In January of 1979, two extraordinary losses occurred in Mexico. 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the country’s coast line. Reportedly on the same day, fabled jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus died of heart failure related to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was 56. Mingus had gone to Mexico in the late stages of his disease to seek alternative treatment. He was cremated and his ashes were poured into the Ganges, the sacred river that runs through India and Bangladesh. The whales were also burned, their ashes disposed in a dump.
Decades after his deaths, Mingus remains the truest heir to Duke Ellington’s musical dynamism. That shouldn’t come as a secret. Mingus long adored the legendary composer publicly and privately, even signing on as the bassist with Ellington’s band. Ellington quickly sacked the bassist after Mingus attacked the trombonist Juan Tizol as the band opened a show, a story set to legend in Mingus’s autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Published in 1971, it took Mingus almost two decades to write and did little to separate fact from fiction. The book, however, remains one of the most visceral depictions of a life in jazz.
In the spring of 1971, 22 months before Mingus recorded the show that is now offered as Jazz in Detroit/ Strata Concert Gallery/ 46 Selden, Whitney Balliett described for The New Yorker how a late era Mingus performance unfolded. “Most (songs) were done in Mingus’s customary workshop manner. When a number would start hesitantly, he would rumble, ‘No. No, no,’ and stop the music. Then the group would start again… A successful Mingus number suggests a transcontinental train rocking and blazing through the night.” As a band leader, Mingus could be overbearing, angry, and drunk, often all at once — his eggnog recipe is lionized amongst aficionados and neophytes alike. But it is his music that remains is immutable, a brawny aural juggernaut that puts caterwauling American experience to song.
On February 13 1973, Mingus hit the Strata Gallery stage in Detroit. Part of a local radio station’s winter pledge drive, the composer brought with him a quintet of diverse musicians, a smaller band than usual. With Roy Brooks on drums and saw (yes, a saw!), John Stubblefield on tenor saxophone, Joe Gardiner on trumpet, and Don Pullen on piano, Mingus laid out more than 4 hours of music. Half the songs are 20 minutes or more. Several more near the ½-hour mark. All but two of the eleven songs are over 15 minutes. For comparison’s sake, the original LP release of Mingus Ah Um from 1959 contained no songs over 8 and ½ minutes (the CD reissue had none longer than 9 and ¼ minutes). By 1970, Mingus was dedicated to letting it all hang out. With the right band, that could be a sublime experience, as ultimately presented here. With the wrong one, or if Mingus’s mood was fouled, performances devolved into audience chastising lectures on courtesy and respect.
Perhaps rehearsals were easier with the quintet. Perhaps Mingus was mellowing, an unannounced parcel from the yet to be diagnosed ALS robbing him of some of his mercury. In any case, the quintet was rabid, digging into the music like Mingus’s own jazz army. Their music swells and recedes, going from placid lake to cyclonic sea several times per song without tiring themselves, Mingus, or the listener.
But make note, this record won’t solve any leftover Mingus-ian riddles. It is not a Rosetta stone that syncs Mingus’s lengthy mythology with the whales that beached themselves at his death. Nor will it expand upon his supposed early years as a Californian pimp who taught himself Stravinsky’s theory of music.
Instead, Strata operates as a sort of key to Mingus’s last decade in music. Much as Coltrane’s recent posthumous offering detailed his great quartet’s swing into their most brilliant phase, Strata holds a candle up to what Mingus could produce live onstage when he stepped away from imperiousness.
At his best, Mingus could grab a council of players, assemble unity from their individual abilities and push that unification into sound brilliance. At his worst, he rumbled with autocratic distraction. Strata demonstrates the former, but allows the latter to be better understood. The knowledge of what he could do when he was firing on all cylinders could power a Mingus led failure into irredeemable vitriol.
That is exactly what happened a decade earlier.
