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Dusted's Marc Medwin takes a look at a few recent issues of Charles Mingus records.

Mingus Revisited

Charles Mingus - At UCLA 1965 (Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside)

Mingus Big Band - Live in Tokyo (Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside)

“I’d like to let you know who’s in this group—the same people who were at Monterey, and actually, we’re gonna play the music we planned to play there, and for some reason uh … this is not an apology … we only had twenty minutes. No one knows who the guy was with the red beard—Jesus or Buddha, Moses Muhammad somebody, but he said “Get off.” And they can’t find him, neither can I.
(Mingus, opening speech from the UCLA concert)

“He certainly evidenced a survivor’s irony,” quipped Sue Mingus, serenely implacable widow of composer and bassist Charles Mingus. I’d observed that Mr. Mingus could be bitingly humorous even in the most adverse circumstances, as with this recently reissued 1965 concert when Mrs. Mingus summed up the character of her husband’s music more completely than I ever could. Sunnyside—the name of his new home seems ironic when his tempestuous nature is considered—is doing its part to ensure survival of the Mingus legacy. These two new releases elucidate different aspects of Mingus the creator in development. Both under his own direction and in the capable hands of his associates and admirers.

The UCLA concert took place on September 25, 1965, a week after the fabled Monterey Jazz Festival referenced above. Originally released in 1966 as Music Written for Monterey, 1965 not Heard … Played Live in its Entirety at UCLA by Charles Mingus Enterprises, the album disappeared before it really had a chance to be heard. “We just ran out of money. Our mail order company pressed about two hundred or so the first time, and when I re-released it briefly in the early 1980s, the masters had already been destroyed.” The CD is mastered from a clean copy of the vinyl, and while some distortion is obvious, it’s a very nice transfer overall.

Accounts of what actually happened at Monterey 1965 vary greatly, Mingus being portrayed in both demonic and angelic hews, as victim and as tyrant. Whatever transpired, the group only played three of the new compositions that had been rehearsed, insufficiently, for the event. The entire program was given by the octet at UCLA, but in workshop format. For the uninitiated, this meant that Mingus could conduct what amounted to a rehearsal or recording session, with all attendant peaks and pitfalls, in front of a paying audience, a format he’d been using for the previous ten years.

It is no surprise, then, that the ending of “Meditations on Inner Peace” is taken again, or even that Mingus feels the need to demonstrate the opening of “Once upon a Time, there was a Holding Corporation called Old America” on the piano, telling the audience wryly “This is gonna be a long concert, so relax yourselves.” He is almost irrepressibly charming throughout, leaving aside, of course, moments like the awkward silence after one of “Holding Corporation”’s false starts, followed by a surly “for God’s sake!”

As with much in the Mingus catalog, serious sociopolitics bubbles just beneath the surface. “If we don’t get love together in this band, then the Negro does not deserve Freedom,” Mingus lectures the group at one memorable moment, and the introduction to “Don’t Let it Happen Here” is a heartbreaking reminder of individual responsibility in the face of injustice.

When four of the musicians are dismissed to learn the parts better, a quartet similar in construction to the pianoless groups on Mingus’ seminal Candid material executes an extraordinary bebop pastiche called “Ode to Bird and Dizzy”, propelled in large part by Danny richmond’s explosive but controlled drumming, making clear why Mingus relied on him to fill the drum chair so frequently. The piece sounds as if it is being developed as it unfolds, an air of adventure and expectancy that pervades the whole concert. Again, this is nothing new, and reworkings abound throughout Mingus’ works. “Holding Corporation” would become “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are some Jive-ass Slippers” for the 1971 masterpiece Let my Children Hear Music. Of all the recastings in Mingus’ formidable corpus, none stands as tall and as forbiddingly as Epitaph, a two-and-a-half hour symphonic opus that Mingus worked on throughout his life. Disaster forced its abandonment and supposed disappearance when in 1962, another concert/recording session involving some thirty-two musicians went awry. The tensions are plainly audible in the released document, the infamous Town Hall Concert, and Sue Mingus only heard Charles discuss the large-scale work once during their fifteen year association. “Epitaph was an overview of his musical life. The only time I remember him talking about it was when I had written a piece for the New York Times magazine that was rejected. It was a piece on record piracy, and I was moaning about how much work I’d put into it, and he said “I have a whole symphony that was never performed!”. … Charles was not a poor sport—he shelved it and went on.”

She explained that Canadian musicologist Andrew Homzy had discovered the work in manuscript when he was cataloging Charles’ pieces. It was first performed in its entirety in 1989 by an all-star assemblage, led by Gunther Schuler and including fresh faces and Mingus alumni alike. Epitaph is being revived next April to commemorate what would have been Charles’ 85th birthday. “Some more of the piece has been rediscovered, and some pieces that Mingus meant to include will be included this time,” Sue explains, one of these new incorporations apparently being “Open Letter to Duke.”

When listening to the 1989 recording of Epitaph, I have always been struck by how much better Mingus scores can be played now than when he was alive. I have similar feelings about the Mingus Big Band, one of three repertory groups initiated after Charles 1979 passing that also include the Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Orchestra. Last year, Sunnyside inaugurated its Mingus campaign with I am Three, a disc containing contributions from all three establishments; as well as that effort turned out, this newest release by the big band surpasses it. A live disc made in Tokyo last December, each performance bristles with energy, delivered to an appreciative club audience. “I know Charles would have been thrilled to hear his music played this well, with such vitality.” Sue’s voice does not betray much emotion throughout our talk, but her pride in this project is evident, and it’s well-founded. While the arrangements may not always have the adventurousness of a Mingus chart, the vibrant and entirely idiomatic playing makes up for any shortcomings. “Birdcalls” is particularly impressive, rivaling the 1959 recording in agility and invention. Even “Eclusiastics” works very well, never quite equally its Atlantic counterpart, but the low brass re-enforcements on the chordal passages add a nice touch.

The Mingus enterprise is certainly busy beyond these two releases. The Mingus orchestra, less well represented on recordings than the Big Band, will perform at Merkin Hall on November 30 as part of Gunther Schuller’s eighty-first birthday celebration. With Epitaph in performance throughout next April and May, Sue says that while a recording has not been discussed yet, it is an option worth considering. She is also involved in negotiations about unreleased material from the Mingus archive. “I have a concert from Cornell in 1964, just before the group with Eric Dolphy and Johnny Coles went off to Europe. Everybody was happy and the music was astonishing.” I don’t doubt it, and it is very much appreciated that Sue Mingus and Sunnyside are keeping the flame for one of this country’s major composers.

By Marc Medwin

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