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Mingus Awareness Project: A Benefit for ALS Research


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By Dean Christesen

One year ago on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the Mingus Awareness Project found its home away from home in Richmond, Virginia. Created and first held in Chicago by Jon Godston in May 2007, M.A.P. was formed to educate people on two topics: jazz bassist Charles Mingus and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS), the disease that killed him and continues to kill thousands every year. The project's goal is to raise money to benefit an ALS research foundation.

Drummer Brian Jones--a childhood friend of Godston's--was naturally affected when Godston's mother died from the disease after years of suffering through it. “The agony of that illness in particular is just a horrible thing," Jones says. “Essentially your body shuts down slowly, [but] your mind is completely active. You know what's going on; you're totally alert, but all of a sudden you can't move your legs, you can't move your arms, and you can't do anything. And then eventually you just can't breathe and you die."

Jones decided to organize a benefit here in Richmond like the one that had taken place a couple months earlier in Chicago, and on October 21, 2007, it happened. “It was certainly one of the jazz highlights of last year," says Doug Richards, composer and arranger extraordinaire who conducted the big band at the event. Not many people dare or desire to disagree with him on this topic.

This year's event is being held on Sunday at Gallery5 with its sights on a larger turnout. With the hype around last year's performance and the stacked roster of musicians appearing this year, that goal should not be difficult to achieve. Jones' M.A.P. Trio (Jones, J.C. Kuhl on saxophones, and Cameron Ralston on bass) will begin the evening with material composed by Mingus and recorded by the trio this summer. Local favorite Fight the Big Bull will then appear in the venue's upstairs gallery, performing three pieces inspired by Mingus and penned by band leader Matt White.

Back downstairs, the M.A.P. Big Band, conducted by Richards, will close the evening. The band is set to perform Mingus originals “Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too" from the album Let My Children Hear Music; “Jelly Roll," the bassist's tribute to Jelly Roll Morton; “Boogie Stop Shuffle," a “foray of Mingus into earlier jazz styles," says Richards; “For Harry Carney," a dark blues which was dedicated to the great baritone saxophone master of Duke Ellington's band and which originally appeared on Mingus' Changes Two; and closing with the premiere of Richards' arrangement of “Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," which will feature vocalist John Winn, trumpeters Rex Richardson and John D'earth, and guitarist Trey Pollard.

In between each group, WCVE Public Radio's Peter Solomon will play DJ sets of Mingus' music.

Mingus died at the age of 56 in 1979. Richards calls him “one of the three or four truly significant composers in jazz history. His various groups that he led, from the mid 50s through his death, were some of the most outstanding ensembles in jazz history, and the recordings that they made are some of the most significant recordings made. As a bassist, he is, in my opinion, one of the four or five greatest jazz bassists. There aren't too many individuals that one can make all of those accolades about."

“I'm a firm believer," says Jones, “that you can't separate the personality from the music. You kind of are what you are, and that's what will ultimately come out of your music. Mingus may be the epitome of that idea." Mingus was known for his hot temper on and off the bandstand, which may account for his impatience and restlessness. “The music had a rawness to it; it wasn't very polished. He had no patience for rehearsing."

The same local A-List excitement that surrounded last year's event will be just as present on Sunday. It is hard to believe that between last year's event and this year's there could have been another gig in Richmond with as large of a roster of high caliber musicians. “The band is pretty top-notch," affirms Jones. Organizing so many busy musicians is no simple task. “That's the fun part," he says. “I get a kick out of the drama of trying to get a hold of all these guys and trying to organize a rehearsal."

Richards was the first person Jones asked to participate in last year's event, so his inclusion this year was a given. “I love dealing with Doug," says Jones. “I get very inspired by the perfectionism, the drive, the lack of bullshit with him... If he doesn't like something, he tells you 'I didn't like it'...And that is an admirable trait for a human being to have."

“This is a very special event," says Richards. “I'm just honored and delighted to take part in it."

Jones plans on making this an annual event in Richmond for years to come. The term “annual" seems to be a sacred one to the drummer and exceptional bandleader and organizer: with slightly fewer than ten annual John Cage Musicircus' under his belt as host and a perpetual slew of projects in the works, there is no reason to doubt that the Mingus Awareness Project will become a Richmond tradition for years to come.

Mingus Awareness Project takes place this Sunday, Oct. 26, 4-7 p.m. at Gallery5. 644-0005. Tickets are $12. T-shirts and M.A.P. Trio CDs will be for sale. All proceeds will benefit ALS Association, DC/MD/VA Chapter. For more info, visit alsinfo.org, gallery5arts.org, slangsanctuary.com. Mingus Awareness Project also coincides with the Richmond Walk to Defeat ALS on Saturday. For more info, visit fightals.alsinfo.org.

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