It is no mean achievement that Charles Mingus’s music encapsulates all the critical junctures of jazz. His work with the pioneering geniuses of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Art Tatum in New York of the early 1950s gives Mingus the compositional and arranging insights that would soon be the bassist’s forte.
Few jazz scholars would now disagree that the success of that much discussed May 1953 concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall featuring the Parker Quintet (Parker, alto; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; Bud Powell, piano; Mingus, bass; Max Roach, drums) is not just a Parkerian triumph but equally that of the iconoclastic bassist from Los Angeles. Beginning with Mingus, the bass ceases to be merely an “accompanying” time-keeping, harmonic instrument in jazz. It still has to contend with “time-keeping”, but it has entered into the interplay as a polyphonic participant. The work of subsequent bassists particularly Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Jimmy Garrison, Scott La Faro, Charles Haden and Dave Holland attest to this Mingusian redesignation
In 1954, Mingus launched his Jazz Workshop experimentation which was to emphasise more of “group” or “collective” improvisation in jazz, away from what was then increasingly becoming the tedious and formularised “theme-solo-theme” structures of the bebop revolution that had been launched in the 1940s by the Parker-Gillespie-Thelonious Monk troika. As a critic once observed, it was not that Mingus was “avoiding Bebop, he straddled it”. He still had to absorb the great jazz heritage to move the music forward to wrestle with the new possibilities.
Rehearsals of creativity
It is therefore the case of Mingus trying to return jazz to the “group feeling” of those years of its early development in the closing decades of the 1800s. The soloist still has a great deal of space in Mingus’s thinking but their musical concepts have to develop in anticipation and in response to the polyphony of collective interaction; there are now multisided and multiple centres of creativity soon after that infectious bass intro! The act of creativity is no longer dependent on some space and time limitation. The Workshops could not distinguish between rehearsals, for instance, and real performances! Creativity during rehearsals becomes rehearsals of creativity occurring at bandstands with or without an audience (for the latter, listen to the 1962 album Mingus Presents Mingus, featuring multiinstrumentalist Eric Dolphy). The music is always in a state of flux: evolving, developing, maturing, breaking up, only to form the nucleus of another centre of activity, itself interacting with other centres of the medley.
With the classic Pithecanthropus Erectus album (1956), Mingus gives notice to this sense of continuous creativity – after all, this composition is his portrait of the formulaic development of a cataclysmic human form and the (predictable?) resultant chaos that this produces in the world by the end of the 20th century. Using distinct but unusual forms of squeals, grunts, duets and harmony, the composition exacts a coherent understanding of this tragic travelogue that a 1996 earth inhabitant would perhaps be familiar with (exhaustion/appropriation/destruction of the world’s limited resources, rupture of the ozone layer) than their counterpart 40 years before. The impassioned crystalline-striking lyricism of altoist Jackie McLean, the Rollinsesque rebuttals of tenorist J R Monterose and the plodding, haunting echoes of pianist Mal Waldron strokes keep the narrative of the age on course and there is relief, at the final movement, when the pulverising destroyer falls, is destroyed.
In Blues and Roots album that follows suit, Mingus pays homage to the sacred music of his roots. The rhythmic tension at play by soloists McLean, Booker Ervin (tenor), John Handy (alto) and Jimmy Knepper (trombone) over such compositions as “Tensions”, “Moanin’”, “Cryin’ Blues” and “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too” always calls for new insights, ever more challenging interpretations on replays. “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” is predictably such a joy and by the time this composition is confronted yet again by a new Mingus personnel line up live in Antibes (France) in 1960, detailing Ervin, Dolphy (alto, bass clarinet, flute), Ted Curson (trumpet), Mingus himself and Danny Richmond (drums), it has become the launching pad for intuitive flights and virtuosity.
Mingus’s vivid commentaries on contemporary American life and worldwide developments are prolific. These samples range from ballads (“Sue’s Changes”, “1 X-Love”, “Bemoanable Lady”, “Celia”) to the very humorous (“Eat that Chicken”, “Hog Callin Blues”, “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am”, “Old’ Blues for Walt’s Torin”, “My Jelly Roll Soul”), sentimental (“Portrait of Jackie”, “Love Chant”, “Orange was the Color of her Dress, then Blue Silk”, “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”) to outright, politically serious (“Pithecanthropus Erectus”, “Ecclusiastics”, “Passions of a Man”, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”,“Letter to Duke”, “MDM – Monk, Duke, Mingus”, “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me”, “Meditations on Integration”, “All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother”, “Fables of Faubus”, “Haitian Fight Song”, “Weird Nightmare”, “So Long Eric”) and dirge – “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, Mingus’s salute to tenorist Lester Young, and of course Epitaph, his 127-minute long composition which was performed posthumously by a 30-piece orchestra at the New York’s Lincoln Centre in 1989.
Nearly a decade before critics would use the term “free jazz” to describe the music of revolutionaries such as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, etc., etc., the Mingus Workshops were already redefining and laying the foundation of new points of departure for jazz. Names of Workshops’ alumni read like the priority core zone of the restless and most adventurous innovators of the jazz directory of the era: drummers Willie Jones and Danny Richmond; trumpeters Clarence Shaw, Richard Williams, Ted Curson and Johnny Coles; altoists Jackie McLean, Charlie Mariano, John Handy, Eric Dolphy (also flute and bass clarinet virtuoso), Charles McPherson; tenorists Teo Marcero, J R Monterose, Roland Kirk, Booker Ervin and Clifford Jordan; trombonist Jimmy Knepper; pianists Mal Waldron, Jaki Byard, Horace Parlan and Roland Hanna.
*This essay was first published in the African Peoples Review (September-December 1996, Vol V, No. 3, p. 22) under the signature of Nnamdi Nzegwu. It is reissued here in the original – HE-E