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Charles Mingus's complex Columbia sessions

By Jon Garelick

JULY 27, 1998:  In the film documentary Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, you might get the idea that what made this jazz musician such a great composer was that his pieces are so hard to play. Granted, jazz's inferiority complex isn't mere paranoia. It took more than 30 years for the Pulitzer Prize committee to redress its snub of Duke Ellington in 1965 by throwing one to Wynton Marsalis in 1997. Are jazz composers like Mingus, Ellington, George Russell, Sun Ra, and Thelonious Monk on a par with Ives and Copland and Gershwin? I remember a classical -- "legitimate" -- musician friend of mine scoffing at the idea that Charlie Parker aspired to study with the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse. "Charlie Parker knew more than Varèse," he said dismissively.

So even though Mingus (1922-'79) has long been praised by critics as one of the greats, his adherents in Triumph of the Underdog keep making the case, trying to raise awareness of his accomplishments by citing the difficulty factor. "See that," says Marsalis, pointing to a Mingus score, "that's the kind of thing you find in an étude book under 'hard.' " Gunther Schuller is there, too, to make the point over and over again that Mingus was a "composer" -- that aside from being a great bandleader and bassist, he could go toe to toe with the greats simply in a written-on-paper composing contest.

But perhaps the most convincing testimony comes from the musicians who worked with Mingus night after night. Tuba player Don Butterfield (a caption points out helpfully that Butterfield played at different times for both Mingus and Toscanini) talks about how Mingus kept challenging him with harder and harder parts. The great trombonist Jimmy Knepper, one of Mingus's most important collaborators, describes his relationship with his boss almost as a kind of dysfunctional romance from which he could find no escape. "Mingus just seemed to be unavoidable to me," he's quoted in Brian Priestly's biography of the composer. "I used to get very depressed. Good God, I'd say to myself, I'm stuck with this guy for the rest of my life. His music was so difficult, with all those time changes and different sequences. . . . It seemed written to trip you up. I wanted to relax and play standards." The relationship did end, temporarily, when Mingus punched Knepper in the mouth and broke two caps off his teeth.

Triumph finally makes its point, in spite of itself. It offers plenty of Mingus's volatile, beautiful music. And the interviews begin to make sense. Randy Brecker points out that Mingus's trumpet parts weren't merely difficult, they were unusual -- original. And they sounded good. So it wasn't merely a matter of an undisciplined writer in need of orchestration lessons.

Triumph of the Underdog will be part of next month's jazz film series at the Museum of Fine Arts (it'll screen August 16 at 2:30 p.m.), after which it will make a return fall engagement to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, where it played in June. (It's also available from Shanachie video.) In the meantime, we have Charles Mingus: The Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings (three CDs). Unlike a lot of "complete" boxes, this one offers Mingus's original Columbia CDs Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty intact as separate volumes, with bonus cuts added to the end of each. The alternate takes are consigned to a third volume. What's more, both Ah Um and Dynasty are being sold separately as well, which makes this a much more approachable introduction to Mingus than last year's massive Rhino reissue of his Atlantic recordings.

Both albums represent Mingus at his peak -- writing great material for great bands, playing superbly himself. Mingus really did begin as a "serious" composer, as steeped in Stravinsky and Schoenberg as in Ellington. He made his name as a jazz musician writing and playing with Lionel Hampton's big band, working in a famous trio with vibist Red Norvo and guitarist Tal Farlow, playing with Charlie Parker and (very briefly) with Duke Ellington. Leading his own sessions, he experimented with a kind of through-composed chamber jazz. By 1959 (a year of great sessions with Columbia and Atlantic) he was in complete revolt against any remnants of the "cool" school. He was part of the move into hard bop, its attempt to get more "soul" into bebop with simple churchy minor-keyed melodies and rolling gospel piano chords.

Yet Mingus transcended hard bop. Yes, there are moments on the Columbia sides when Horace Parlan's piano sounds as if it were coming off a Ray Charles record. There's an emphasis on blues throughout. Mingus drew directly on his experience as a child attending sanctified church meetings with his stepmother: the call and response of the horns, the antiphonal textures, the collective improvisation all reflect the preaching, testifying, and speaking in tongues that he heard at those services. No one in jazz has been more insistent on getting a bluesy, "vocal" character from his players; his speech-like free duets with his drummer Dannie Richmond and, for a while, Eric Dolphy, became set pieces. But whatever the considerable achievements of definitive hard-boppers like Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Lee Morgan, Mingus's stuff was of a whole other order.

What's apparent from the Columbia sides is that for all his vaunted "difficulty" (as a composer and in his personal relationships), Mingus wrote great tunes. Mingus Ah Um was a hit in part because of major-label muscle, but also, certainly, for its hit tunes. The album's leadoff, "Better Get It in Your Soul," is an upbeat blues with a fetching melody. The second piece, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" (also known as "Theme for Lester Young"), is one of his most beautiful ballads. Between Ah Um and Dynasty, there are tributes to Ellington ("Open Letter to Duke") and Jelly Roll Morton ("Jelly Roll"). And there's one of his great political satires, "Fables of Faubus," about the segregationist governor of Arkansas (in the Dolphy edition of Mingus's band, it would become standard, including lyrics traded between Mingus and Richmond).

The "difficulty" for players comes with the details that make these tunes infinitely replayable. Standard bebop or hard-bop bands would play a "head" that established a particular melody, scale, or chord pattern that all the soloists improvised on. But in the septets and nonets of '59 Mingus, no one rested for long. He taught his bands the pieces by ear, a phrase at a time on the piano, or by singing to them. A piece like "Boogie Stop Shuffle" would present an opening AAB theme twice through, then shift into a secondary theme before breaking for solos. Background riffs and countermelodies recurred and cued the soloists at unpredictable moments. Or, at a given point, Mingus would cut the band from under a soloist's feet and the band would accompany him with handclaps, church style. When there weren't outright shifts in meter, the infinitely fluid rhythm team of Mingus and Richmond danced around the beat, halving the time, doubling it. "Fables of Faubus" gets a Kurt Weill-like oom-pah treatment, but elsewhere Mingus and Richmond walk behind the soloists with a kind of stiff limp. Their interplay simply established one of the sweetest grooves in jazz.

Maybe the overall groove is why musicians like Knepper stuck with Mingus long after they grew exhausted with "all those changes and different sequences." On a piece like "Boogie Stop Shuffle," the effect of the "written-on-paper" composition is to ratchet up the velocity, and the interest, with each new soloist. And soloists like Ervin, saxist John Handy, and Knepper soar. For all their complexity, Mingus's tunes are full of hummable melodic content. They're sleek structures for improvisation.

Mingus depended on his soloists to "complete" each piece, and he talked about the compositions' "controlled chaos." He was a dictatorial bandleader who sincerely believed that his edicts would set his players free to be themselves. He's the only musician I've seen dis his players in his liner notes: of Dynasty's "Far Wells, Mill Valley" modal structure, he writes, "The solos by Handy on alto and Richard Williams on trumpet are fine solos, but they are executed in a diatonic Charlie Parker chordal manner that doesn't utilize the possibilities given by the open fifths."

Saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy has said that Thelonious Monk told him that he purposely made his pieces difficult in order to seduce musicians into rehearsing. Plenty of musicians seemed willing to be seduced by Mingus, whatever the difficulty.


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