Perfect Sound Forever

Charlie Mingus: 1960-1964
by Tim Ryan (August 1999)

I was driving past Freebody Park in Newport, Rhode Island when I decided to slow down to try to see through the fences at the ends of the park's tall brick walls. I'd been to Freebody Park a bunch of times growing up, spending Friday nights or Saturday afternoons watching football games from the metal bleachers. It was only recently that I realized one of my heroes, the great Charles Mingus, had played there. The brick walls surrounding the playing field almost fortress-like. At that moment, they were blocking my view. I was trying to imagine Mingus on stage, in a big concert shell, a large man and a gigantic presence, as a creative force and a complex, emotional person.

Even 20 years after he left this world, and 37 since he last played in the confines of this park, Mingus' spectral presence is so powerful you can still feel the rumbling bassline of "Tonight at Noon," one of two songs he played that day.

I first heard Charles Mingus' music in an Army-Navy store in downtown Newport. As I walked in the door, I heard what sounded to me like the greatest piece of classical music ever performed. I inquired to the woman behind the counter as to who was making this amazing music. I'd heard the name Mingus before, but this time, the name plus the haunting music the made the man sound to me like a high priest or something. Now I realize the priest's shrine is Freebody Park.

I can't help but feel proud to know that Newport was a town where Mingus made some of his most important pronouncements to the world of jazz. It was at Freebody Park that Mingus made his Newport Jazz Festival debut on July 5, 1956, mesmerizing a crowd of about 4,000 in spite of heavy rain. And, more significantly, it was in Newport where Mingus declared war on jazz conventions when he helped to organize a "rebel" festival in 1960, one that would win a moral victory when the Newport Jazz Festival (at Freebody Park) would be canceled due to fan rioting. Almost all the jazz greats have passed through Newport, but for me, Mingus towers over them all.

Even if Mingus had called it quits at the end of 1959, his place in the jazz pantheon would already have been secure. His unique blend of jazz with Debussy and Ravel, and his soloists' experiments with freedom on the 1956 album Pithecanthropus Erectus, influenced both the third stream and avant garde styles which would be all the rage in the coming decade. Few bassists before Mingus led their own groups, but his collective, the Jazz Workshop, became a make-or break gig for many young jazzmen. He expanded the album from a collection of singles to a realm where the songs could be strung together to tell a story, or revolve around a concept. He began one of the first artist-owned jazz labels, Debut, with Max Roach.

Mingus also acted as a key archivist and bridge between jazz eras and styles. By 1959, Mingus had toured and/or recorded with Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, and even poet Langston Hughes. In other words, Mingus was conversant in not only the sound but also the language of the entire history of the music, from Dixieland to be-bop. And with the release of Jazz At Massey Hall (Fantasy/OJC), a concert featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Mingus and Roach (billed as the Quintet), Mingus became one of the most fervent fans and historians of the classic be-bop style.

He had even made a few masterpieces on his own: Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic), arguably the first ever "concept album"; New Tijuana Moods (Bluebird), a song cycle about a wild weekend south of the border that debuted drummer/ sidekick Dannie Richmond; The Clown (Atlantic), a moody meditation on the artist as an entertainer; Blues and Roots (Atlantic), an intense, gospel versus swing showdown; and the absolutely monumental Mingus Ah-Um (Columbia), which contained "Better Git It In Your Soul" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," two of Mingus' standards. Mingus by 1960 had a body of work of astonishing breadth, creativity and power.

But amazingly, he was just getting started.

Mingus was 37 at the turn of the decade. It had been only about five years since he had emerged as a leader. Mingus began the 1960's by reevaluating, reworking and revisiting existing titles in his repertoire, as well as the music that inspired him. On Pre- Bird (aka Mingus Revisited, Emarcy), Mingus recorded songs he had written as a teenager, along with some unorthodox takes on Duke Ellington tunes. Mingus experimented with juxtaposing a second melodic line with the main theme, so that "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" is underscored with another Duke tune, "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart." "Half-Mast Inhibition," "Mingus Fingus No. 2," and "Weird Nightmare" hardly sound like the work of a 17-year-old; these compositions are complex and haunting, and offer proof that Mingus was well versed in both swing and classical at an early age.

