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Charles Mingus 95th Birthday Celebration

Peter Jurew By

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Mingus Big Band
Jazz Standard
New York, NY
April 24, 2017

Saturday, April 22, was an unusually good day. It started, blessedly, when the president did not tweet out a series of early morning fabrications/accusations to befuddle the free world. And it could only get better from there: It was Earth Day! Scientists marked the 27th edition with a global March For Science, and tens of thousands of people made a full-throated defense of fact-based (as opposed to "alternative fact-based") reality.

Also, it was Record Store Day! All over the country, music lovers of every stripe flocked to independent record stores to scarf up special new releases, rare old vinyl and other collectibles, and to appreciate the good people who stock and sell them. Who knew I needed Saxophone Colossus on vinyl—but it was 40% off!

Last and most certainly not least, the music world noted what would have been the ninety-fifth birthday of one of its immortals, Charles Mingus. To honor the great man, WKCR, Columbia University's esteemed student run radio station, played nothing but Mingus music for twenty-four hours. Elsewhere, Mingus's widow, Sue Mingus, overseer of the vibrant and vital posthumous organization of Mingus music—Mingus Big Band, Mingus Orchestra, music education programs, and more—threw a private party and completed preparations for a public celebration taking place two days later, on the 24th, as part of Jazz Standard's terrific Mingus Mondays residency.

Apart from the other exciting events of the day, a ninety-fifth birthday seems an apt occasion to muse just a bit on Mingus, this giant not just of jazz but of American music; to appreciate his achievements, consider why his music matters and how it resonates still with so many today.

Setting aside, if possible, the fact that the man was a genius, Charles Mingus's life is a thoroughly American tale of self-invention. He was born on an Army base in Arizona in 1922 of African American, Native American, European and Chinese ancestry and raised in a Los Angeles home where music was a part of life. Taking up the trombone, then cello and piano, Mingus became something of a prodigy on the bass, studying with Red Callender as well as with a classical double bass teacher named Herman Reinshagen. His compositional talents blossomed early as well, and in the 1930's into the 1940's he was writing tunes while playing bass in the bands of Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Buddy Collette, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong. The story goes that hot-headed young Charlie even worked a stint with his boyhood idol, Duke Ellington until he became the first and only player Ellington ever personally fired.

Heavily influenced by Ellington's popular tunes such as, "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," Mingus looked to write commercial hits himself. In the 1930's this frequently meant bluesy tunes with clever lyrics backed by big band instrumentation. An example of this style in the early Mingus catalog is "Baby, Take A Chance With Me, " which he released under the name "Baron" Mingus—a rather inflated but ultimately appropriate moniker in the age of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Ever more ambitious ideas began to germinate. He and drummer Max Roach launched their own record label, Debut. Mingus's reputation as a bassist expanded from prodigy to master. In the early 1950's, he reached what would have been the pinnacle of an ordinary bass great's career when he and Roach made up the rhythm section in the famous all-star band with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell at 1953's "Jazz At Massey Hall"—the so-called "greatest jazz concert ever." But fame as a record label mogul or as a top bassist was not going to define Mingus; according to people who knew him well such as Sy Johnson, an arranger who worked with Mingus throughout the 1960's and 1970's, Mingus always harbored ambitions to make his mark as a composer.

In the mid-1950's, he set his mind to doing just that. By then Mingus's concepts for original music had moved light years beyond his early commercial efforts, harnessing ideas exploded by the big bang of bebop, the jazz revolution of which he was an integral part. Fusing bop harmonics with the sounds he'd grown up with and was still rooted in—black church, blues, Ellington, New Orleans, big band swing—Mingus began to invent ever more complex, sophisticated arrangements first for smaller combos, then for ensembles as large as sixteen instruments.

