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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.

There's an underlying melancholy in the performance of "Nature Boy" that goes deeper than the titular blue mood. Miles' solo is a model of restrained lyricism and equal to the best of his recorded work of the period. Teddy Charles' arrangement blends the vocal-like trumpet line with the dulcet tone of the vibes and contrapuntal lines from the trombone and bass. The emphasis is on interplay and the effort is successful.

Less successful is the second track, Mingus' chart for "Alone Together." Had there been rehearsal time to lock Elvin Jones in synch with the ambitious arrangement, Mingus might have pulled off the intro, a confrontation between the lugubrious primary line played by Davis and the counter-melody—a variant of the opening riff from "A Night in Tunisia"— played by the trombone and bass in unison. Mingus is actively, creatively recomposing, not just rearranging. The chorus section over which Miles, Teddy Charles and Mingus solo contains further contrapuntal writing with secondary melodies falling to Britt Woodman, who switches between open and mute trombone to vary the tone colors. Good soloing by Miles and Mingus can't conceal that Teddy Charles is no Milt Jackson.

The original Side Two of the LP displays the band beginning to jell as the session progresses. "There's No You" benefits from a simple head arrangement by Teddy Charles and a more lively atmosphere in the room—the players don't seem to have their attention so tightly focused on the hastily-scribbled score. Miles' solo is similar in style to what he'll be playing more than a year later at the marathon October 26, 1956 Prestige session. He's clearly more relaxed than earlier in the day; 'trading eights' with Elvin sparks his energy to the highest levels of the session. In his bass solo, Mingus soars and swings, effortlessly devising melodic variations on the changes. If a pianist the caliber of Wade Legge or Hank Jones had been in the studio instead of vibraphonist Teddy Charles, the performance would have been a classic.

"Easy Living" is a feature for the trumpet, played by Miles with his Harmon mute close to the microphone. His vibrato-less sustained tone creates a 'mood' of tension that isn't released until the final bars. Although Woodman struggles to get a clean attack in the counter-melodies—two more horns would have helped—the rhythm section is tight and the performance's slow tempo works to advantage. The absence of a final, more up-tempo tune leaves the album without a natural conclusion—like a three-act play that unexpectedly ends after the second act.

In sum: Blue Mood offers a glimpse into a working method that did not serve Mingus' musical ambitions. The album nonetheless deserves critical rehabilitation and a fair listening.

Track Listing: Nature Boy; Alone Together; There's No You; Easy Living.

Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; Charles Mingus, bass; Elvin Jones, drums; Britt Woodman, trombone; Teddy Charles, vibes and arrangements.

Format: 192/24 download.

Tijuana Moods

Tijuana Moods was recorded for the short-lived RCA subsidiary label Vik in July and August 1957 but not released until 1962. This was an explosively creative period in the artistic life of Charles Mingus. After more than a decade on the margins of the record business due, in part, to his refusal to relinquish rights of ownership of his compositions to management and record companies, Mingus was finally poised to reach a larger audience.

Tijuana Moods can be enjoyed purely for its skillful musicianship and golden-age stereo recording, but taking into account the drama of Mingus' life adds to an appreciation of the work. In the summer of 1957, the troubled marriage of Charles and Celia Mingus was close to an end. During a period of separation, Mingus took drummer Dannie Richmond on a trip to Tijuana, Mexico in search of food, drink, women, musical inspiration; escape from his personal demons.

The border town was familiar to Mingus, who grew up in Watts, an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Los Angeles that was home to many Latino families. Brian Priestly's "Mingus: A Critical Biography" recounts how Mingus' stepmother Mamie frequently brought him to services at the Holiness Church, a Pentecostal denomination where spontaneous outbursts of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) were accompanied by joyous clapping and loud, rhythmic music. Echoes of those church services can be heard in the cacophonous passages of 'Dizzy Moods' and 'Ysabel's Table Dance' on Tijuana Moods, and feature in much of Mingus' writing in this period.

Like the 1956 release Pithecanthropus Erectus, the first Mingus record to receive widespread distribution by a major record label, Tijuana Moods features the bassist's distinctive multi-part compositions, complex arrangements, time signature changes and raucous, gospel-inspired group performance.

The working band of 1957 included Shafi Hadi, alto and tenor saxophones; Clarence Shaw, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; and Dannie Richmond, drums. The piano position changed frequently—on Tijuana Moods, the pianist is Bill Triglia, a gifted accompanist who left few recordings but enjoyed a long career (and long life) performing and teaching. Trumpet player Clarence Shaw and saxophonist Shafi Hadi are best remembered for their tenure with Mingus.