Mingus had played with the giants — Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and as previously mentioned, Duke Ellington — before assuming a throne among them. At the dawn of the sixties, the bassist was leading his own bands. Within those outfits, Mingus’s savagery was legend. Trombonist and arranger Jimmy Knepper left Mingus’s band twice, both times after Mingus assaulted him. During one attack, Mingus landed a punch that cracked the trombonist’s tooth, catastrophically impacting Knepper’s embouchure and essentially reducing the trombonist’s ability to earn a living. Mingus didn’t apologize. Instead, he raged at Knepper for working him further into a frenzy.
That altercation came about during the lead up to the tumultuous, poorly executed Town Hall performance in 1962 where Mingus attempted the emotional and complex piece of his music known as Epitaph. The somber titled Epitaph is a sprawling masterwork the composer failed to deliver. Mingus knew he was failing in the prep. He took it out on everyone around him, including Knepper who aided the composer in pruning the thousands of measures of music into two segments for the one-night Town Hall gig. Such was Mingus’s resentment with Knepper that, well after the attack, the composer mailed a smallish packet of heroin to the trombonist, then tipped the Feds. Knepper was arrested after signing for the package. The authorities quickly realized the whole thing was a set up and Knepper wasn’t charged.
There is no explanatory salve to reduce that madness. Though for context, it’s important to note that Mingus was plowing through the largest musical fiasco of his life, writing changes for the musicians less than an hour before they took the stage. Epitaph was to be a memorial to everything Mingus had experienced up to its performance — all of the follies and wrongs and gifts and expedience of his life were being turned into sheets and sheets of musical notation. Folding old compositions into new arrangements and fitting new songs onto familiar modes, Mingus was possessed in the lead up to the performance. In his Open Letter to Miles published by Downbeat a few years before Epitaph’s Town Hall cataclysm, Mingus described that possession. “My music is alive and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil.” Ensconced in the swirling cacophony of creation, Mingus operated devoid of tenderness and charm.
Peggy’s Blue Skylight
Town Hall and Epitaph remain important tendrils woven into much of Mingus’s later work. The experience definitely filters into how he handled the audience and band for the Strata show. “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” appears on both Town Hall and Strata, as do snatches of other songs. Mingus announced to the crowd at the Town Hall performance, “it would take years to rehearse this music.” While he never attempted it as a whole piece again (Epitaph is said to be 4,235 measures long) the work had fused with him and Mingus layered whole sections into much of the music he produced in its wake. Certainly, the workshops were direct descendants of Epitaph/Town Hall.
An extension of Mingus’s musical psyche, the workshops were sometimes frustratingly disorganized. Other times they were empowered in ways a regular concert could never be. On Strata, the only real frustration comes in the quality of presentation. The songs and performances are adroit and muscular as any Mingus performance in previous release. But the dominating aural lucidity is plunked out on the keyboard and blown through the trumpet and saxophone. The drums and bass are often muted or mixed down. Mingus even bemoans the lack of amplification for his bass during a set break where he comes into the recording booth.
False notes that infuriated Mingus in other performances, momentarily stranding audiences and musicians are for the most part absent in the Strata show. Instead Mingus sets a high bar with a nuanced bass that fully obscures his oncoming illness. Call it artistic athleticism. Mingus and the Strata quintet cascade effortlessly through the improvisational hoops of his music, ably marrying discordant tones to Mingus’s more harmonious eras without hesitation. It’s a marvel to hear.
When the audio roughness fades, the mesomorphic quintet’s music envelops you. “Pithecanthropus Erectus” –– one of Mingus’s most notable songs was just over ten minutes in its first appearance in 1956. Here the song is given two burly takes, doubling the original performance’s length and stretching minor keys into a raw-boned frenzy, only to resolve into a meld of gospel, bop and blues. By songs end all but the piano and the trumpet are quiet, like the small drizzling rain that remains after a tropical storm.
