technically speaking, I was in New York, having a job and having not that much money to spend. But, I bought my mom a TV because we didn't have one at that point. And I bought myself a fretted bass, because I didn't have my own at that time. The rest of the money I spent on trains from going from Long Island to jazz clubs."

Says Kozlov, "my desire was at that point was not so much to prove myself or make something out of myself. It was more like—I honestly had a stumbling block. I didn't know how to learn further. I didn't know what to practice. I was kind of stuck. And that's the main thing that (being in the U.S.) provided me. You see what other people practice and you see how other people sound and you start realizing what you should be working toward."

He decided to move to New York on his own. Early on, he got a gig with a group that included drummer Mike Clark. "Mike is the cat who played on Herbie Hancock's Thrust (Columbia, 1974). He was just going out and playing little jazz dates in the city." He was impressed that a man who had reached that pinnacle would still go out and play small gigs for the love of playing. There were lessons in ethics to be learned from that, Kozlov says. Others pointed him to music technique books he should familiarize himself with. "I'm appreciative of New York throwing all these things in my face. I'm like, 'OK. That's what you need to learn. That's where you need to go."

He recalls a simple lesson came from trumpet great Eddie Henderson.

"He saw me play and he comes to me and says, 'I don't want to tell you what to do. But I had a lot of schooling from Herbie Hancock when I played with him back in the day, and he helped me a lot. So I'm going to tell you something that I see ... He says, 'Stop tapping your foot.' He said, 'Look at this cat playing trumpet. He taps his foot and half of his mind and energy goes into tapping that foot and that foot is still not with the proper time ... Let your fingers dance.' And however basic showing that advice was, I started literally planting my feet on the ground when I'm playing and practicing. And then in about two months my playing had changed."

While stationed in the Ukraine during his years in the army, Kozlov had three LPs to listen to from time to time. One was the Sonny Rollins album Sonny Days, Starry Nights (Milestone, 1984). The drummer was Tommy Campbell. Now in New York, he went to see that band. He met Sonny and others. He also met a contact through Campbell who got him a gig with some quality musicians in a street band. "And I proceeded to play with that street band, which was not, like, a pity band. It was amplified, it was true show. To be honest, I still miss that. It was such an adrenaline rush when you have to create a solid groove—otherwise you won't be paid—right on the street. People would complain about noise sometimes, and of course, cops would come and stop you. But generally speaking, you were free to play anywhere you want. So we would go play afternoons at the Stock Exchange for a couple hours and would still be free for night gigs. Or we would go play by the fountain at Central Park. On the weekend, play for six hours. Make a few hundred bucks. The band was pretty high level. And Tommy Campbell, the drummer, would come out to to hear us, to cheer us and to say hi. And a couple of times he would sit in. He didn't mind doing that because the band was truly nice and groovy."

Then came the Mingus opportunity.

"I heard the name Mingus in the Soviet Union when I was studying. Of course, nobody would have a recording." One particular song that attracted him was "Pussycat Dues," which he added to his repertoire. Then the Epitaph band came to Russia. "Epitaph" is a long, complex Mingus suite discovered after his death and brought to life by Gunther Schuller. A large orchestra toured with the music. Kozlov went to see the orchestra and even got to meet Sue Mingus and some of the band members.

"I gave them a little tour of Moscow, and she leaves me a couple of recordings of the Dynasty band with John Hicks and George Adams and Craig Handy." Once in New York, he was able to listen to more Mingus records.

At one point, the Mingus band was to play a club called The Fez in New York, but the bassist couldn't make it. Campbell recommended Kozlov, "because by then he knew that I could read and I was familiar with a few different styles adjacent to jazz and all that stuff. So I came in. Sue Mingus wasn't there that night. And then she calls me for the next Thursday gig. And I'm saying, 'I am totally honored, but Miss Mingus you didn't go to hear me.' She said 'I didn't have to, I made 14 phone calls.' So it means that I was voted in."

As he became the regular bassist, Sue Mingus even got him involved in developing the educational book Charles Mingus—More Than a Play-Along, published by Hal Leonard.

"For me, being a newbie in the band, it was a real stress. Because I had to research every version of every tune we decided to do with this emergence into Mingus. John Hicks, may he rest in peace, he helped me enormously. And that's how I got in. Then week three, (Sue) calls me and she asked me if I want to go on the tour to Tucson and places in the midwest. Of course, I joined. But I also had this reservation. I knew that there was another bassist before me. I asked her, 'What about this other guy who played right before me and did all the tours?' And she was very strict. She just said, 'That's none of your business, do you want to go to Tucson?' And that was the end of that discussion," he says.

Steve Slagle or Craig Handy would be leading the band. But when they couldn't make it, Sue Mingus would ask Kozlov to take over. "I had to familiarize myself with the majority of the book to do so. Eventually, I started having ideas for arrangements. And she was extremely supportive in that respect. Like, 'Yeah, write anything you want. I'll pay for it and anything that you think is worth doing.' And I took the same approach to arranging Mingus music as I did during preparation for doing the 'Mingus Minus One' book and CD. I would take as many versions as possible of a particular piece and see what is the common trait in those.

"It's kind of interesting not to just write an arrangement, but write an arrangement where you know who is playing in the band," Kozlov says. "So in a way you're writing for those guys. And everybody in the band is very supportive, very complementary to what I do as an arranger."