Mingus' writing is very well represented in recordings made in 1957. January and March sessions with the working band at Atlantic can be heard on The Clown. In June, Mingus performed a movement of his suite "Revelations" for Columbia Records. July was especially active: a trio date with his friend Hampton Hawes, a session for his own Debut label under the leadership of trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and the first of two sessions for Tijuana Moods. From August to October he completed Tijuana Moods, taped another session for Debut and recorded two albums for the Bethlehem label, East Coasting and A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry.

Provided with the advanced production facilities of RCA's spacious Studio A and the indulgence of producer Bob Rolontz, Mingus recorded all but one of the five pieces on Tijuana Moods in multiple, incomplete takes, called 'breakdowns.' The 2001 Bluebird First Editions reissue contains detailed information about the performance and editing process, including take numbers. The opening tune, "Dizzy Moods" comprises five tape edits in the span of 5:49. While some of the edits fall a fraction of a beat off meter, by and large the effect is in keeping with the stop-and-start technique that was characteristic of Mingus' compositional method.

Charles Mingus worked towards a very specific ensemble sound with the 1957 sextet. Shafi Hadi and Jimmy Knepper function as a kind of miniature Ellington-style reed and trombone section, while Clarence Shaw's hesitant, behind- the-beat phrasing and melancholy lines emphasize the emotional depth of the composer's frame of mind. In Bill Triglia, Mingus was fortunate to collaborate with a Julliard-trained, highly proficient pianist who was more than equal to holding down the difficult arrangements.

Mingus himself is heard to outstanding advantage on the SACD. In part due to his interest in achieving a collective group sound, Mingus did not often take lengthy solos in the studio. His virtuosity was long recognized by his musical peers, and it is gratifying to hear with clarity and definition the tone quality he could achieve on his hundred year-old German bass viol. The guitar-like strumming on "Ysabel's Table Dance" remains distinct in the mix, behind but not obscured by the vocals, handclaps, castanets and horns.

A comparison of the first five tracks on CD 1 of the 2001 Bluebird edition to the new SACD suggests that the source is the same, and that the stereo tape was very well-preserved. Bernie Grundman's mastering, as on the Original Recordings Group SACD Sonny Rollins: The Bridge, reveals plenty of aural space around the drum kit, a smooth midrange typical of recordings of the era, and very little in the way of distortion or dropouts. The 2001 CD offered very good sound quality and is valuable for the alternate versions, unreleased tracks, breakdowns and recording data. I have not heard the LP reissue of Tijuana Moods on the respected Speakers Corner label and can only compare the SACD to the 2001 CD and the 1986 set New Tijuana Moods, which was digitally sourced and issued on LP and CD. The Bernie Grundman remastered SACD exceeds both previous digital reissues in sound quality, and is highly recommended.

Track Listing: Dizzy Moods; Ysabel's Table Dance; Tijuana Gift Shop; Los Mariachis (The Street Musicians); Flamingo.

Personnel: Charles Mingus, bass; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Curtis Porter (Shafi Hadi), alto saxophone; Clarence Shaw, trumpet; Bill Triglia, piano; Danny Richmond, drums; Frankie Dunlop, percussion; Ysabel Morel, castanets; Lonnie Elder, vocals.

Format: Original Recordings Group SACD

East Coasting

Almost immediately after the exhausting sessions for Tijuana Moods, Mingus entered the studio with nearly the same group of musicians to record a set of originals and one standard in a more spontaneous, live- sounding setting, for the Bethlehem label. The deal with Bethlehem was strictly a financial necessity: Mingus' own label, Debut, was shut down in a conflict with the American Federation of Musicians over claims of unpaid debts. The title of the album East Coasting is both a playful reference to the bassist's West Coast origins and a signal that the set could be understood as a cultural-geographical counterpart to Tijuana Moods.

Evidence of the hard work that went into producing a "live" sound on East Coasting can be found on the back cover of the CD distributed by Avenue Jazz-Rhino (though not in the online details included on the 96/24 remastered download):

"Memories of You—Take 7"; "West Coast Ghost—Take 6"; "Conversation—Take 16."

Sixteen takes... Imagine the tension in the room. But there was no possibility of recording breakdowns and assembling performances after the fact. That methodology would not be available again to Mingus until he signed to Columbia Records in 1959; the low-budget Bethlehem label offered no such luxuries. By the time this grueling session and the subsequent date for A Modern Symposium of Jazz and Poetry were finished, the self-doubting trumpeter Clarence Shaw was finished working and fighting with Mingus. He was reported to have destroyed his instrument, and except for a handful of albums he recorded several years later, his sensitive playing was lost to the jazz world.