Mingus At Antibes Pre-Bird set the tone for the Mingus '60s; he would reverently look to the past masters of jazz and self-scrutinize his own work, consistently emerging with dazzling, unsettling results. Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic), a live album recorded in France contains both "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and "Better Git It In Your Soul," despite the similarities of the two gospel-inspired tunes. Although "Better Git It" is not improved, Mingus reimagines "Wednesday Night" (the best known version of which appears on Blues and Roots) as its darker, more ruminant twin.

The murky, lo-fi sound must have appealed to Mingus, and so after recording an actual live album with such a sound, he recorded a fake live album with similar production values. On Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid), each song begins with the bassist addressing an imaginary audience, telling them to hold their applause until after the set is over, and to not make any noise (given the fact that Mingus often quarreled with audiences, he may have thought a fake live album was a way of controlling a crowd). Mingus also was bitten by the avant-garde bug, and his band (Eric Dolphy on alto sax, Ted Curson on trumpet, Dannie Richmond on drums) mirrored Ornette Coleman's quartet. On "What Love" and "All The Things You Could Be Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother," the group proves itself to be a monster in the free jazz realm. The album also features perhaps Mingus' greatest protest song, "Fables of Faubus," with the original vocals that were edited from Mingus Ah-Um by Columbia, fearful that the lyrics would be too controversial. The lampooned segregationist governor of Arkansas has, in retrospect, become immortalized by the song.

Mingus was not finished making political statements, however. Angry at what they saw as an over-commercialized Newport Jazz Festival, Mingus and Max Roach decided to take matters into their own hands. The "Newport Rebel" festival, held at Cliff Walk Manor, featured everyone from old timers like Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones to the "next big thing," Ornette Coleman. Though no recording exists of the performance, an after-the-fact recording was made with some of the participants. On such tunes as "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" and "Mysterious Blues," and "Stormy Weather," Mingus and company assume a languid, easy pace, effectively utilizing the spacious arrangements to drive home particularly compelling moments (like Eldridge's growling trumpet).

It's tempting to dismiss Mingus' next album Oh Yeah (Atlantic) as a joke album or a wacky jam session on first listen. Mingus ditches the bass (Doug Watkins takes over) and takes up the piano and vocal chores. Surrealist-tenor giant Rahsaan Roland Kirk provides siren noises and whistles, Jimmy Knepper adds some stiff scat lines and Mingus sings like a commie-obsessed Ray Charles. The songs, including "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me" and the Fats Waller novelty "Eat That Chicken" are the culmination of Mingus' thinly dispersed humor seen throughout his recording career.

"Passions of a Man" is the most baffling: Mingus delivers a monologue in a fake language, punctuated by laughs and "Russia," "America," and "freedom." Roland Kirk follows with playful whistles on the strich, joined by the band pounding behind them. Upon first hearing the album, a listener is likely to think that Mingus was either getting something out of his system or unleashing his pent-up comedic urges.

Oh Yeah is in fact the critical transition album at this stage of Mingus' career. It is the most explicit weaving of Mingus' gospel influences with avant garde jazz. In an interview with Nesuhi Ertegun (included on one Atlantic reissue of the album), Mingus strenuously defends the album and dismisses any notion of his insincerity. Though the gags on the album test that notion, the playing is more than competent throughout. "Hog Callin' Blues" copping the riff from "Haitian Fight Song" punctuates Mingus' technique of recycling old material, a method often employed in the upcoming years shown by the frequently retitled songs on future albums. Mingus also demonstrates his piano playing prowess, an aspect of his repertoire which he also would return to in future years. Mingus too, is surprisingly, a good singer. His tunes had featured his signature whoops and hollers in the past, but Mingus goes all out Oh Yeah making his attempt at R&B singing far more effective than one would think.

The album has some great songs, but "Ecclusiastics" is the classic, blending an Ellingtonesque intro into a skronking, bluesy passage, with Mingus singing and wailing about Jesus. The tune clearly anticipates the shape shifting, dissonant passages that are all over The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!) thus defining the Mingus school of harmony. Oh Yeah closes with a piano figure not dissimilar to the piano sound on Black Saint, a hint of things to come.