The claim that Mingus ranks as one of the most important American composers, regardless of category, can be traced to a seven-year run of pulsating, screaming, simultaneously improvising music he wrote beginning in 1956. Featuring a galaxy of star sidemen such as Jackie McLean, Mal Waldron, Jimmy Knepper, Eric Dolphy, long-time Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond, and many more, the great run started with the release of Pithecanthropus Erectus and followed by The Clown (1957), Mingus Ah Um (1959), Blues And Roots (1960), Tijuana Moods (recorded in 1957, released in 1962), The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (1963) and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963). As much as Parker and Gillespie a decade earlier, as much as mid-1950's Thelonious Monk, as much as Ornette Coleman's first free jazz albums of 1959-60, Mingus's massive body of brilliant innovation in these years opened doors (and ears) to radical new approaches to jazz generally and ensemble playing in particular.

And there was much more to come—an extraordinary two decades of ever-evolving musical creativity and innovation. Considered as a whole, it's the kind of career that led composer and writer Gunther Schuller first, and others eventually, to argue that the correct context for understanding Mingus's huge musical achievements is all of music, not just jazz.

One way to hear Mingus music is as a young composer of his time, internalizing the musical gold standard of the time, the swinging harmonies of the Ellington band. By the time he was done with it, Mingus the leader, composer and bassist had put big band swing through a bebop blender, mixed in New Orleans polyphony, gospel shouts, blues roots, and used the "deep end" to reach new harmonic heights by unleashing the bass and baritone horns and reeds.

Eventually, the genius of this body of work was recognized formally when the Library of Congress acquired Mingus's collected scores, sound recordings, correspondence and photographs, which they described as "the most important acquisition of a manuscript collection relating to jazz in the Library's history."

Which gets back to the question, does Mingus matter today? Why does his music—and his life—still resonate with so many?

For one, the music is charged with electric spiritual connections that can touch us in deep places. According to Sue Mingus, by the end of Charles's relatively brief life, he had become a very spiritual person. He practiced meditation seriously; it's said he gained the ability to sustain such inner calm that he could slow his heart to a virtual standstill. A convert to Islam, he prayed five times daily. There's an authentic, deep-seated feeling of soulfulness in Mingus's compositions.

Mingus matters because he was so gifted, so good, so musical in so many areas. He played the piano well enough to have succeeded on that instrument. He's considered one of the great bass players in jazz, a complete master of the instrument, and yet, according to Sy Johnson, "as great as he was as a bassist, Charles's larger musical legacy would have declined by now if it was dependent solely on his ability as a bassist." Mingus wrote music, he arranged it. He led a band and kept it going. He ran a record company. He was smart enough to bring a recording device to that fabled gig at Massey Hall, which is how the world has enjoyed listening to that music all these years. The man was protean in his talents.

Mingus matters because he was so prolific, writing over three hundred compositions, the second-largest body of work, after Ellington, of any American composer. Johnson says, "Charles was a musical polymath whose output was vast, voluminous. He created a vast world of sonic possibilities—a language."

Mingus wrote for film, even though, according to Johnson, he had no patience for the pre-requisites of writing for film. Says Johnson, "When he was writing Music For Todo Modo, Charles didn't have the vaguest idea what the film was about when he composed the music for it. He gave the music editor all these variations, short form different movements. He put all of those together so the music editor had what he needed to orchestrate the soundtrack of the film. And yet, Todo Modo adds up to being a masterpiece." Sue Mingus believes Mingus would have gone deeper into film. "If he had lived longer, Charles would have extended works like Todo Modo, which he wrote in the last few years of his life. That's what Charles wanted to do." Mingus matters because the music remains relevant. According to Johnson, who created many of the arrangements heard on Mingus's, Let My Children Hear Music—the work Mingus considered his personal favorite—the music "is not tied to a particular time. It's radical and traditional at the same time. It keeps speaking to each new generation." Sue Mingus believes Mingus's gift for melody is the reason for the music remaining relevant. "Melody has a great deal to do with the music's timelessness."

