Charles Mingus: Epitaph's Return


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What keeps Mingus Music so modern and moving forward is the space that Charles left within the music. It
—Sue Mingus
Charles MingusCharles Mingus' place in jazz history was secured well before his death at fifty-six in 1979. He had made his mark as one of the music's great bassists, most uncompromising bandleaders and original composers. But an event that happened ten years after his death created a tsunami spreading throughout the jazz world, now known as Mingus Music.

That event was the premiere of "Epitaph (available on the two-CD 1990 Columbia release of the same name), Mingus' sprawling, grand, two-hour-plus musical epic composed for an augmented, thirty-piece jazz orchestra. In 1962, Mingus disastrously attempted to record some of it during a concert (the results can be heard on the 1962 United Artist release, Town Hall Concert), then abandoned it, although evidently continuing to work on it, since a manuscript of over five hundred pages was discovered in his widow Sue Mingus' closet some years after his death.

Working diligently from that manuscript, conductor/arranger Gunther Schuller, an early champion of Mingus the composer, produced the performable score heard on the Columbia recording.

Until that concert and recording in 1989, Mingus Music had lived on modestly with Mingus Dynasty, the seven-piece band of mostly Mingus alumni that Sue Mingus had been managing and booking for the previous decade. But "Epitaph caused her to reconsider the future.

"Hearing Charles' music reflected in much grander fashion in 'Epitaph' inspired me to start the Mingus Big Band, she said from her Jazz Workshop, Inc., offices in Manhattan, where she was in the midst of planning for the first New York performance of "Epitaph in eighteen years, as part of a celebration of Mingus' 85th birth anniversary (he was born April 22nd, 1922).

In 1999 the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty were joined in her burgeoning Mingus Music organization by the Mingus Orchestra, another ensemble emphasizing orchestral renderings of Mingus Music and employing some of the instruments Mingus added to standard big band sections for "Epitaph, like bassoon, bass clarinet and French horn.

"Charles didn't have the luxury of a big band, explains Sue Mingus, "so almost all of our arrangements for the big band and orchestra are done by members of the ensembles or Gunther Schuller and Sy Johnson [who orchestrated some of Mingus' larger ensemble recordings]. It's a living legacy. What keeps Mingus Music so modern and moving forward is the space that Charles left within the music. It's a remarkable combination of serious composition that has to be honored and great freedom within that composition. He left a lot of freedom for the musicians to bring in their own individual voices. His mantra was 'Play yourself'; he would shout it at the musicians all the time and so you have voices of today reflected in the music as it moves forward.

As trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy, a pivotal member of the three Mingus ensembles in recent years, expresses it, "With Mingus not alive, musicians now have to be proficient enough on their own level to bring something to the table of Mingus Music. Then, by 'touching the hem of their garments,' so to say, playing with musicians who played with Mingus, after the aesthetic is transferred, musically, idiomatically and metaphysically...I feel now I can keep Mingus' legacy going, with humility.

Trombonist Eddie Bert, one of the few musicians who played at both the aborted "Epitaph Town Hall concert in 1962 and the triumphant 1989 Philharmonic Hall event, remembers playing with a very different Mingus as a composer in the '50s.

"We were in small Mingus bands, mostly quintets, says Bert, "and there was no music written down. We'd go to Mingus' house and he played it on the piano and said, 'Learn it and play it like you wanna play it.' That's the way he was; he would play it on the piano or even sing it to us at gigs. Now everything is written and it's different. Back then he said when you read it you don't play it the same way; when you know it you play it different. Of course with the big bands he had to write the music, but he was always making changes when he conducted it.

Trumpeter Ted Curson, who was in Mingus' finest quartet with woodwind multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy and drummer Dannie Richmond in the late '50s, compares Mingus as a leader to Ellington, in that both of them could get the most out of their musicians.

"Mingus was a real visionary, said Curson, who is looking forward to conducting arrangements of Mingus and Thelonious Monk pieces with big band from Finland in St. Petersburg, Russia in June, 2007. "He could actually hear how somebody would fit in. I'm a perfect example. I was playing with some way out people in those days, including [pianist] Cecil Taylor, but Mingus could hear me in his music, where a lot of other people couldn't. What he could hear was Eric bouncing off me. And you had to have a guy like me to tune everybody up and keep everybody on a straight line. Because Mingus was out there, Dannie was out there. I was the only one really kinda staying close to the basement.

