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Opinion: It’s all about Mingus: A music pioneer

August 20, 2012
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

Miles Davis. Dave Brubeck. Thelonious Monk. And Charlie Mingus.

They may not be household names to the average reader, but to me they are giants.

While almost everyone has heard of Miles and Brubeck, not as many are aware of Charlie Mingus, one of the greatest jazz innovators ever. His name stands next to Miles as someone who was always changing, intensely creative and whose stunning and diverse body of work transcended the jazz genre.

All four of these artists mentioned above were at one time or another signed to Columbia Records, and each still sell thousands of records and CDs annually due to the timeless music they created. All four also now have their entire Columbia catalogs available as complete packages on Columbia Legacy's series, found online at and by clicking on the complete albums link.

There are the complete jazz collections of Monk, Miles, Brubeck, Mingus, Weather Report, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Billie Holiday, Wynton Marsalis, Stan Getz, Woody Shaw, Grover Washington Jr., Paul Desmond and tons of other pop and rock acts who recorded for Columbia, Arista, Epic and other labels now owned by Sony. Each remastered CD comes as a digipack with a recreation of the original album artwork as well as extensive liner notes and more. They are great deals, priced reasonably and an opportunity to find releases that are otherwise out of print.

Sony/Legacy has just released the complete Mingus, Monk, Shorter and early Weather Report, and this week I focus on the Mingus release and a wonderful interview with his widow Sue Mingus, whom I was fortunate enough to talk to last week.

Mingus was, as Duke Ellington once said, "beyond category," as the mercurial artist fused jazz, "third stream" - a mixture of jazz and classical elements - free jazz, New Orleans-style traditional jazz and other forms. Mingus was fearlessly creative and volatile with a strong sense of social justice and a unique, quirky sense of humor. When I read song titles such as "Don't be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid, Too," or, my personal favorite, "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife are Some Jive Ass Slippers," Mingus was always striving to be heard, bending genres and mixing media. A prolific composer who wrote complete jazz symphonies - much like his personal hero Ellington - Mingus also was a bass virtuoso who was instrumental in the bebop era and also played in an amazing trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and vibes master Red Norvo early in his career.

Mingus also recorded with Miles, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and countless other jazz legends while creating his own unique music at the same time. His autobiography, "Beneath the Underdog," is a tour de force of stream-of-consciousness writing considered one of the finest books ever written by a jazz artist.

Mingus also took under his wing and championed many younger players involved in "the New Thing" and the progressive jazz scene as well as the avant garde. Players Mingus mentored included Eric Dolphy, John Handy, Booker Ervin, Jaki Byard, Art Pepper, Horace Parlan and others, all of whom would also become jazz legends.

Mingus also was a pioneer in launching his own label, Debut Records, co-founded with jazz drummer extraordinaire Max Roach. The other influence in Mingus' music was his upbringing in the Baptist Church, and his later work emphasized this relationship in his "churchy" compositions. Mingus died at age 56 in 1979.

The legacy box set includes two of Mingus' better known works created with his jazz workshop of players, including "Mingus Dynasty"; the classic "Mingus Ah Um," which contained his moving eulogy to saxophonist Lester Young, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat"; the outstanding symphonic jazz of "Let My Children Hear Music"; "Charlie Mingus and Friends in Concert" and the stunning "Epitaph," the double CD of Minus' remarkable jazz symphony discovered in Mingus' closet and recorded in 1989, 10 years after his death.

Sue Mingus said her husband was just as remarkable, creative and challenging as he seemed.

"I think he was always exploring," she said. "He was always challenging himself. It was his natural curiosity, and he was always trying to find himself in the music. This made him grow."

Mingus became an idol to many younger jazz artists, many of whom would ask him what to play.

"He would tell the musicians to play like themselves," said Sue. "He didn't like categories. He would say, 'Just call it Mingus music.'"

Mingus was most at ease when improvising on the piano, another instrument he played very well. He once released a wonderful album on Impulse! Records of entirely spontaneous and improvised music on the piano. Another Mingus masterpiece on Impulse!, "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady," included Mingus having his psychoanalyst write the liner notes. Now - THAT is different!

"He would lose himself in the creative process," said Sue. "He would say that the music was waiting to be found, and he would find it on the keys.

"Life sometimes intervenes in the creative process," she continued. "He would have these outbursts of great creativity followed by periods where he wouldn't write anything. He would take time out."

Mingus was justifiably proud of "Let My Children Hear Music," which reminds me of a high-caliber Ellington suite. He even received a Grammy nomination, not for the music but for the liner notes, which he wrote himself. Sue said her husband was somewhat insulted the music wasn't recognized at it should have been.

"He was very proud of that record," said Sue. "The great irony is his liner notes were recommended for a Grammy. But the music wasn't acknowledged."

His greatest symphonic work, "Epitaph," was "the work he wanted on his tombstone," said Sue. The music, a sprawling, epic symphony containing 4,235 measures - two solid hours of music - was rediscovered by jazz and symphonic music historian and advocate Gunther Schuller after Mingus' death. The score was painstakingly reassembled and eventually performed and recorded. Mingus was reportedly upset his piece was never fully realized during his lifetime.

"He would complain and tell me he had a whole symphony that wasn't published, although he did try (to perform "Epitaph") once at a Townhall Concert, but it was a disaster," she said. "He ran out of time (for proper rehearsal), and no one had a clue what he was trying to do."

Mingus music is kept alive today by the Mingus Big band, his wife as well as his tremendous recorded legacy, most of which is still in print in some form today.

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