The Dynasty of Mingus

The Dynasty of Mingus

For the past year and a half, I’ve been spending most of my time between 1922 and 1979–the years of Charles Mingus’s birth and death, since I’m writing his biography, due to be published next ye


For the past year and a half, I’ve been spending most of my time between 1922 and 1979–the years of Charles Mingus’s birth and death, since I’m writing his biography, due to be published next year. And as if by some Romantic magic of macrocosm mirroring the micro, Mingus-related CD reissues have been cascading into the bins.

Aces Back to Back (32 Jazz) collects the largely orchestral work by Rahsaan Roland Kirk between 1969 and 1976, the year after a stroke paralyzed half his body. Mingus hired Kirk in 1960, when Mingus and erstwhile colleague David Amram caught Kirk’s first Big Apple sets at the uptown 125 Club. The ambitious scope of these four CDs demands patience and attention. Like Whitman and Mingus, Kirk is vast and contains multitudes, and here they get plenty of room to jostle. The string-laden tracks, especially “Left & Right,” pick up where Bird left off. An r&b/gospel turn like “Hot Cha” foreshadows the serious fun of Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy.

For, like Bird and Mingus and other postwar jazzers, Kirk saw music as a continuum. He led the Jazz and People’s Movement, which picketed TV and radio shows to protest the lack of black players and music in the studios. Kirk understood that a central point of the postwar US cultural renaissance, spearheaded by jazz, was to assert black understanding and mastery of all of America’s history and culture. He was, like many in that golden age of jazz, rethinking the music’s history and structure, and thus retuning its directions. Think of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic–who winds up with the real power, and why–and you get the gist of Kirk’s panoramic demonstration of authority.

These discs aren’t necessarily Kirk fans’ faves, like the swashbuckling We Free Kings (Mercury) and The Inflated Tear (Rhino), but they do make the case that he was more than a brilliant, if completely outrageous, instrumentalist.

Kirk appears on Passions of a Man (Rhino), the six-CD box set devoted to Mingus’s peak years (1956-61), on Atlantic Records. Let’s cut to the chase: This music is among Mingus’s most vibrant and popular and influential, and with damn good reason. His mix-and-match compositional strategies yielded a harvest of wondrous sounds that were like nothing else. There are window-rattling infernos like the gospel/blues blowout he’d pioneered (“Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” “Better Get Hit in Your Soul”)–and which dominated jazz sales in this period thanks to later chart-toppers by the likes of Cannonball Adderley. There’s beat-style jazz poetry (“The Clown,” with Jean Shepherd) Mingus also helped pioneer in the fifties with pals like Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Micheline, Jack Kerouac and the Living Theater. There are the long narrative tales (“Pithecanthropus Erectus”), which reach beyond Ellingtonian suites in structure and in their development of jazz-derived, extended forms.

Mingus, like Kirk and his idol, Ellington, didn’t so much break down categorical labels as magisterially ignore them. The sweep of Passions is exhilarating, scary, dazzling, daunting, inviting, triumphant. But be warned: The box set also pulls the individual albums apart and puts them in chronological track order. Collectors and archivists love that, and critics can put it to use. Lesser mortals might want to wait until these albums are reissued in thier individual form, to hear them the way they were shaped by Mingus in the studio.

Another reason not to rush to buy the boxed set: The archival/discographic info in the booklet is useful, but the biographical summary is error-riddled, and too many of the interpretations of Mingus’s music are wrongheaded and spongy. The final CD’s unedited, hour-plus conversation between Mingus and producer friend Nesuhi Ertegun, however, helps counterbalance these shortcomings.

Other reissues of note: Miles Davis Quintet 1965-68 (Columbia/Legacy) is just what it says: the entire output of the classic outfit boasting Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Most of the six-CD set, with a solid booklet, is nothing short of brilliant. Its rainbow of styles, grooves and attacks shimmers from the shards of time sliced so relentlessly by Williams, the frenetic young drummer who died in 1997. Thanks to the approach Miles shared with Mingus–minimal written music, lots of ear training, an emphasis on tautening individual voices within the material’s demands–this band is a catalogue of postwar jazz’s possibilities, right up to the doorway of fusion.

Then there’s the sui generis one, Mingus’s pal and the other Ellington-struck reshaper of postwar jazz composition, Thelonious Monk. Live at the It Club (Columbia/Legacy) was cut in 1964 and produced by Teo Macero (Miles’s longtime producer and Mingus’s longtime colleague). These two CDs (enhanced by a fine booklet essay) catch Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales and Ben Riley on stage with the man who remade stride piano and Basie’s minimalism into an irresistible maze of space and crushed intervals elegantly sutured by melodies so startling they seem inevitable.

Monk’s tunes–glittery gems formed, like diamonds, under immense pressure–have in the past decade become standards themselves, and deservedly so, with their radical revamping of the nature of a jazz “tune.” Folks who still think of Monk as a glorified tunesmith miss the point. They should listen to his version of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” where his breadth of emotion avoids sentimentality for depth, as he delivers a stride-laced-with-dissonance reading that puts steel in the song’s spine. The quartet’s solo sections recurrently echo that springy, stepping beat that Mingus sealed as his own during his days at the Café Bohemia in 1955, when he and Monk teamed for a spot on the old Steve Allen TV show not long before Allen hosted Kerouac.

The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Herbie Nichols (Blue Note) reissues the work of the man most folks thought of as Thelonious Monk Junior. These three CDs, which feature Art Blakey and Max Roach, demonstrate just how different they were, despite the offbeat harmonic voicings and complex melodies they shared a liking for.

“As all Marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.” These words to live by appear on the back of Space Is the Place (Impulse!), Sun Ra’s paean to his otherworldly origins and insights. Ra was once considered weird and off the track by many jazzers, but hindsight has been a wonderful thing. This CD resituates his music, as did John Szwed’s recent evocative biography, also called Space Is the Place. Ra, Mingus, Miles, Monk and even Ornette Coleman now seem to have more in common than not–a tribute to just how much they’ve shaped our world and culture. Ra’s freedom and discipline, a deliberate dialectic, replaced the bars of the pop tune with expansive forms, fortuitous harmonies and a faith in freedom based on honed skills.

These same impulses powered the postwar American renaissance. They let Kerouac sit down at a typewriter, insert a 250-foot roll of teletype paper and improvise his final draft of On the Road in three weeks–after writing several laborious earlier drafts. They urged Jackson Pollock to drip and hurl paint on the canvas, capturing the process of art’s creation rather than rendering it as product–after a long apprenticeship that taught him his spontaneous craft. They led Mingus to call his bands Jazz Workshops and create jazz-as-performance art by treating shows as open rehearsals. Postwar artists were representing the very nature of what “in the moment” means. They ignored New Criticism’s ahistorical, academicized “high” culture of brittle, formalistic paradox in favor of Bird’s axiom: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

And so they sought (or were relegated to) the margins of McCarthy-era America, where they mingled with junkies and crims and nutjobs and gangsters, the Other of the time, and wove what they knew into artistic templates for the postwar society. Without those, there might have been no civil rights movement, no Andy Warhol, no hippies, no SDS, no Newt Gingrich, no Bill Clinton. And probably none of the increasing, if sometimes wrongheaded, recognition of jazz as a serious art form.

Take an example: Mingus joined the ranks of American cultural immortals on September 16, 1995, when a 32-cent stamp bearing his image was unveiled, part of a series dedicated to great jazzers.

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