Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Roots of Charles Mingus

"Imagine a circle surrounding each beat—each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle, and it gives him the feeling he has more space . . . the pulse is inside you."

—Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog

Bass before Mingus

Until the start of the 1940s, the double bass had played a subordinate role in large and small jazz groups, its part often being restricted to playing simple fundamentals on the first and third beat of each measure, just as tubas had done on early recordings. In the late 1930s, this all began to change. Walter Page in Count Basie's band began to play smooth arpeggios (figures based on the first, third, and fifth of a chord) that blended forcefully with guitar and drums, and Israel Crosby in small groups with Roy Eldridge and Teddy Wilson began to play repeated patterns, or ostinatos, behind soloists. Milt Hinton in Cab Calloway's orchestra, who had trained as a violinist, played elegant bowed solos in pieces like Ebony Silhouette, his improvised lines sounding more like those of a saxophone than most people's idea of a double bass. All these innovations came together in the short but bright career of Jimmy Blanton, who played briefly in Duke Ellington's orchestra before his early death from tuberculosis in 1942.
Blanton provided a way forward for bassists, an approach to the instrument as a full-fledged improvising member of a jazz group that underpinned many of the innovations of the modern jazz of the 1940s. Oscar Pettiford, one of the players to follow in Blanton's footsteps with Ellington, showed how mobile and flexible bass lines could combine with the more fluid drum style of players like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown developed the style with both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

The Arrival

Mingus appeared on the scene just at the right moment to combine all these innovations with his own musical personality. Those who recognized Charles Mingus's musical gifts realized immediately that he was outstandingly talented. Trombonist Britt Woodman and the reed player Buddy Collette were both childhood friends who encouraged him, even after he was humiliated for being unable to read music speedily enough to play cello in the local youth orchestra. It was Collette who started Mingus playing bass, and who then introduced him to Red Callender, a prominent bassist in Los Angeles who had worked with many high-profile musicians. Callender became a teacher and mentor for Mingus, who in due course ended up playing in Armstrong's big band himself.

The contradictions in Mingus's life carried over into his work. The world of African-American entertainment rubbed off on him from playing with Armstrong and other veterans like Kid Ory and Barney Bigard, but, like many musicians of his generation, he rejected the mugging stage persona of such older entertainers. Nevertheless, he simultaneously acquired a knowledge of and respect for the sounds they made; "our" music, as he called it.

Norvo/Ellington experience

He was fortunate to become part of a group that was designed to show off the bass. Before 1950 he had mainly worked in big bands, including Lionel Hampton's, or on miscellaneous record sessions; but when he joined a trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and vibraphonist Red Norvo, their light, open sound was the perfect setting for his playing. He was with the group only until 1951, but in that short time they were well placed in jazz polls. They also recorded quite extensively, bringing to a wide public Mingus's virtuoso bass playing and some of his unorthodox ideas, including his high-note solos, while Farlow accompanied him with bass lines on the guitar.
After leaving Norvo, Mingus settled in New York City, where his reputation as an innovative and versatile bassist brought him work with several high-profile musicians, including Bud Powell, Billy Taylor and even Duke Ellington, before he get fired by his idol after of a fight with Tizol, the trombone player of the orchestra.


Mingus and drummer Max Roach with the help of Mingus's wife Celia, formed a record company together, called Debut, which preserved much of Mingus's work from this period, including his first attempts at a jazz workshop—a collective that explored composition and improvisation. This was to be his preferred method of evolving his compositions over the years that followed, and he liked to sing or dictate the parts each musician was to play so that they heard rather than read the music. In this way he turned one of his own early shortcomings, the inability to read music well, into a positive approach, even if his regular pianist, Jaki Byard, surreptitiously jotted down the parts so the band could remember them later. As he composed, Mingus increasingly used the piano, and in due course incorporated playing piano into his live performances, interspersed with or instead of his bass playing.
The majority of his groups in the later 1950s into the 1960s used drummer Dannie Richmond, with whom Mingus developed a flexible rhythmic platform for his soloists. Bass and drums moved the beat around, made abrupt transitions into double or triple time, and sometimes dropped out altogether, leaving the brass and reeds to play with just handclaps or shouts for accompaniment.

Workshops, Compostions, Ideas

At the core of the workshop approach to his music, Mingus established two constants: a set of related pieces that changed gradually from performance to performance, and a pool of players who specialized in interpreting his ideas. So, a composition like Fables of Faubus, first written in 1959 and reworked in 1964, developed into Original Faubus Fables in 1960, and New Fables in 1964.
As John Lewis did with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Horace Silver, Mingus conceived much of his music with the accomplishments of the big bands as a guide to small ensemble music. Then in mid-career he began to re-record earlier works with medium and large groups. Haitian Fight Song, for one, gains much in clarity of line and precision as re-done for eleven instrumentalists and redded II B.S. But the earlier version has stunning bass work which the latter does not, and on Haitian Fight Song the surging, penetrating energy emanating from the leader and his instrument leads some listeners to call II B.S. slick by comparison. He had the kind of ambitions to produce "long" works which date back to the ragtime era, evident in the "stride" men—particularly in James P. Johnson—and which became the basis of real accomplishment in Ellington.
In Mingus, it seems that such efforts did not quite express the man's music. The truest moments in Mingus's Revelations, for instance, are not those in which the large ensemble executes the concert-hall-inspired passages but the turbulent, polyphonic "extended form" passages improvised by the jazzmen. In the same way as Ellington had done, Mingus created music to exploit the musical personalities of his musicians: the jagged saxophone and bass clarinet of Eric Dolphy, the sparring saxes of John Handy and Booker Ervin, the gospel-tinged saxophones and flute of Roland Kirk, the rounded trombones of Jimmy Knepper and Britt Woodman, and the witty, eclectic piano of Jaki Byard.
As the 1960s began, Mingus entered his greatest period of creativity with a series of outstanding compositions. At the same time he took on the establishment by setting up rival concerts to the Newport Jazz Festival, launching a new independent record label, and organizing events that were an uncomfortable mix of rehearsal and performance. The 1962 New York Town Hall event—which is not to be confused with a highly successful event two years later—is generally regarded as a spectacularly disastrous example of these performances, where chaotic organization, a lack of rehearsal, and Mingus's highly charged personality prevented much music from being made.

Mingus the outsider

By the mid-1960s, as a consequence of his volatile behavior, clubs refused to employ him. Mingus was facing financial ruin, and he was also suffering from unstable mental health. Mingus's career was put on hold until 1969, when he once more began to tour and perform. Soon afterward, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, which gave him a degree of stability and public recognition. Until the onset of his final illness—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), a form of muscular paralysis—he toured and recorded quite regularly with his
quintet and collaborated with singer Joni Mitchell (a forgettable record is the result of Joni's slack musical flirtation with Charlie) He also established a big band, for which he reworked many of his earlier compositions.

Mingus Today

He is a standard for modern jazz, and those charismatic musicians who were prominent in mythmaking, as well as making spontaneous music. But the problem is that he is unfairly underrated as a composer, underrated as a fighter and politically conscious American (and now we miss this part so badly!) and underrated as one of the greatest modern interpreters of classic and early jazz. Now these tasks should be taking care of very carefully. In Bird's words, NOW'S THE TIME!

Alyn Shipton, Jazz Makers.
Martin Williams, Jazz Tradition.


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