"I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”
Charles Mingus is the gift that keeps giving. With the exceptions of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, there is arguably no single jazz artist from the post-bop era whose body of work is as remotely vast, challenging and consistently fulfilling. And now, thanks to the efforts of his indefatigable widow Sue Mingus, our wicked world just got a whole lot sweeter with the reissue of his historic concert at UCLA from 1965.
Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way right up front: This recording is pretty much a miracle, and should be celebrated as such. The circumstances of its conception, performance, disappearance and resurrection seem not only appropriate, but almost uncannily reminiscent of the great man and his life, which too often seemed a ceaseless struggle between exasperation and ecstasy. The story of this recording is yet another installment of the underdog triumphs that defined Mingus’ creative and personal lives. Despite being a musician who’d been making well-regarded records for two decades, Mingus was still obliged to release this album on his own label, initially pressing a mere 200 copies (as always, he did as much as he could with whatever he had). Six years later, when he had the inclination and resources to try it again, he was distressed—though probably not shocked—to discover that the geniuses at Capitol Records had discarded the master tapes (along with other “obsolete custom tapes”, including some Mingus originals and, unforgivably, works by Charlie Parker!). It is, perhaps, difficult to appreciate—or even conceive—in our contemporary climate of spontaneous gratification, a time in the not terribly distant past where incalculable hours of concert and studio recordings were erased or shelved, if they were even recorded at all. Today, it is actually possible to attend a concert and purchase a freshly copied disc of the performance that just occurred. Suffice it to say, this concept was about as feasible as time travel while Mingus roamed the earth.
In September 1965, Mingus returned to Monterey (where he had played an enthusiastically received set the year before) prepared to debut several new pieces he’d composed just for the occasion. For whatever reason, the band was not given anything approximating the time Mingus demanded, and deserved, and his sardonic and cantankerous assessment of the situation is aptly delineated in the complete album title: Music Written For Monterey, 1965. Not heard ... played in its entirety, at UCLA. Vols. 1 and 2. Mingus was more than capable of settling grievances—real or imagined—with his mind or his muscle, but mostly, what he wanted was the freedom and opportunity to express himself. Mingus brought an octet with him to Monterey (and then to UCLA) and some of the new material was written with the specific musicians in mind. Mingus often referred to his live engagements as “workshops”, partly because he was testing out new compositions, but also because the compositions were expected to evolve and mutate and, eventually, crystallize in a result Mingus found acceptable. He refused to hand out music or allow the band to write anything down on paper; all he asked was the impossible: he demanded polished improvisation, unscripted perfection—and more often than not, it worked. When he got what he was looking for—no matter how long it took—the results remain unparalleled, and it’s not a coincidence that many of the musicians he took under his intimidating wing did their finest work, and invariably spoke fondly of their association with the maestro. Mingus, of course, was a stern taskmaster: he knew exactly what he wanted, but sometimes wasn’t certain what that was exactly, until he heard it. That his workshops became legendary is an understatement, and no musician (or loquacious member of the audience) was immune from the prodding, encouragement, threats and occasional violence Mingus would inflict if he deemed such measures necessary.
The brilliance of the music assembled on this recording should not be surprising; Mingus was coming off the aforementioned triumph at Monterey the year before, and was less than two years removed from the release of what many consider his magnum opus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which employed more than double the number of musicians—mostly quartets and quintets—he was accustomed to working with. After indisputable masterpieces such as Mingus Ah Um, The Clown and Tijuana Moods already half a decade or more, behind him, he continued to push himself. The sheer audacity of several of these pieces clearly prodded the collective players harder and further than they’d ever gone, and a couple of compositions were not formally recorded until six years later, when they appeared on Let My Children Hear Music. The remarkable quality of the music aside, this recording is an invaluable history lesson of what Mingus sounded like as he struggled, in real time, to get it right, inspired by the high wire act of doing it in front of a paying crowd, and letting those folks watch him fly or die.
