Charles Mingus: Underdog Days

September 2012

One of the most inspiring and turbulent personalities in jazz, Charles Mingus – as player and composer – has exerted an enormous influence on the post-war era. This article was originally published in The Wire 75, May 1990.

"I never realised there were so many places to go and yet so few places to stop and relax"... Those are Mingus's words (from that strange autobiographical statement Beneath The Underdog, Weidenfeld And Nicholson, 1971) and although the statement was made as part of an attempt to make sense of his own existence, without direct musical reference, it does have relevance to anyone trying to guide someone else through Mingus's recorded legacy.

Not that you can't relax, ever: listening to some of the things from these earlier periods you realise all over again that Mingus put down some of the most tersely beautiful music ever subsumed under the banner of jazz. What keeps you running to catch up is the variety of its sources, the breadth of reference, both internally and externally, and the way in which the music so frequently transcends its own origins. Even when it remains firmly earthbound, it's hard to find it in yourself simply to dismiss it.

But let's begin at the beginning. How about "This Subdues My Passion" by Baron Mingus And His Octet (from 1946 on the 4Star label originally) or "Story Of Love" by (wait for it) Charles 'Barron' (sic) Mingus Presents His Symphonic Airs (on Fenton, 1949)? Pretentious, non? In fact, the music belies the pomposity. "This Subdues" is actually a neat Ellington pastiche, clarinet and alto leading against rich voicing and trilling piano. Yet it reveals also a determination to push against existing boundaries in the intensely difficult part written for trombonist Henry Coker. A rather more radical note is struck when you hear the symphonic airs working through "Story Of Love", a rugged, densely scored item for 20 pieces hinting that it grew out of – and outgrew – "Night In Tunisia".

There's also "Mingus Fingers" (Decca, 1947), written and performed whilst Mingus was one of a two-bass team in Lionel Hampton's orchestra. This too probably wouldn't have existed without the Gillespie band's "One Bass Hit" to inspire it; nevertheless the flute and muted trumpet voicing in the opening sequences is decidedly original (and reappears again 16 years later on The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (Impulse, 1963). There is already a distinct conceptual grasp, mixing the new (bebop) radicalism with more traditional elements, however uncertainly focused it might yet be.

Mingus spent the period 1949 to 1951 on the road with the Red Norvo Trio, then settled in New York and the following year, along with Max Roach, set up the Debut record label, partly to promote new talent and partly to provide an outlet for more experimental music. What it did above all was allow Mingus to renew his involvement in his own music.

The first fruits of this showed that, having absorbed something of the Ellington orchestra and the Gillespie big band, Mingus was now taking advice from the 'cool school'. An early work for his label, "Precognition" (Debut 1952), features Lee Konitz and cellist George Koutzen in a performance with distinct overtones of Tristano.

During this period Mingus also founded his Jazz Workshop; weekly sessions which enabled a wide range of musicians to get together, trade ideas and performances and learn from each other. In its final phases, around 1954/5, the term became associated more with Mingus's own group, and it is from this period that his first really mature work emerges. "Minor C Intrusion" (Period, 1954) has links more to the future than the past – most significantly through the way in which the subject matter and its interpretation combine to create a sustained atmosphere of what can only be called 'collective composing'.

Elsewhere, "Purple Heart" (Savoy, 1954) displays a fluid theme that echoes the kind of lines that emerged from the Konitz/Warne Marsh/Tristano era, yet also prefigures the long melodic statement of "Reincarnation Of A Love Bird" (Atlantic 1957, Candid 1960) and reinforces the view that Mingus's music didn't just happen, it was the result of a long, intense apprenticeship, and that the emotional floodwaters of his mature work often cover some unlikely intellectual sources.

That apprenticeship clearly was seen to be over when "Pithecanthropus Erectus" (Atlantic 1956) broke upon the world. When I – and others – first heard the astonishing soundscape Mingus draws from this small ensemble (alto, tenor and rhythm) and the degree of control exercised – nobody gets to solo without constant reminders of orchestral purpose – plus what seemed to be the total confidence of the leader that this experiment would work, the event seemed to elevate itself from the level of a mere recording to something of the order of a minor miracle.

We weren't entirely aware at that time of its antecedents, patterns of release being what they were in the 1950s. Particularly we didn't know about the Cafe Bohemia session (Debut, 1955) done some months before. But even when you know more about how it came about, "Pithecanthropus" still remains an immense achievement. And the miracles continued... The Clown (Atlantic 1957) taught us something; East Coasting and Scenes In The City (both Bethlehem 1957) and Tijuana Moods (Victor 1957) taught us a lot more.

Here was a leader producing the material and the concept yet needing specific interpretive voices which both realised and enhanced what the composer had laid out for them – form and content developing into a holistic expressionism that was prepared to risk comparison with any other great moment in music.

