Thursday, July 23, 2015

Charles Mingus and The Jazz Workshop

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It’s hard to believe that Charles Mingus conceived the idea for a Jazz Workshop almost 75 years ago, but that was Charles, always so far ahead in his thinking and so anxious about getting there.

The problem was there was no “there,” there. Charles was “it” so wherever he was, he was there.

Charles has to be considered was of the most restless souls in Jazz. He was never satisfied and sometimes he took out his dissatisfaction on the audience or on the musicians in his band, or both.

Passion was Charles’ byword accompanied by a brilliant technique as a bassist and a sui generis approach to composition.

Charles could write and he could play; if he had any faults it was in expecting too much of other musicians. His incredibly high standards and his impatience with others in achieving them made him a very volatile bandleader for most of his career.

In the late 1950s, many of the major Jazz artists such as Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk, migrated to Columbia Records [today known as Sony Music]. Producer Teo Macero convinced Charles to be amongst them.

Mingus Ah Um [[Columbia CK 40648 or 65512] one of my all-time favorite recordings is a result of this move. With one or two possible exceptions, it seems as though each of the nine tracks on the recording have become among Charles’ most famous and most often played and interpreted compositions. Richard Cook and Brian Morton have labeled the music on Mingus Ah Um as - “three-quarters of an hour of sheer genius” [The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.].

Another quality about the recording that has always fascinated me is its unusual instrumentation: two trombones [Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper] three saxes [John Handy, alto, Shafi Hadi and Booker Ervin, tenor] and a hard-driving rhythm section made-up of Horace Parlan, piano, Charles on bass, and Charles’ favorite drummer, Dannie Richmond.

More information about Charles’ evolution into a major Jazz artist, the Jazz Workshop concept and the manner in which Charles “composes” his music, and the background of each of the musicians on this recording is contained in the following insert notes by DIANE DORR-DORYNEK.

“The idea for a jazz workshop was conceived in 1943 while Charlie Mingus was attending Los Angeles City College. Then it was a classical workshop where musicians could exchange ideas and perform their new compositions. Mingus moved to New York in 1951, and, deciding to try the idea in the more spontaneous medium of jazz, by 1953 had organized a series of jazz workshop concerts at the Putnam Central Club in Brooklyn. Some of the musicians who participated in the early days were Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and the audience, who also had a hand in the working out of new compositions and arrangements.

Because of the success of this workshop, a Composer's Workshop was formed, in collaboration with Bill Coss of Metronome, that included Teddy Charles, John LaPorta, and Teo Macero (who, as an A&R man for Columbia, arranged the date for this album). Mingus believes now that it got too far away from jazz — spontaneity — since almost all of the music was written. He remembers one rehearsal at which Teddy had left several bars open for blowing and everyone jumped on him with "Man, are you lazy? Write it out!"

From this series of concerts Mingus discovered two important things. "First, a jazz composition as I hear it in my mind's ear—although set down in so many notes on score paper and precisely notated — cannot be played by a group of either jazz or classical musicians. A classical musician might read all the notes correctly but play them without the correct jazz feeling or interpretation, and a jazz musician, although he might read all the notes and play them with jazz feeling, inevitably introduces his own individual expression rather than the dynamics the composer intended. Secondly, jazz, by its very definition, cannot be held down to written parts to be played with a feeling that goes only with blowing free.

"My present working methods use very little written material. I 'write' compositions on mental score paper, then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the 'framework' on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used. Each man's particular style is taken into consideration. They are given different rows of notes to use against each chord but they choose their own notes and play them in their own style, from scales as well as chords, except where a particular mood is indicated. In this way I can keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos."

Of the musicians on this album, John Handy, Booker Ervin, Horace Parlan, and Dannie Richmond are currently working with Mingus. Willie Dennis, Jimmy Knepper, and Shafi Hadi have worked with him in the past, and were called especially for this date.

John Handy was born in Dallas on February 3, 1933. While in Dallas he began studying the clarinet, then moved to Oakland, California, where he played alto sax at McClymonds High School. He gigged in rhythm and blues in Oakland for two years and later, when he moved to San Francisco, at Bop City. All of the musicians passing through were sure to show there, and although he wasn't working in jazz, he heard a passing pageant of the greatest names in jazz. He didn't hear Bird until 1952 when Bird was playing at the Say When.

He feels that Bird was probably his greatest influence, but the list of musicians that were important to him musically is long: Louis Jordan, Lester Young, Flip Phillips, Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Stan Getz, early Konitz, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane. In 1952 he studied at San Francisco City College, playing clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax, alto and tenor. After a stint in Korea, he returned to San Francisco and switched his main instrument from alto to tenor. He studied for a secondary teaching degree at State College, and plans to complete it and eventually teach improvisation at the college level.

