Simply say the name, and for the jazz student and educated listener, thoughts emerge. Pioneer. Innovator. A strong legacy that stays alive carefully and methodically in the live music scene, but still, whispered, not shouted like other jazz greats, even though every Monday evening, in NYC, you can hear his music played at the Jazz Standard, and the Let My Children Hear Music foundation keeps his legacy alive through live performances, recordings, jazz festivals and meticulously thought out arrangements and publications bearing his name.
Charles Mingus was one of the few jazz composers and bandleaders who took the time to craft soundscapes so rich and textured, that for me as a listener, I actually felt like I was there. My first interaction with his music occurred while driving one evening. The local public radio station had some late Saturday night jazz programming, and the featured album was “Tijuana Moods”. I heard 3 minutes of “Ysabel’s Table Dance” and was enamored enough to pull over and wait until I heard the entire segment, scurrying for a pen to write this down (this was 6 year ago, before the notes apps on iPhones) while “Haitian Fight Song” emerged next and sealed the deal.
As usual with my musical exploration, I found some recordings and began listening, enough to eventually playlist it on my iPod, but only scratching the surface of his work.
Fast forward 3 years. Something somewhere spurred my memory of Mingus while in the first month teaching high school band in a local school district. Before I knew it, I had found the recording of “Ysabel”, and with a handful of students in their last period study hall created an impromptu jam on that piece. Hearing the recording, the students’ heads tilted and they looked interested. “Who is this again…?” That became a teachable moment in discussing Mingus’ ability to layer different ideas, creating images with sound while managing to have each idea maintain its’ own identity.
Serendipity wouldn’t let Mingus go this time around. In my school mail, a flyer from the “Let My Children Hear Music” foundation came days later, promoting their first ever High School Jazz Ensemble Competition. That was it. Mingus became the means from which to jumpstart the jazz program for that year, and remained a major part of our repertoire since.
This has come full circle. One of those first students, Colleen, was exposed to Mingus through the experience of listening, studying and performing his pieces through our program – notable, since she’s a French horn player, not your typical jazz instrument – and had this to say when asked about the importance of Mingus and his legacy in the music world:
Mingus throws caution to the wind and walks the thin line between a captivating use of instrumental personalities and an overwhelming amount of musical chaos to sort through. He does a fantastic job of toeing the line without crossing it. He showcases the attributes of each instruments’ sound and somehow manages to fit everything together like the worlds hardest jigsaw puzzle.
Colleens’ comments make perfect sense to me when reflecting on hearing the Mingus Orchestra perform live in NYC at the Jazz Standard, where they and other Mingus ensembles perform every Monday evening. The group consisted of drum set, bass, guitar, alto sax/clarinet, trumpet, trombone, bassoon, bass clarinet, and french horn. Not your typical instrumentation… but then again… Mingus is anything but typical.
The album “Mingus Ah Um”, including the classic “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, “Better Git Hit in Your Soul”, and “Jelly Roll” explores traditional jazz elements (blues, shuffle, ragtime, to name a few) within the context of more modern elements, giving that nod to the artists and styles that influenced jazz with rich harmonies, layering of melodic lines and elements of free form to paint pictures with sound.
With “Tijuana Moods”, you feel like you’re walking past different scenes in the city… entering cantina’s… shopping areas… where the overlap of sound is inevitable. Here it is planned, but the structure is kept spontaneous and loose, creating organized chaos and realism without losing melody.
Mingus’ body of work is not just in traditional performances. He orchestrated for dance and ballet, and his final work “Epitaph”, requires 30 musicians and is two hours long.
Mingus is smart, yet simple. Methodical and organized, yet carefree and spontaneous. Original, yet referencing influences from blues, folk, gospel, ragtime and other sources as a way of honoring the past, and taking it to the future.
Recommended Links and recordings:
To get you started:
· Listen to: “Mingus Ah-um”, “Tijuana Moods”, several greatest hits compilations, including one from Ken Burns “Jazz” series.
· Charles Mingus website: www.mingusmingusmingus.com
See it Live!:
· Jazz Standard, where several of the Mingus performing groups play on (most) Monday evenings: Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, New York, NY, 212/576.2232