What becomes clear also at this stage is the confluence of factors. First, the influence of Ellington, though buried in any direct form, nevertheless still exists in the relish for interpretive voices (for Hodges, Tricky Sam, Bubber or Cootie and Sonny Greer, read Shafi Hadi, Jimmy Knepper, Gene Shaw, Dannie Richmond). Also, the revived spirit of bebop had arrived on the periphery of Mingus's world (of the Cafe Bohemia set) and had by now been fully taken on board for its clarity of expression – dig the title track of East Coasting resulting in some consistently direct music, whatever the complexities of its form.

By 1959 Mingus had assembled a fresh band based around the saxophonists Booker Ervin and John Handy. For most of its output this cadre was augmented by returnees and co-optees into what, for the space of that year, became a kind of repertory company, including Jackie McLean, Mal Waldron and Willie Dennis from the Bohemia-to-Pithecanthropus era, Hadi (rarely) and Knepper (frequently) from the previous band, plus Jerome Richardson, Don Ellis, Richard Williams, Pepper Adams and Teddy Cohen. Maybe the most significant member of this group was Teo Macero, who was around in the period 1953/5, and now no longer a musician but a producer at Columbia.

Though these orchestral forces were not over-large for any single session they were big enough to offer Mingus the scope both to refine and broaden his musical schemes. Thus the rumbustious "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" (Atlantic 1959) shows Mingus absorbing – and perhaps in this case contributing to – the fashion for 'soul music'. This is counterpoised by the stringency of "Diane" (Columbia 1959), and, for the first time, a look back, a direct glance at Ellington in the shape of "Things Ain't What They Used To Be" (also Columbia 1959).

But, above all, this period produced one consistently fine album, Mingus Ah Um (Columbia 1959). This is just full of gems all the way, from the first version of "Fables Of Faubus" (with the contentious lyrics removed at Macero's insistence, thus highlighting its compositional delights) to the wonderfully controlled "Goodbye Porkpie Hat", (then) the latest in a series of memorials that went back to "Eulogy For Rudy Williams" (Savoy, 1954) and the ingenious anachronisms of ''Jelly Roll". I have found nothing in Mingus's work, with the possible exception of East Coasting, that matches it as a sustained, consistently creative and well-developed set.

1960 saw the arrival of Eric Dolphy; by the year-end Mingus was back to a minimal, piano-less quartet, and yet another recording deal. The quartet was essentially an improvising group. On "Folk Forms No 1" or the "Original Fables Of Faubus" there is a degree of ensemble coherence and a distinct compositional overview; on things like "Stormy Weather" (all Candid 1960), despite some moments of ensemble playing clearly crafted by Mingus, it's a soloists' paradise.

In a sense, Mingus came to an impasse here. Ornette, Coltrane and Cecil Taylor had broken the mould open, into a world that unquestionably Mingus had envisaged, yet one that, now it had arrived, he seemed to be ill at ease in. No doubt it had increased his marketability, yet its insistence on the primacy of the soloist denied his composer's instinct. "Vassarlean" (Candid 1960), with a larger ensemble, looks almost longingly – and quite specifically – to "Sombre Intrusion" (Debut 1954), whilst on the Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus album (Impulse 1963) all seven tracks reprise material previously presented in either 1957 or 1959. It seems almost as though Mingus here began to paint in oils what he'd previously sketched with a surer hand on the back of an envelope. The techniques had developed, sure, but ransacking your own back catalogue can also be a sign of failure of inspiration.

My own view is that the danger had gone out of it. Trying to break down convention by absorbing contemporary fashion and testing-to-destruction was Mingus's forte: now that contemporary styles seemed not to have any boundaries there were no conventions to require Mingus's unique combination of chainsaw and scalpel. Increasingly, there was nothing left but to tilt at windmills.

The piano solo album from this time (Impulse 1963) equally clearly seems to signal a retreat. The number of pianists who had passed through the ranks since Mal Waldron called it a day in 1956 adds up to a sizeable total. None of them stayed long (till Jaki Byard arrived in 1963) and one can draw the conclusion that none of them satisfied Mingus – with the possible exception of Hampton Hawes, who made a lustrous trio set with Mingus and Richmond (Jubilee 1957). Yet here's Mingus doodling away to prove he can do it worse than any of them ... until he unveils a late classic, "Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues". Here technique doesn't matter; you almost sit beside him as the thing takes shape.

Then, going from one of the most intimate moments in his entire output, and maybe just to prove it wasn't all over, The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (Impulse 1963) offered the extended study that had been for so long implied in Mingus's work. Built almost entirely of orchestral devices laid over thematic fragments, fronted up by Charlie Mariano's brilliant alto, it runs the familiar gauntlet once again, risking its own fragile tensile strength against the improbability of sustaining itself over 39 minutes. It works, but only just, and yet it works precisely because the safety factor is once again below zero.