Handy came to New York in July 1958. He met Mingus in December at a jam session at the Five Spot. He'd been pacing about anxiously, hoping to blow, but the musicians on the stand thought he looked too square. Mingus asked them to give him a chance to play, and they did. A day later Mingus asked him to join his group.

Booker Ervin was born on October 31, 1930, in Denison, Texas. When he was nine he wanted to learn the saxophone, but his mother bought him a trombone. He played it for five years and then gave it up. He had wanted to be a jazz musician after hearing Count Basic and other bands of the 30s on the radio, but it wasn't until 1950, when in the Air Force, that he finally took up tenor sax and played with a jazz group in Okinawa. He attended the Berklee Music School in Boston in 1954 and then went on the road for a year with Ernie Fields, playing rhythm and blues. For the next few years he traveled. He stopped off in Denver for a year and there played his first jazz gigs—at the Piano Lounge, and as house combo at Sonny's Lounge. In the meantime he had studied clarinet and flute. He'd listened to Lester Young and Dexter Gordon earlier, now he listened to Sonny Stitt, and later, to Rollins and Coltrane.

He quit music to work in the post office but that became unbearable after three months. "There was no place to go but New York." He came east with a drummer who lived in Pittsburgh and stayed there for six months (where he met Horace Parian). He landed in New York in May of 1958. Shafi Hadi, then working with Mingus, told him, "There's a new cat in town cuts everybody, me and Sonny and all those cats. I'm a sax player so I know what he's doing on that instrument." Horace brought Booker to the Half Note where they were then working and he finished the gig with them, but didn't join the group until November.

Horace Parlan was born in Pittsburgh on January 19, 1931. He gigged around Pittsburgh awhile with Tom Turrentine and others, and has played with Sonny Stitt and Dizzy Gillespie. One night Mingus was invited to a jam session in Pittsburgh, and Horace, who was also jamming there, was playing so much and so consistently that Mingus tried to outdo him with his bass. It wasn't until later that he noticed Horace's right hand was paralyzed. He had polio when he was five and can use only two fingers of his right hand. Bassist Wyatt "Bull" Ruther and his teacher, Mary Alston, encouraged him to overcome this, and he has developed a predominantly left hand style — single note solos, left hand chords, or chords with right and left interlocked. He names as his favorite pianists Horace Silver, Bud Powell, John Lewis, and Ahmad Jamal.

After this session in Pittsburgh Mingus lost contact with Horace until a year later when a car drove up to the Alvin Hotel and Horace got out to check in. Mingus, who was passing by, found he had come here looking for work and hired him. Horace's father was a preacher and he, like Mingus, has a strong church music background. On Better Git It In Your Soul, Mingus took a moaning repetitive church-like line from one of Horace's solos and added it to the piece.

Dannie Richmond was born in New York 30 years ago, and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. He returned to New York to study tenor sax at the Music Center Conservatory and then went on the road with rhythm-and-blues units like the Clovers, Joe Anderson, and Paul Williams. He left rhythm and blues in 1956 because he felt it was exhibitionism rather than music, and at that time switched to drums. That summer the jazz workshop was at The Pad in Greenwich Village (later called Lower Basin Street). At one intermission, after they had played a fast number on which their present drummer couldn't keep up, Lou Donaldson told Mingus, "I've got my home-town buddy here. I bet he'll make those fast tempos." He introduced Mingus to Dannie, and Mingus, noting his careful grooming and nice clothes, was skeptical. Dannie sat in for several numbers. One the first number, an up-tempoed Cherokee, he had very little trouble. Mingus says he could tell Dannie was a good musician and just needed more work. Dannie joined the workshop later that winter when the regular drummer left. Mingus believes the drummer is the most important member of the group and says he'd rather have no drummer at all if Dannie weren't available. "He's a musician, not just a timekeeper, one of the most versatile and creative drummers I've ever heard."

A shorter word about the non-regulars. Shafi Hadi was born in Philadelphia on September 21, 1929, and raised in Detroit. He served his apprenticeship in rhythm-and-blues bands such as Ivory Joe Hunter, Ruth Brown, Paul Williams, and the Griffin Brothers. He left rhythm and blues late in 1956 and joined Mingus in 1957, with whom he worked regularly until the fall of 1958.

He was among the nine musicians (along with Knepper, Richmond, and Parian) who recorded the score, composed by Mingus, for the experimental film Shadows. The theme song from Shadows, retitled Self-Portrait In Three Colors, is recorded in this album.

