Charles Mingus: Epitaph

[18 May 2009]

By Chadwick Jenkins

A Fitting Monument

When Charles Mingus died in 1979, he left behind a legacy that few composers (within and without the jazz realm) could match. As far as jazz is concerned, Mingus had it all: the finesse with orchestration of Duke Ellington, the ear for advanced harmonies of Thelonious Monk, the will toward experimentation of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, the deep roots in African-American traditional music grounded in the blues and spirituals, and a comfort with large and complex forms that, at least in this writer’s opinion, far outdistanced all of his predecessors, including Ellington.

But Mingus was more than jazz. His audacious ear for dissonance put him on par with Charles Ives, while his penchant for layering various patterns to create a complex and dissonant contrapuntal web matched Stravinsky’s prowess with the orchestra. I once heard Mingus compared to Aaron Copland. I couldn’t help but feel that Copland was never up to that comparison.

It was Mingus’ ability to work with large forms that brought him to the attention of composer-musicologist Gunther Schuller. Schuller was interested in a manner of composition that would combine the rhythmic verve and improvisational freedom of jazz with the structural complexity of 20th-century concert music. He dubbed this new hybrid Third Stream (that is, a third stream that combines the best elements of the earlier two).

Of course, Mingus was already doing something compositionally that might be described as Third Stream and it is for that reason that his music appealed to Schuller. But Mingus’ approach outstripped the other Third Stream composers inasmuch as his works did not strike the listener as some ill-conceived mélange (the danger of all attempts to forge hybrids). Indeed his works did not seem like hybrids at all. They were not beholden to two different traditions but rather emerged out of the compositional sensibilities that informed twentieth-century American music without a concern for what was or was not jazz.

In the late ‘50s, Mingus appears to have been working on what would be come his longest jazz composition. Certain that it would never be performed during his lifetime (he said he was writing it for his tombstone), he entitled it Epitaph. Mingus arranged to have parts of it performed at Town Hall in October 1962. Mingus believed this was to be a recording session open to the public but the promoters billed it as a concert. The audience appeared expecting a polished performance only to find that the copyists were still working on the parts in the wings, Mingus’ compositions were still being worked out (the date had been pushed forward five weeks earlier than he had originally expected), and most of the musicians had little idea of what they were doing.

Supposedly, Mingus, frustrated with the resulting chaos, encouraged the audience to demand their money back. “The press agents lied to you,” he declaimed, “You’ve been taken advantage of.” By the time midnight rolled around, the union members there to record the event demanded that it be shut down and Mingus seemed to give up on the project.

However, in the ‘80s, musicologist Andrew Homzy was engaged in a project to catalogue all of the existing manuscript materials that Mingus left behind. Homzy discovered a group of manuscripts that appeared to be independent works for a large jazz orchestra but that had continuous measure numbers, suggesting that they were movements within a larger work. Several of these manuscripts contained the word “Epitaph” as title or subtitle. The scores were in various states of disrepair and the work as a whole was clearly incomplete. Some of the pieces were familiar from other versions for smaller ensembles—most famously, Better Get Hit in Your Soul and Peggy’s Blue Skylight. Others (such as O.P.) were created for the Town Hall concert while still others seem to have been composed specifically for this latest version of Epitaph.

Homzy and Mingus’ widow Sue Mingus contacted Gunther Schuller. Schuller assembled a group of master musicians including Randy Brecker, a young Winton Marsalis, John Abercrombie, and Michael Rabinowitz. Finally, the piece was premiered at Alice Tully Hall in New York City in June 1989. Even this performance was nearly derailed and the performers were sight-reading material of great difficulty (owing to a glitch in the musical notation software). However, it was a successful premiere of a fascinating and difficult work. While a CD of the performance has long been available, it is only recently that the video (originally broadcast on British television) has been released on DVD.

There is nothing fancy about this DVD release. There is a brief on-stage introduction by Sue Mingus and then the performance itself. There are no extras, no small documentaries discussing the discovery and reconstruction of the work, no behind-the-scenes preparations or interviews. The only additional item is the wonderful descriptive essay prepared for the CD release by Gunther Schuller. The filming of the event is more or less what one might expect from performances broadcast over public television. The camera cuts between the conductor and the various featured performances with no effects, no fades, no zooms, no pans. One might best characterize such efforts as utilitarian; they get the job done.

This is to say that the filming is just perfect for an event of this nature. The focus remains exactly where it should: on the performance of the music itself. While the visual element avoids distracting one from the music, the sound reproduction here is very good, allowing listeners to appreciate the subtlety of Mingus’ approach to orchestration as well as the phenomenal abilities of performers such as Rabinowitz (who has a mind blowing solo toward the end of the suite) and Marsalis (whose tone is unmistakable even within an orchestra of this size).

If you are an established Mingus fan or if you are looking for a truly overwhelming entry point into his oeuvre, this is the perfect opportunity for you. This music runs the gamut; it conveys the spirit of Mingus, which was never one spirit but always multiple, conflicting, contradictory. You need not be a fan of jazz and you need not appreciate so-called concert music. If you enjoy great composition, then this is for you.

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