1964 saw Dolphy back in the band again, for a European tour, where they seemed to be recorded in every town they dropped into. Ironic in view of the dearth of Mingus 'live' recordings up to this point (only Cafe Bohemia (Debut 1955) and the Nonagon Gallery (United Artists 1959)). When Mingus returned, Dolphy stayed on in Europe, ending his days shortly afterwards. The band's appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September (Jazz Workshop 1964) seemed to mark the end of Mingus the composer and intellectual, and introduce Mingus the jazz act. The lights might be on, but was anybody at home any more?

A Guide To The Records
[Please note: This information has not been updated from the original piece, and so some details may be inaccurate. However, because there are interesting facts about the release of Mingus's work contained here, we have left the text in its original form.]

One of the unpredictable consequences of Mingus's many and varied, frequently one-off, record deals is that a lot of companies have a bit of Mingus, though none have a lot. His refusal to go away has meant that most of his output has been kept in catalogue, though often not on the original labels noted in the text.

Chronologically, then: the 4Star, Fentone and Debut (1952) tracks are all caught up on a Swingtime LP (ST 1010) along with other early material which, if you want to understand Mingus, you need to hear.

"Mingus Fingers" came out last on an Affinity LP under Lionel Hampton's name: In The Bag (AFS 1017). The Period album is also on Affinity (and needs to be heard): it's under its original title Abstractions (Affinity AFF 135). The Savoy sides have also survived intact, on SJL 1113, still in the shops and still required listening.

Around this time some things which were clearly originated by Mingus came out under Thad Jones's name on Debut. "Sombre Intrusion" is one of these, collected first on Debut reissues, then on Prestige. Every track is worth attention.

The funny thing about "Pithecanthropus Erectus" is that Atlantic never seems to have liked it. It was deleted quite quickly after its original release, and now can be found only on various Mingus compilations or as a US import on Atlantic SD 8809.

The earlier 'live' set, recorded by Debut at the Cafe Bohemia, on the other hand, has now been organised into a double-album and a complete set, on Prestige 24010.

The Clown is out on Atlantic in facsimile (SD 1260) and so is Blues And Roots from 1959 (SD 1305). So for that matter is the later (1961) Oh Yeah (SD 1377 or 90667) but I wouldn't give you tuppence for a copy.

Well, what would I suggest you get? Absolutely East Coasting, last available as an Affinity LP (AFF 86). Also Tijuana Moods, now out on Bluebird as New Tijuana Moods as a twofer and CD with alternate takes included (PL 856352). Scenes In The City was also an Affinity LP (AFF 105) but Affinity now have a CD under that title which has half the album (and the best bits by the look of it) plus the entire East Coasting session. That's got to be good value: the rest of Scenes is tacked onto the CD version of the Period LP.

The other one that you absolutely shouldn't live without is Mingus Ah Um, last available on Columbia/CBS as CBS 21071 though currently out of catalogue as is the other Columbia album from this period, Mingus Dynasty, some tracks of which are sometimes seen mixed up with tracks from a 1971 Mingus session.

The Candids are easy: still occasionally seen in facsimile reissue, but if you've got the money go for the Mosaic box set (MR4/MD3-111: 4LPs or 3CDs from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut CT 06902). It's got the lot and more. Affinity also have an album done in 1960, with Eric Dolphy at the Antibes Jazz Festival, on AFF 19.

The Impulse material is being reissued on CD, though I haven't seen the Mingus Plays Piano set in this format yet. It would be doubtful if it would justify the expense unless you're a completist anyway. But Black Saint (AS 35 254562-2) should be seen as a compulsory purchase.

The Hampton Hawes trio album was reissued on French Vogue as Jazz Legacy 500081; it's also now reappearing in facsimile on the original Jubilee label, number 1054 – at a price, of course, but then again few records have rewarded me so much over the years; it has to be on the first choice list.

Mingus At Monterey is out on CD; Prestige 98480. Beware, the digital transfer's atrocious – and for my money the music's not much cop either. The Mingus/Dolphy European material from 1964 seems to be available by the ton. All long tracks, so more is maybe better. In that case try the double album from Amsterdam on Ulysse 50506/507.

And last – a 'live' set done at the Nonagon Gallery in New York in 1959 with Handy, Ervin, Richard Wyands, Mingus and Richmond, came out once on United Artists UAL 4036 (and as a Japanese issue under the same number). To this day it remains submerged in somebody's vaults, un-reissued. It has some truly beautiful music on it and needs to be brought to light again. If you see one, buy it. If you see two, get one for me.

Read part two of the Charles Mingus retrospective here.