Kozlov said "It's not a gig for everybody. First of all, there's this high energy that you ideally should be able to project. And you have to be versatile. You need to know classical music and how to play it, as well as jazz and modern bebop and everything that comes after. So the high requirements in it created that filter that made the Mingus bands unique. Even 20 years after his death, the guys who come in the band are really unique individuals musically and personally. This is all directly related to Mingus."

Kozlov opines that in his time, Mingus "was a niche composer, because he had all these new ideas that were not common—-Changing tempos of different sections and writing pieces of music like that. Completely dropping the rhythm section, where the horns start improvising the rhythm section material, almost like complete avant guard. Or just going for some sounds that have nothing to do with the harmonic structure of the song ... Oftentimes musicians, I think, are kind of afraid to tackle it. So many young ones, they know about Mingus but they don't necessarily go there. I think it's maybe being afraid of the risks."

The Mingus bands continue to tour wherever they can. It is celebrating his centennial year, with concerts through 2022 and into 2023. In September, they played five days at Birdland in New York City. In November, the three bands return to Birdland. They spent weeks this year in northern Europe and at Ronnie Scott's in London. Jazz festivals are also good spots for the organization to put the grandeur of Mingus on display.

Kozlov is musical director of three different groups that present Mingus using different instrumentations. Sue Mingus still has a role in the company's administration and there are others on staff handling various promotional and tour-related activities.

"The main thing was, he had quartet or quintet, which was the case during his last years on this planet. And when he passed away his wife wanted to keep going with the band that he had when he was alive. She just hired a bassist. But she also added a couple of horns. And they call themselves, Mingus Dynasty. That became kind of like a classic band as far as the Mingus legacy goes. Their arrangements were mainly written by Sy Johnson, who passed away at 92. He was Mingus' arranger and personal friend and pianist. A large chunk of Dynasty arrangements were written by Jimmy Knepper, also his personal friend, trombonist and arranger.

"And in 91, the opportunity presented itself. Sue always wanted to do what Charles never had a chance to do—have a large ensemble. And she created the big band, and there was a weekly gig which also grew into international tours. So the Dynasty kind of expanded to the big band with basically the same personnel. They just added another seven musicians. The big band became more visible, more celebrated and kind of like the face of Mingus music for the next 30 years. Dynasty kind of came back in a major way in maybe 2004 or 2005 ... They started seeing a shortage of money and realized that Dynasty is just as powerful and dynamic as the big band, just smaller. So it was kind of like a resurrection of the Dynasty. One of the Dynasty personnel who played with the septet in the 1980s was Craig Handy, a tenor saxophonist who was playing alto and leading the group at that point. He played a pivotal role in the reincarnation of Mingus Dynasty."

Kozlov says Sue Mingus also wanted to have yet another larger band that became the Mingus Orchestra. "I think the year of the year was 2000 ... Initially, it had more instruments than it has now. Slowly but surely, it kind of shaped itself into what it is now. In addition to the 10 instruments that we have now, it also had cello, and it also had tuba. And we started playing at Birdland. We had weekly gigs. And initially, the two arrangers would be Gil Goldstein and Sy Johnson. And slowly, arrangers, but also everybody in the band and Sue Mingus herself, realized there was a lot of duplicating instruments in the lower register. So she did away with a cello and tuba. So now the lower register was represented by bassoon and bass clarinet."

The piano was the next thing to go. Kozlov said the pianist didn't make a gig one night and the band enjoyed the open feel it created. So Schuller and Johnson started arranging "with 10 pieces in mind, with no piano, just guitar. Which sometimes can be an acoustic guitar. And the front line of seven horns, including instruments like bassoon and bass clarinet. It took recognizable shape. So that's the third band."

Kozlov himself is quite busy when he takes off his Mingus hat. "I love being first call to certain people for many, many years. Some people I've played with, I've been first call bassist for 30 years. I also love playing with some young people, brilliant young minds, you know. The intergenerational thing, and that's great."

He says his relationship with Marc Free at Posi-Tone has been just a blessing, especially during the pandemic. "Marc Free, the owner, is an amazing spirit. He just kept going. I worked for him before the pandemic. It was always a good match. His house band is Art Hirahara, Rudy Royston and Behn Gillece on vibraphone and Will Bernard on guitar. He added me. And during the pandemic he kept going which was absolutely incredible."

Regarding his new recording, Kozlov says "I never had aspirations, to record my own album on his label. I never thought about it. I have to say that, for once, I love being produced. It's so nice being produced, because everything I've done before would be, from conception to execution, is my own thoughts, ideas, mistakes and so forth. It's really nice to be produced by somebody who has so much experience and who trusts you. It's not like whatever he says goes. It's really a give-and-take process.

"So I really dug making my own record with the whole process. From just having a conversation about it, ending with writing complete pieces specifically for this. So I'm really happy about my relationship with Posi-Tone."

Though New York City had its drawbacks in the beginning, Kozlov says he likes the noise and the hustle and bustle. He admits to missing it a bit when he's off on tour. He says he's met many musicians that "have more of an internal core. They don't need a kick in the ass to tell you what to do next. I think I'm one of those people that still need a constant kick in the ass. And New York is the place for that."

He says he's happy with his career and being busy with plenty of work. "I'm trying," he quips. "And getting my ass kicked."

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