The seventh take of the Blake-Razaf standard "Memories of You" puts Clarence Shaw under a spotlight. He was reluctant to use a Harmon mute for fear of invidious comparisons to Miles Davis, but he needn't have fretted: the two sound nothing alike. There's a cracked fragility in Shaw's tone that Mingus never found—or sought—in another trumpet player. Shaw's thin, wavering tone stands in contrast to the full-bodied trombone of Jimmy Knepper and the agile lines of saxophonist Shafi Hadi. The use of counter-melodies in the head section resembles the style of arrangements on Blue Moods that drew such scorn from critics. The big difference between the two sessions can be expressed in a single word: preparation. Mingus had thoroughly trained drummer Dannie Richmond to play exactly what he wanted to hear, and Richmond complied. Shaw, Hadi and Knepper had practiced, performed and recorded with Mingus for more than six months, enough time to internalize Mingus' methods and compositional style. The arrangements were difficult, but as the number of takes indicates, complete, fluent performances were eventually realized.

The unplanned element of the session was the presence of pianist Bill Evans, who received a wired notice of the date the night before, and arrived with no idea of what he would be playing. Mingus had heard Evans play a concert of Third Stream music organized by composer Gunther Schuller, which included a segment from Mingus' unfinished "Revelations." Bill Evans was an inspired choice. His restrained, cerebral pianism added cool colors to Mingus' palette, much as Miles Davis had done for the Blue Moods session. Cast unexpectedly in a prominent role, Evans locks into Dannie Richmond's rhythmic pulse, and delivers solos with elegance and economy. By whatever means Mingus used to communicate his intentions—perhaps demonstrating the parts at the piano—Evans projects his own distinctive voice throughout. He selected an unusual minor subdominant chord to play at the end of each chorus of "Memories of You" that creates an unsettling effect. He demonstrates an ease with unconventional chord voicings that would shortly draw him into Miles Davis' orbit and steer the trumpeter away from hard bop and standards towards the sketches of modal jazz they performed on Kind of Blue.

"East Coasting's" intricate head is well-executed by the ensemble, but Jimmy Knepper sounds hesitant in his solo; the number of recorded takes may have taken a toll. Clarence Shaw leaves more than a little open space around his angular phrases, suggesting either fatigue or uncertainty about how his performance was being received by the demanding bandleader. Only Bill Evans sounds completely at ease with the piece's structure. His right-handed lines echo the dancing melodic figures of Thelonious Monk. Listeners accustomed to the two-handed style he explored in his trio performances with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian will be surprised to hear how fluently he could swing.

The troubled state of Mingus' marriage may have prompted the performance (or the retitling—Mingus was an unreliable narrator of his musical catalog) of the song "Celia." An already unusual form is punctuated by Bill Evans' unaccompanied free-time whole-tone solos at the end of each refrain. These audacious passages are surely Evans' original contribution, the product of a gifted musical imagination and deep harmonic conception. The many hours of retakes during the session likely gave Evans time for such inventive composing.

The mood of frustrated romantic longing that pervades "East Coasting" can also be traced to the influence of 1940s Hollywood movies. Most of the classical players who lived in Southern California, including Mingus' bass teacher, worked in the movie studio orchestras, and many of the prominent film composers were European immigrants who transmuted their conservatory training into popular song and soundtrack writing. Mingus apprenticed as a lead-sheet writer for the studios.

An undercurrent of film-noir themes: fatalism, personal betrayal, the impossibility of finding happiness through love, runs like a dark stream beneath the emotional surface of East Coasting.

Track Listing: Memories of You; East Coasting; West Coast Ghost; Celia; Conversation; Fifty-First Street Blues.

Personnel: Charles Mingus, bass; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Curtis Porter (Shafi Hadi), alto saxophone; Clarence Shaw, trumpet; Bill Evans, piano; Danny Richmond, drums.

Format: 96/24 download (Bethlehem)

Bethlehem In Hi-Res

A column published in 2014 by The Absolute Sound reported that the Naxos group had recently acquired the Bethlehem catalog. East Coasting is one of nearly 80 titles currently available in 96/24 at some vendor sites. Dates by Thad Jones, Howard McGhee, Herbie Nichols, and a series of recordings produced by Creed Taylor are welcome additions to the hi-res marketplace.

In a comparison with an early 1980s LP and the Avenue Jazz CD, both of which are derived from a stereo mix, the mono tape of East Coasting is clearly superior in sound quality and preservation. The piano level is forward, highlighting Bill Evans' solos. Dannie Richmond's kit is set back in the room, which lends depth to the soundstage. There is solid low bass extension on Mingus' instrument, and even in the dense ensemble passages, all of the horns can be heard without congestion. This appears to be the same mono master source used on the Pure Pleasure Music 180-gram LP reissue.

Recognition came late to Charles Mingus. Musically gifted, perspicacious, hypersensitive to betrayal and often infuriated by the racism of American society, he struggled to establish a career of his own design, an endeavor that was impeded by the straitened economics of the music business and his own demons of rage and self-doubt. Not until the final years of his life, confined to a wheelchair with the incurable degenerative disease ALS, did he receive widespread critical acclaim as one of America's great composers.

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