Charles 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.