Finally, Mingus matters today as much as he ever did because of his social conscience, the great example being the 1959 protest tune, "Fables Of Faubus." Dedicated to the "first or second or third team All-American heel," the song satirizes Orval Faubus, the segregationist Arkansas governor at the time, who refused that year to enforce the Supreme Court's decision allowing integration of the state's public schools. Mingus paid the price for his political commentary when executives at Columbia, his record label at the time, balked at releasing the tune with lyrics, which included:

Oh, Lord, don't let him shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don't him stab us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Forced to release an instrumental version of the song on the Columbia album, Mingus Ah Uhm, Mingus took the uncensored version to the independent Candid label and released it with a new title—"Original Fables Of Faubus." In the history of American music, "Fables" is a signature statement that complemented other political statements jazz musicians were making in support of the civil rights movement at the time. Without changing a note or a word, the tune could be an anthem for protesters today.

Mingus's creations were radically, almost shockingly original when were first heard; as heard at the Jazz Standard on April 24, it was clear they continue to startle and sparkle today.

As part of a long-running residency at the Jazz Standard that features a revolving family of brilliant players, the Mingus Big Band has annual opportunities to mark the master's birthday; this year's festivities for the ninety-fifth took on a special excitement. The plan called for an early set by the Mingus Big Band and a late set by the Mingus Orchestra, all of it streamed on the internet for the legions of Mingus fans around the world unable to make it to the sold out basement club in New York City.

The band on this night featured Ku-umba Frank Lacy on vocals and trombones; Tatum Greenblatt, Jack Walrath, Philip Harper, trumpets; Conrad Herwig, Dave Taylor, trombones; Wayne Escoffery, Jason W. Marshall, Ron Blake, Abraham Burton, saxophones; David Kikoski, piano; Mike Richmond, bass; Donald Edwards, drums. As always, the band was led by alto saxophonist Alex Foster, with many of the arrangements by Sy Johnson.

The set opened with Lacy singing a delightful, full-throated rendition of "Baby Take A Chance With Me," the pop tune Mingus wrote in 1939 when he was with the Hampton band, and one he recorded three different times in 1946 under the name "Baron" Mingus. Ron Blake blasted a tasty sax solo and the estimable Mike Richmond, holding down Mingus's bass spot, picked a fine solo. From there, the generous set was highlighted by Lacy vocals and trombone solos, Jason Marshall's baritone sax, the vibrant piano of David Kikoski. Lacy sang the Jack Walrath-arranged "Invisible Lady" with particular joy, trombonist Conrad Herwig and trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt taking fine solos

One of the many musical highlights of the evening was the band playing all twenty-two minutes of Music For Todo Modo, the overlooked late masterpiece Mingus listened to daily on his final trip to Mexico where he died in 1979. At Jazz Standard, Greenblatt's exquisite trumpet, Edwards's drumming, Herwig's muffled trombone and Blake's sax were all set perfectly within a memorable Sy Johnson arrangement.

It wasn't all music. Speaking for the band, Alex Foster thanked Sue Mingus for "keeping it all together," and the manager herself made heartfelt remarks from the stage that ended with a sweet "happy birthday Charles" to her late husband. Mingus biographer Janet Coleman reminisced about her first meeting Mingus fifty-some years ago in Detroit and about their lifelong friendship. Sy Johnson was on hand to receive justified accolades for his work with Mingus, and now with the Mingus organization.

Near the end of the evening, Foster led the band in a Mingus-ized version of "Happy Birthday" that had the audience singing along. And still the guys weren't done. While a line of folks waited patiently outside the room to get to their seats for the sold-out second set, the Mingus Big Band roared into "Profile of Jackie," Mingus's tribute to McLean, the great alto saxophonist and inspiration to many alto players including the Big Band's own Wayne Escoffery.

A memorable set of astonishingly complex and beautiful music came to an end, the Mingus Big Band's faithful fans standing, roaring their approval for the musicians who continue to make Mingus music modern every Monday night; for Sue Mingus and her devotion to letting the world hear Music music; and, let it not be overlooked, for Mark Maynard-Parisi, Seth Abramson and Jazz Standard's inspired support of this essential cultural institution.

Photo credit: Lou Montesano

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