A somber tone is set from the start with “Meditation on Inner Peace”, a slow burn of simmering beauty that stretches out a full 18 minutes, giving each musician a chance to contribute. An authoritative, if slightly ominous bowed bass introduction settles into a soft pulse, and then one by one, trumpets, a flugelhorn, a French horn, an alto sax and even a tuba all make their introductory statements, with Dannie Richmond, Mingus’ musical soul mate, circling and punctuating the proceedings in his coolly confident fashion. Next, Mingus is ready to debut the ambitious and immaculately titled “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America”, but the band is not up to the task. After several false starts, Mingus chides the band (much to the audience’s delight), eventually relegating several of them backstage to “figure it out”. As a quartet, the band tackles the self-explanatory “Ode to Bird and Dizzy”, a forcefully swinging workout. Satisfied, Mingus calls the entire band back to stage for another new number, “They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux”, the title indicating that Mingus was as concerned as ever about issues of race, justice and identity, and augmenting the already palpable vibe of political apprehension informing this set. Where Mingus employed mockery and carnival-like double-time for his scornful evisceration of racist governor Orval Faubus (“Fables of Faubus” from Ah Um), here darker tones are in order, and the mood is plaintive as befits the subject matter. Mingus signals out trumpet player Hobart Dotson for particular notice on “The Arts of Tatum and Freddy Webster”, another instance where he pays props to his heroes, and further evidence that any Mingus concert or album is a virtual encyclopedia of jazz history. Finally, everyone is on the same page and the incendiary “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America” (later to be reincarnated as “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive-Ass Slippers”—possibly one of the greatest titles of any song anywhere): these 11 minutes are the centerpiece of the album and offer an euphoric summation of the joyful noise Mingus made from the early ‘40s until the late ‘70s, which could be described aptly as American or Mingus, since they mean the same thing. After a quick detour to the deep South with the playful “Muskrat Ramble”, it’s back to the here-and-now with another new composition, “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too”. Unlike the more up-tempo and technically proficient version (also to appear on Let My Children Hear Music), this take is slower, soulful and deliberate. One can appreciate how carefully Mingus considered the unique sounds and talents of his sidemen: the song would seem unimaginable without Howard Johnson’s mellifluous tuba, and Mingus sits down at the piano (the instrument upon which he usually composed) and some might be surprised at how well he acquits himself; (those folks are advised to check out 1963’s Mingus Plays Piano, or 1961’s Oh Yeah). Proving once again that timeless art is almost always more applicable to the present day, the concert closes with Mingus narrating (and embellishing) “Don’t Let It Happen Here”, a poem by the German pastor, Martin Niemoller. As the trumpet and tuba lines swirl around him, Mingus somehow brings the themes, concerns and obsessions of the evening’s set full circle when he intones, “All men have a right to freedom on any land”. And after one last furious musical rumble, Mingus repeats words that, sadly, are at least as necessary and relevant today ... “Don’t let it happen here!”
That message, and this music, will be around as long as people are here to listen, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the 14-piece Mingus Big Band helping carry the torch almost 30 years after Mingus passed. Under the guidance of Sue Mingus, the band has been playing weekly (mostly in New York City, but also around the United States and the rest of the world) since 1991, and it would not be a stretch to suggest that this is the tightest, most interesting and exciting ensemble on the scene today. The Mingus Big Band is back with another incredible performance, Live in Tokyo, which is being released simultaneously with Music Written For Monterey .... Anyone fortunate enough to have captured this band in action understands that playing it safe is not their style, (not that it would even be possible to attempt a “safe” interpretation of a Mingus composition, as he was stylistically allergic to conformity or cliché). On this set, recorded on New Year’s Eve 2005, familiar favorites such as “Bird Calls” and “Ecclusiastics” are performed along with lesser known gems like “Opus Four” and “Prayer For Passive Resistance”. The highlight of these proceedings is the sublime “Celia”, yet another masterwork from 1957’s East Coasting, which captures the languid and sensitive piano work of Bill Evans—who played on the original—with a wonderful solo by Craig Handy on alto sax. This is important music given new life by an important band, and should not be missed.
Music Written for Monterey, 1965. Not Heard ... Played in Its Entirety, at UCLA
Live in Tokyo