"If you take any one of the dozens of musicians who worked with Mingus, Curson continues, "it seems to me they were in their best shape thinking and playing when they were with him. If you couldn't play, he wouldn't hire you. When you were with him, you had to be ready and really mentally sharp. He put a lot of pressure on you and it was like putting pressure on coal—you make a diamond. He put so much pressure on guys that if they had anything in them, it was going to come out. All the guys could play, but it seemed like he got a little bit more out of you.

"If you weren't willing to give it up, concludes Curson, "he'd take it off you anyway. He was a modern day Jesse James: 'Give it up or I'm going to take it, but any way you're going to give it up because you're on my bandstand... And with most leaders, a gig would get easier the more you played. But with Mingus the longer you were in the band the more difficult it got. Sometimes he would take you to the whipping post; he was the boss and he didn't have to say it, you knew it when you were on his bandstand.

Another thing Curson points out is that Mingus was one of the few jazz musicians who could keep long gigs and continue drawing an audience. (This writer had the pleasure of seeing the Curson-Dolphy quartet—with guest artists including tap dancer Baby Lawrence and reedman Yusef Lateef on weekends—over many months at The Showplace in Greenwich Village in 1958-59). That, says trumpeter Jack Walrath, who was in one of Mingus' last working quintets and on Epitaph, was partly because of his "eclecticism and his willingness to break the so-called rules. Like teaming up with tap dancer Lawrence, having monologist Jean Shepard record narration to "The Clown or creating politically charged lyrics to such pieces as "Fables of Faubus and "Freedom.

Charles Mingus

Gunther Schuller is returning to conduct "Epitaph in four performances across the country in March and April, 2007, and his opinion of the piece is just as positive as it was eighteen years ago. "It is a masterpiece of music, whether jazz or not is not important, he said recently. "It has nineteen or more movements [a newly discovered section may be added to these performances] that are all of the highest creative, innovative quality. And they are all different; they run the gamut from the most soulful, basic kind of blues jazz to the most complex, almost Charles Ives-ian constructions and inventions. There are movements that have almost nothing to do with jazz, influenced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. But of course when jazz musicians play them it has a certain feeling of jazz. It is a range that even Duke Ellington never covered, plus the fact that it is for a double jazz orchestra. It is an absolute tragedy that Mingus never got to play and hear it in his lifetime. All of that makes it a unique piece in jazz history.

Because of all the tsunami-like waves put in motion by the first performance of "Epitaph, this time around Sue Mingus feels it will be even better than in 1989. "When we first presented it, it was so daunting it sometimes seemed tentative, but now we have so many musicians who have been playing Mingus Music that they have Mingus in their pores now. Just playing it, with all its requirements is going to make it much easier for musicians this time around. It's going to really sparkle.

And as if all this new Mingus Music activity isn't enough, Sue Mingus has also been increasing Charles Mingus' legacy with newly released, archival recordings. 2006 saw the release of Music Written for Monterey 1965, Not Heard...Played in its Entirety at UCLA, Sep. 25, 1965 (Mingus Music-Sunnyside, two CDs), a rare glimpse at Mingus presenting extended compositions with a larger ensemble, an octet. And in the summer of 2007 Blue Note will be issuing Live at Cornell, 1964, a two-CD set by the sextet Mingus brought to Europe that year, with Dolphy, Johnny Coles, Clifford Jordan, Jaki Byard and Richmond.

"There are a lot of recordings and even video, of that band in Europe, says Sue Mingus, "but this is one of the very best. They were all happy and healthy—Johnny Coles took ill after a week in Europe and dropped out of the band, but here he sounds like the 'holy man' Mingus used to call him—and this is just a marvelous recording.

Selected Discography

Charles Mingus, The Complete 1959 CBS Charles Mingus Sessions (Columbia-Legacy, 1998)

Charles Mingus, Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings Atlantic-Rhino, 1997)

Charles Mingus, Complete Debut Recordings (Debut, 1990)

Charles Mingus, The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (Prestige, 1964)

Charles Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!, 1963)

Charles Mingus, The Complete Candid Recordings (Candid-Mosaic, 1960)

Photo Credit
Hans Kumpf

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