For much of his musical career Mingus sought out drummers and pianists to counter balance the horn sections he wove in and out of his sound. Strata’s most pronounced talent is Don Pullen, the pianist. Pullen spent much of the sixties flaring in an aggressive free jazz outfit with drummer Milford Graves. The eminently percussive keyboardist Pullen introduced Roy Brooks, the Strata set’s drummer, to Mingus. Until a disagreement in ’75 ended their professional relationship, Pullen imprinted Mingus’s last great band with his diffuse piano. Brooks didn’t last as long, stepping aside when long time Mingus time keeper Danny Richmond returned. But here, Brooks is the percussive machine. He builds his polyrhythmic force on offbeat punctuations, peppering the music with a repository of depth and cockeyed sounds that draw the listener in with subtle choices and dramatic tonal changes. It’s Brooks who takes helm of the band for an unexpected side-track into the musical saw. Somehow, the anomaly dovetails perfectly with the quintet’s penchant to dive headlong into the sinewy and at times avant tendencies of its members. On the drum solo that erupts two thirds of the way through “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” Brooks’s importance to the Strata band is highlighted. He pounds with certainty, coercing his cymbals to a deep and dark tone lesser players would steer away from.
With the recent loss of trumpeter Roy Hargrove, a throwback to that late 50s jazz scene that fully unleashed Mingus, it’s next to impossible to think of a band leader today who expresses themselves across such a wide spectrum of sound without falling into the electrified rhumba of indecision. The Strata band is just as comfortable playing swell chested blues as it is in following Pullen into angular bouts of free jazz. In truth, Mingus had explored modality as early as the fifties. By the year of this recording, he could play the band as well as he played the bass.
Orange Was the Color of Her Dress
After an intermission, the band offers a couple of rambunctious run-throughs of Mingus favorites (“C-JamBlues” and “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress”) where the length of the performance’s does become suspect. But because the audio is imperfect on those songs, it’s a minor quibble. Pullen dashes out front while the rhythm section buffs the background out. And when Mingus sends the band into his hairpin dynamics, their strengths return. So what if the music shifts in intensity and focus? The band corrals your attention at enough right moments to warrant Strata’s elongated takes. When they play “Dizzy Profile” ( both takes) they transport you beyond time into sheer musicality.
As Ellington had reframed his musical identity in the 60s and early 70s, issuing several large orchestral albums, Mingus shifted with his workshops, no longer wallowing in the failure of Epitaph. His physical decline may have been first noticeable as early as 69/70, though an official diagnosis didn’t come until ‘77. He’d reduced the height of the action of his bass strings and was using amplification, which partially contributed audio issues on the Strata date. Because of the reduced action, he was altering fingerings and his tonal palette. His second wife, Sue, the executive producer here, mellowed him to some degree, and Mingus taught music composition for a semester at University of Buffalo, searching for a way out of the endless touring and performing. But he couldn’t fully let it go. Right at the end of his life, he was working with Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell recording new interpretations of previously verified genius Mingus.
While Strata is too long, too diverse and too late (this recording should have been released in Mingus’s lifetime), all of that suits the long-gone composer. Strata vies with recently excavated releases from Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, and sideman to all three, Eric Dolphy, for the year’s best jazz album. Strata opens the door to every facet of Mingus’s musical realm. This isn’t better than those other rediscovered releases, but it’s bigger. It is the best place to chart all the waves of jazz in one Mingus-ian live performance.
Happy Holidays: Charles Mingus’s Egg-Nog Recipe
Separate one egg for one person. Each person gets an egg.
Two sugars for each egg, each person.
One shot of rum, one shot of brandy per person.
Put all the yolks into one big pan, with some milk.
That’s where the 151 proof rum goes. Put it in gradually or it’ll burn the eggs,
The whites are separate and the cream is separate.
In another pot — depending on how many people — put in one shot of each, rum and brandy. (This is after you whip your whites and your cream.) Pour it over the top of the milk and yolks.
One teaspoon of sugar. Brandy and rum.
Actually you mix it all together.
Yes, a lot of nutmeg. Fresh nutmeg. And stir it up.
You don’t need ice cream unless you’ve got people coming and you need to keep it cold. Vanilla ice cream. You can use eggnog. I use vanilla ice cream.
Right, taste for flavor. Bourbon? I use Jamaica Rum in there. Jamaican Rums. Or I’ll put rye in it. Scotch. It depends.
See, it depends on how drunk I get while I’m tasting it.
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material magazine. He is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. Mr. Cherry’s work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website- www.henrycherry.com