Money Jungle (Blue Note), a trio album with Duke Ellington on piano and Max Roach on drums, is the second best of Mingus' too-good-to-be-true collaborations (the best is the Quintet; third place goes to his work with Joni Mitchell). Mingus' bass playing is insistent and almost percussive in its intensity, but remains expressive. Money Jungle, recorded without much preparation, is accentuated by Mingus' bass playing as if he had been playing the number his whole life, according to Ellington. The elegant, poignant "Fleurette Africaine" is the trio's peak performance.

The performance with the Duke must have rubbed off on Mingus. Around this time, Mingus was signed to United Artists, who promised him the opportunity to record with an orchestra. Mingus attempted a tour de force. The Complete Town Hall Concert (Blue Note) was a brave endeavor at an orchestral epic that was universally panned at the time of its release in 1962. A number of factors contributed to the perception that the album was a disaster; Mingus didn't have enough time to complete most of the scores; the musicians had little time to practice; the sound in the concert hall was allegedly lousy, the event was advertised as a concert, not an open recording session; and, to top it all off, Mingus punched longtime sideman Jimmy Knepper in the face, breaking one of his teeth and assuring his absence at the concert. In retrospect, the performances are outstanding; "Epitaph part 1" brilliantly quotes "Pithecanthropus Erectus," "Epitaph part 2" surges with the power and inevitability of a tidal wave, and the two-part "Freedom" became one of Mingus' great political numbers. (Many of the songs appear on 1990's posthumous triumph, Epitaph (Columbia)) Though considered a debacle, The Complete Town Hall Concert can now be seen as a warm-up for what would truly be Mingus' greatest masterpiece.

From the opening march of Dannie Richmond's drums to the final cry of Charles Mariano's alto sax, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is the most brutally emotional album of Mingus' career. The best of his orchestral works, the album, although quoting from Mingus' Latin and Ellingtonian sources, remains in a vacuum due to the unparalleled inspiration and cohesiveness of the ensemble through the classic four movement suite. Fleeting moments of peace slide mercilessly into longer passages of turmoil and unease. Mariano's sax and Quentin Jackson's muted trombone eerily resemble human voices, catharticly wailing to be heard over Dannie Richmond's pounding, tempo-shifting drums. Brian Priestly noted in MINGUS: A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY (Da Capo Press) that the liner notes, written by Mingus' psychologist, were not taken seriously by some, but Mingus realized the doctor's comments were the perfect complement to the musical exorcism of the record.

What makes The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady a remarkable album is not simply the emotionally- charged performances, however. Mingus' skills as a composer reach their zenith, both in terms of the complexity of the music and studio craft. Mingus made extensive use of overdubs, fashioning the album out of separate performances with careful editing. Miles Davis and Gil Evans had made albums which used complex studio techniques before, but Mingus' crafting of the music via overdubbing was a first for a jazz album. The Black Saint expanded the possibilities of the recording studio four years before of Sgt. Pepper.

The seemingly effortless stylistic shifts also make the Black Saint remarkable. Although the album was initially written as a ballet, Mingus emerged with a song cycle that went well beyond the boundaries of any strict definitions. He referred to the sound as "ethnic folk-dance music" (he asked Impulse! to include the name of the new genre under the company's logo on the record), and indeed, the sound of the Black Saint is so all-encompassing that it almost demands a new genre to contain it. From a turbulent Ellingtonian swing to Jay Berliner's flamenco guitar breaks, from Richmond's proto-hardcore punk drumming to Mingus' own elegant, bittersweet piano stylings, the album shatters the conventions of genre, studio technique and limits of articulation from musical instruments.

Downscaling dramatically from his peak performance, Mingus Plays Piano (Impulse!) is another stunner. On The Black Saint, Mingus would occasionally (and brilliantly) substitute for Jaki Byard on piano at particularly dramatic moments, keeping his distinctive voice; on Plays Piano, Mingus proves himself to be a presence on the piano for an entire album. In addition to several standards, including the Mingus fave "I Can't Get Started," he takes on some challenging originals. Most notable is the chilling "Myself When I Am Real," which was rerecorded with an orchestra on Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia), but it still sounds symphonic with just Mingus playing it.

