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.
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