2007 is turning out to be a bonanza year for a Charles Mingus sextet that existed for a few months forty-three years ago. All of the band’s members are dead. Its music is gloriously alive. The high point so far is a remarkable two-CD set capturing a performance that might have been forgotten except for a lucky discovery. On a neglected shelf, Sue Mingus, indefatigable preserver of her husband’s legacy, found tapes of a concert the sextet played at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in March of 1964. Blue Note has released the music as Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964.
With the promethean bassist were pianist Jaki Byard, saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Johnny Coles and drummer Dannie Richmond. They were red-hot and full of joy at the Cornell engagement, which took place nearly a month earlier than the Town Hall concert that launched the band’s celebrated European tour. Fresh from eight weeks at the Five Spot Café in Mahattan, Mingus had whipped the sextet and its repertoire into shape, achieving a combination of togetherness and abandon that can result only from long, steady work on the bandstand. This is a further reminder that the restrictive 21st century economy of the music business robs jazz of opportunities for creative development. When is the last time a major jazz group had a two-months’ run in a club?
Charles Mingus, 1964
Mingus’s emotional downs were often horrendous, hard on his sidemen, his listeners and himself. I once wrote:
If Mingus rose to towering rages, he also reached the sustained joy achievable only by musicians of the highest rank. It is a fact that all the musicians he abused, all those he screamed at and humiliated in public — even those he assaulted — forgave him, worked with again, and in most cases gave him credit for their development.
His ups could generate glory, and that’s what we get in the Cornell concert. Mingus and the band are happy, even giddy. Their virtuosity is wrapped in good feelings. Exuding raw energy in his bass work, Mingus is the coach and cheerleader urging everyone on.
“Stride it now, baby, take it back a few years, uh huh,” Mingus mutters to Byard during the pianist’s second solo chorus on “Take the ‘A’ Train.” His urging is additional fuel for the stride and boogie woogie fire that Byard builds before he slides into bebop time. Clifford Jordan follows with five hallelujah choruses levitated by Ellingtonian unison puncuations from Dolphy and Coles. Dolphy delivers one of his patented bass clarinet solos, full of wild interval leaps, inflected with speech patterns and intimations of birdsong . Coles, a great trumpeter who never got his due, begins the round of “‘A’ Train” solos reflective and thoughtful, with a touch of irony in his quotes. The performance includes a bass-drums conversation between Mingus and Richmond, as remarkable for its hilarity as for its intensity. In the midst of it, one of them exclaims, “Ya-hoo,” an emblem of the elation this track–indeed, the entire concert–generates. Byard’s swirl of solo piano on “ATFW You,” a tribute to Art Tatum and Fats Waller, opens the concert and sets the tone of exuberance.
The state of grace remains throughout the CDs, even in half-hour versions of “Fables of Faubus” and “Meditations,” Mingus compositions that arose out of his frustration and anger over political and social conditions in America. He performed “Meditations” with the sextet at Town Hall, then almost nightly during the month-long tour of Europe in April of ’64, and later that year with different personnel at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and at the Monterey Jazz Festival. It was recorded on several of those occasions, but I have never been more moved by its solemnity and power than in this concert debut. The other premiere at Cornell was “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” a piano piece that Mingus refined for the sextet during the Five Spot gig. As for “Faubus,” the racist Arkansas governor inspires ridicule and good-natured derision rather than anger in this performance loaded with punning quotes that include Mingus’s allusion to “Pick Yourself Up” and Byard’s whimsy in a series of variations on “Yankee Doodle.”
Mingus wrote the blues “So Long Eric” to wish Dolphy godspeed. Dolphy was to leave the group following the European tour. He and the others could not have known that in three months their astonishingly gifted colleague would be dead at thirty-six of a heart attack brought on by diabetes. Dolphy’s mercurial flute work is the centerpiece of “Jitterbug Waltz.” Mingus features Coles as “Johnny O’Coles, the only Irishman in the band” in a fast ¾ version of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” The news that he is going to play that unlikely tune and be the only soloist seems to come as a surprise to Coles. He scuffles a bit at the beginning, but by the end solves the piece’s Gaelic mysteries in a powerful chorus. It’s all great fun. And great music.
Rifftides reader Don Frese writes that he had the good fortune to hear the band live:
God, I was so lucky to see this group once at the 5 Spot just before the tour. It was a wonder the joint was still standing after, the performances were so intense. The second set was Parkeriana, the pastiche of Dizzy’s “Ow” and other tunes associated with Charlie Parker, and the last set was “Meditations.” I was in tears at the end.
Mr. Frese also provided a link to a video clip of the sextet rehearsing a portion of “Meditations” in Stockholm during the tour. To see and hear it, click here.
Mingus The Icon
Ten days from now, the Jazz Icons series of DVDs will release a new set of seven discs including the Mingus sextet videotaped during the ’64 tour of Scandinavia. Other DVDs in the release feature John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon and Wes Montgomery.
Shortly after The New York Times article in late July about the widows of Charles Mingus and Art Pepper, Nigel Faigan, a Rifftides reader in New Zealand, wrote on the Jazz West Coast listserve:
I was interested to read about Susan Mingus and unreleased tapes. BUT I was dismayed to read that Mingus’s Bass is leaning in a corner of the apartment. CM owned a beautiful French bass – if that is sitting unplayed for all those years, it may be suffering. Could someone find out whether the bass is being played. Like any instrument, it will suffer from disuse.
The Rifftides staff asked Sue Graham Mingus. This is her reply:
Charles’s lion’s head bass is being played by Boris Kozlov, and has been for the past six or seven years. One bass was given to Red Callender and another to Aladar Pege, the Hungarian bassist. The only other bass here is the one whose right shoulder was cut off and reversed by a master Italian bass repairman who lived down the block from Charles’ studio on East 5th Street in the late Sixties and who accomplished this feat over a period of six months. Charles came up with this astonishing idea in order to facilitate bowing — this was his “bowing bass.”
A Mingus Book
Further reading: Tonight at Noon, Sue Mingus’s absorbing account of her life with Charles.