In some ways, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (Impulse!) is Mingus' most likable album of the era. It is also a swan song, and the closest Mingus came to recording a "greatest hits" record (though most of the titles are altered). Some of the material, including the astonishing "1 X Love," was recorded in the same session as the Black Saint. The rest was recorded with an ensemble in which Richmond was notably absent (Mingus often said he'd play without a drummer if Richmond was unavailable). Despite that, the album has "11 B.S.," Mingus' single greatest moment. An update of "Haitian Fight Song," the song that was in the car commercial is propulsive like a rocket engine, getting better and better until Jaki Byard puts on the finishing touches with an absolutely perfect solo. (My dad knows little about jazz, and even he says he's never heard anything better.) "Hora Decubitus," a reworking of "E's Flat Ah's Flat Too," can be seen as the culmination of years of thought and practice; the opening bassline is quoted many times before in Mingus' catalogue (most astonishingly on "Tonight at Noon" and "Switch Blade"). The folksy bass that builds into a fierce swing is the sound of an artist finally finding the perfect sound, and riding the groove all the way home.

Revenge!  The Legendary Paris Concerts But a new, bizarre chapter was about to be written. In the spring of 1964, Mingus went on a tour of Europe with a band that is arguably the most virtuostic he ever played with. With Clifford Jordan on tenor, Eric Dolphy on alto, bass clarinet, and flute, Jaki Byard on piano, Johnny Coles on trumpet (who would spend much of the European tour in the hospital after an on-stage stomach rupture), and Richmond on drums, Mingus had what was probably the best of his small groups. The warm-up for the tour, Town Hall Concert (OJC), so named so as to try to erase memories of the Town hall debacle, and Revenge! (Revenge Records), recorded live in Paris the day after Coles collapsed, each offer remarkable examples of the band's greatness. Dolphy had come into his own as a solo artist, and when he rejoined Mingus, his playing was perhaps at its peak. And with Jaki Byard, probably the best pianist in the history of the Jazz Workshop, complimenting Mingus and Richmond, the rhythm section was an absolute juggernaut. Most of the tunes are stretched well past the 20 minute mark, the group's soloing ability is tested to the limit; naturally, each member rose to the occasion.

Along with Coles' health issues, the tour had its share of problems, including a demanding, tight schedule and several outbursts on and offstage from Mingus. However, virtually every date of the tour was recorded, and a deluge of bootlegs have surfaced (partly in response to illegitimate releases, Sue Mingus started Revenge Records to legitimately release her husband's bootlegged material).

The band split upon Mingus' return to the states, with Dolphy staying in Germany and Coles still in the hospital. Mingus would continue to play the songs from the ill-fated tour ("Meditations," "Faubus," "Orange," "So Long Eric," "Peggy's Blue Skylight") for the rest of 1964, often complimenting those originals with a Duke Ellington composition or two. Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop (Debut/OJC), with Jordan, Richmond, John Handy on alto (on "New Fables" only), and Jane Getz on piano, displays Mingus' uncanny ability to make a small group sound like an orchestra. "New Fables" intersperses "Fables of Faubus" with "Ysabel's Table Dance" to dazzling effect, while "Meditation (For a Pair of Wire Cutters)" may be the best version of the song. Right Now is an oft-overlooked gem.

In July of 1964, Eric Dolphy was in Europe, and Mingus, grief-stricken, began to unravel. Aside from a few on-stage appearances in 1965 and 1966, Mingus effectively went into retirement from recording. He would reemerge in the early 1970's with more brilliant music. Almost exactly 15 years to the day of his triumphant debut at the Newport Jazz Festival, Mingus played Newport for the last time, kickstarting what would be another productive period in his career. However, nothing he did before or after his peak period of 1960 to 1964 could rival the brilliance or the inventiveness of those great years.

Note: Album cover photos courtesy of the Real Mingus Web. Thanks to Jim Marshall and Kimberley Fisher for use of the portrait at the beginning of the article.

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