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Charles Mingus and Miles Davis: Changing Moods

Mark Werlin By

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Music is, or was, a language of the emotions. If someone has been escaping reality, I don’t expect him to dig my music, and I would begin to worry about my writing if such a person began to really like it. —Charles Mingus
The recordings of Charles Mingus in the mid-1950s document a musical voice so distinctive that they are immediately recognizable today. But Mingus' obsessive commitment to the primacy of the composition was not always shared by his peers, nor understood by his critics.

A public feud between Mingus, who was struggling unsuccessfully to win critical recognition and financial rewards, and Miles Davis, then poised for prominence and commercial success, contains clues to the musical conundrum that both sought to overcome and neither wished to acknowledge.

Blue Moods

The July 9, 1955 recording session produced by Mingus for the Debut label and released as Miles Davis: Blue Moods may be the least regarded of Mingus' recordings, due in no small part to a specious critical frame constructed by the jazz magazines Metronome and Down Beat. Metronome's editor Bill Coss attended the recording session, and his bloviating liner notes set the tone for subsequent decades of misjudgment. Not long after the album's release, in Nat Hentoff's Down Beat interview "Miles: A Trumpeter In The Midst of a Big Comeback Makes A Very Frank Appraisal Of Today's Jazz Scene," Miles thoughtlessly dismissed Mingus' work on the recent albums Jazz Composers Workshop (Savoy) and The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus (Bethlehem) as "tired modern paintings." The Hentoff interview provoked "An Open Letter to Miles Davis by Charles Mingus," an eloquent expression of Mingus' feelings of betrayal and a scathing reproach to the trumpeter's self-serving comments.

Bethlehem's 192/24 remaster of Miles Davis: Blue Moods opens a window on the session and an opportunity to wipe clean the grimy accretions of received critical judgment. The instrumentation is unusual—nearly unique in Miles' and Mingus' catalogs—and the performances are better than they have been characterized. The session was one of the last documents of an approach to writing and arranging that had preoccupied Mingus for more than a decade. Spurred perhaps by Miles' stinging criticism, and almost certainly by the emerging hard bop style of pianist-composer Horace Silver, Mingus subsequently embarked on a new musical path that led to the remarkable series of recordings he made between 1956 and 1964.

What kind of Mingus compositions was Miles characterizing as "tired modern paintings"? The answer may lie in the meeting of European classical musical form and African-American cultural practice, and the racial tensions that shaped the life and music of Charles Mingus.

A Necessary Biographical Digression

Mingus' music and his biography are inseparably entwined. Charles' multi-ethnic (Chinese and Afro-British) mother died less than two months after his birth, leaving behind three young children and a grieving, embittered husband. Charles Mingus Sr., the son of a Swedish-American woman and a light-skinned African American man, had been driven from his own mother's home as a teenager, when his mixed-race paternity was exposed. Emotionally guarded, hardened by experiences of racism and the humiliation of being labeled "colored" while appearing white, Mingus Sr. instilled in young Charles a lifelong conflict about racial identity. He asserted that his family were superior to their black neighbors in the working-class Watts district of Los Angeles, California. He extolled European-American culture and demanded that Charles focus his studies on classical music. But visits with his stepmother to Holiness Church services imprinted on young Charles a different lesson: Black culture had attained authentic artistic expression in the raucous, rhythmic, blues-based gospel music of the Church. The quest to fuse European classical forms with gospel, blues and popular song became an obsession for Mingus. His recordings of the early 1950s are exemplary of the problematic nature of that endeavor.

By 1955, five years after relocating from L.A. to New York, Charles Mingus had cemented a reputation for knowledge of music theory, flawless bass technique, entrepreneurial drive, and an explosive temper. With the organizational skills and tireless support of his wife Celia, he started the Debut record label and a music publishing company, conducted large-ensemble rehearsal projects, and freelanced with his peers. He wrote new, and rewrote older, original compositions, including the orchestral work "Revelations."

What Mingus didn't do was establish a regular working band, and that stubborn unwillingness to conform to the conventional practice of the time limited his professional advancement. Every Debut record he produced displayed his music in a different context. He shifted attention from his own work to advance the careers of trumpeter Thad Jones, and player-composers Teddy Charles, Teo Macero and Wally Cirillo, the latter, members of the Jazz Composers Workshop (JCW).

One of the compositional techniques that interested the JCW group members was counterpoint, which they studied in the work of Baroque and early classical composers. Mingus had been writing arrangements and compositions that used counterpoint since his teens. He had organized a rehearsal band in 1946 in Los Angeles to practice this music, for which there were few performance venues. Miles Davis participated in those rehearsals during a visit to the West Coast. Mingus cited their past connection in the Down Beat open letter to Miles, and reminded the trumpeter—and the wider jazz audience— that those large-band rehearsals of complex arrangements preceded the Birth of the Cool recordings by three years.

The Session

According to biographer John Szwed, just prior to Miles' July 17, 1955 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival the trumpeter's cash flow problem—failing to make child support payments—landed him briefly in Riker's Island jail. Lawyer Jack Whitmore pressed Miles to do a one-off session with Debut for double scale to clear the debt to his ex- wife. Miles agreed, and Mingus hurriedly arranged a studio date with a rhythm section of vibes, bass and drums and a second brass instrument, trombone. The presence of the vibes and the absence of a saxophone recalls the Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants Christmas Eve 1954 session with vibraphonist Milt Jackson.

Counterpoint arrangements; the cool colors of Miles; the unpredictable rhythms of Elvin Jones; the mellow tone of Ellington orchestra trombonist Britt Woodman: a mix of dissimilar elements, and if there had been more time for rehearsal and preparation of the arrangements....but planning was not Mingus' forté. While the engineer (not documented) was setting levels, Teddy Charles raced to get down on paper arrangements for three of the four pieces recorded at the session. Mingus arranged "Alone Together," the most complex writing on the album.
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