Willie Dennis was born in South Philadelphia 33 years ago. He picked up the trombone when he was about 15, learning by ear. He has played in a long list of famous bands; with Percy and Jimmy Heath, Elliott Lawrence, Howard McGee, Claude Thornhill, Sam Donahue, Woody Herman (with whom he went to South America and became very interested in flamenco and concert guitar), and Benny Goodman (touring Europe). He has also worked with the smaller groups of Charlie Ventura, Coleman Hawkins, Lennie Tristano, and Kai Winding. At one of the early jazz workshop concerts in Brooklyn, Mingus brought together Dennis, J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Bennie Green. This concert was billed as the Battle of the Trombones, and marked the beginning of the Jay and Kai team. In 1956 he went to the West Coast with Mingus. He is currently working with Buddy Rich.

Jimmy Knepper, winner of the 1958 down beat International Critics New Star Award, was born in Los Angeles on November 22, 1927. His early musical experience was mainly with big bands, Charlie Spivak, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnet, Claude Thornhill, and Ralph Marterie; and he played for awhile with Charlie Parker. He joined the jazz workshop early in 1957 and was one of the musicians playing at the Brandeis Festival that summer, where Mingus' Revelations was performed along with the compositions of five other jazz and classical musicians. In the spring of 1958 Knepper organized his own group, later joined Tony Scott, and more recently toured with Stan Kenton. He is very accomplished technically. Britt Woodman and Duke Ellington's other trombonists listened to him enthusiastically last summer at the Great South Bay Festival, where he played with the jazz workshop. Britt summed up their feelings, saying: “Man, he’s all over that trombone.”

Mingus' biography has been noted quite fully elsewhere, but for the benefit of new members of his audience I'll recapitulate it in brief. He was born in an army camp at Nogales, Arizona, April 22, 1922, and soon thereafter his family moved to Los Angeles. He grew up in Watts, three miles from L.A. The first music he heard was church music. His stepmother took him to the Holiness Church where there were trombone, tambourines, bass, and a bass drum, and the music was filled with blues, moaning, and riffs set by the preacher. One day, listening to his father's crystal set (at the risk of being severely punished if found tampering with it), he heard Duke Ellington's East St. Louis Toodle-Oo. "It was the first time I knew something else was happening besides church music."

He tried the trombone when he was six, later took up the cello, and switched to bass in high school. He studied the bass with Red Callender and then, for five years, with H. Rheinschagen, formerly of the New York Philharmonic.

His early gigs were with Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory, but under pressure of kidding by his friends, he left the old-timers and gigged with Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Art Tatum, finally becoming a leader of his own group in 1952.

I've mentioned in passing his foray into film scoring, and I'd like to add a word about jazz and poets. Mingus played with poets in Frisco ten years or so ago. He feels it hasn't had the proper chance in New York, despite the many efforts to present it, including his own concerts last March with Kenneth Patchen. But music and poetry (or acting) does seem to have a definite future — if his recent experience with actors on television is a reliable forecast.

At this writing [1959], he has just completed work on the first of three plays by Leo Pogostin for the Robert Herridge Theatre. The first play of this trilogy uses bass alone for the score; the other two will employ other members of his group. During the week of rehearsal and the three dress rehearsals, musician and actors worked in close reaction to one another. For the actual taping of the show, however, the music was cut down so low as to be inaudible to the actors, to avoid feedback into their mikes. Two of the actors said they missed it — the bass had seemed to be another actor and had become an integral part of the play.

The acting methods used were peculiarly akin to jazz. The script formed the skeleton around which the actors might change or ad lib lines according to their response to the situation at that moment, so that each performance was slightly different. Martin Balsam, the lead, said, "Sticking too closely to lines is stifling. This method gives an air of the unexpected and keeps us alive to the situation and the other actors." A jazz musician works in this way, using a given musical skeleton and creating out of it, building a musical whole related to that particular moment by listening to and interacting with his fellow musicians. Jazz musicians working with actors could conceivably provide audiences with some of the most moving and alive theater they have ever experienced.

One poet, Jonathan Williams (if we may return to poets for a moment), in noting the rather bare poetic scene writes, "The only solace for a poet in New York is the occasional spirit in painting and jazz—the 'opening out of my countree,' the protective flash that Charles Olson sees inherent in the greatest American art: Ives, Ryder, Sullivan, Melville. In the winter of 1959 this spirit radiates for me from the paintings of de Kooning, which seem like the best landscapes since Oz, and from the sessions of the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop. I heard this Quintet more than thirty times in three months, increasingly rapt by the presence of those tired but necessary words 'nobility' and 'love' in the music.

"It is incredible that Mingus can dredge out of the contemporary slough the potency and healing grace of his music. Pieces like the Fables of Faubus, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and others are miracles of a kind. They are there, available, God knows, for anyone of those not so bugged by the crazy barrage of the Communication of Nothing that they can still hear. Poetry and music are for those with straight connections between ears, eyes, head, heart, and gut."”

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