Friday, November 4, 2022

Mingus Big Band - In the Beginning

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The passing of Sue Mingus [September 24, 2022] and baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber [October 7, 2002] in less than a month of one another brought to mind the Mingus Big Band, or at least the one featured on Mingus Big Band 93 [FDM 36559-2] as there have been several versions over the years of the homage big band and its small group counterpart, The Mingus Dynasty.

Both were established by Sue in the years following the death of her husband Charles in 1979 as a means of keeping his memory and his music alive. She also produced legacy albums of Charles’ music, and through his Jazz Workshop publishing company, she made available copies of his compositions and other educational materials for students and educators.

Although Charles spent his formative Jazz years as a bassist in small groups based in California, most notably those led by vibraphonist Red Norvo and woodwind and sax player Buddy Collette, he moved to New York city in the mid-1950s. Since then, I always identified Charles as an integral part of the vibrant New York Jazz scene.

Mingus’ music always had an aura of youthful, hard driving, high powered energy about it, and the complimentary ambience of New York’s clubs, concert halls and recording studios were perfect platforms on which to display it. If you’ve ever been to New York City, you know that the place is all about energy: it gives you a boost of vitality during your stay and then drains your vigor as you depart. One needs a vacation to recover from a vacation in New York City!

Not surprisingly, accomplished young Jazz musicians based in New York who came of age idolizing the music of Mingus appreciated the chance to participate in both The Mingus Dynasty and The Mingus Big Band to add their creative “energy” to Charles’ legacy such that Sue rarely had to look far for participants to play in either. The band also provided a vehicle for both established arrangers [e.g. Sy Johnson] and players in the band who wanted to try their hand at arranging to develop the rich melodies, divergent harmonies and challenging rhythms associated with Mingus’ Music into new interpretations. 

This assessment is supported by Sam Burtis’ statement in the opening line of Gene Santoro’s insert notes to Mingus Big Band 93 [FDM 36559-2]

"This is New York music," says music director Sam Burtis as we walk across the big recording room upstairs at Manhattan's Clinton Studios. "Fletcher Henderson, Duke, Monk, Mingus - Their music is about the weird energy of this place. And the young guys in the band react to that and take it in their own directions." In fact, a number of the younger players like Craig Handy and Steve Slagle, as well as alumni like Jack Walrath and Ronnie Cuber, have contributed reworked charts which they then conducted. The easy-going camaraderie is intense and telling. It reflects the year and a half this pool of players has been tackling Mingus in the basement of the Time Cafe downtown where, workshop-style, they call tunes randomly in front of usually-packed houses.

Most of these tunes have not been recorded in twenty years or more and in the hands of these musicians they come alive in new ways. The weekly gig has honed the band's chops and given the musicians time to live through Mingus's music deeply, to internalize its demanding but modular, open-ended magic. Burtis continues: "The crowd that comes down to the club every

Thursday is young. They're the rock generation and they're drawn to this music because it's got such power. It kicks out at you the way good rock does. It's got that energy." There are those who say Mingus's music hasn't had that energy since he died, that his Gargantuan presence loomed over his musicians in his workshops, that he insisted in the primacy of the hands- on, by-ear learning that evolved during jazz's first few decades, that he deliberately, turbulently, stirred up trouble to highlight and heighten the music's already-high-octane emotions. But Mingus was, first and foremost, a composer, extending the genealogy that includes Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. His compositions have now taken on a life of their own, and members of the Big Band understand that Mingus helped lay the foundations for the post-bop musical syntax that has shaped them, that he's both their ancestor and their contemporary.

The tension between composition and improvisation (instant composition) is the dialectic heart of jazz. There are repertory bands, born of the neoclassical vogue of the last few years, that play only original charts complete with transcribed solos. But it is the openness of Mingus's music - the freedom that allows musicians to get inside the music and bring their own individuality to it - that keeps it so modern, that both replicates Mingus's own deliberate unpredictability and attracts a younger crowd (of players and listeners) via its energy. Listen to how it works in the wailing gospel choruses of "Ecclusiastics", or the gutbucket fervor of "Moanin"; or the circus-tent whimsy of "Don't be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid, too", or the shadowy, flickering interiors of "Weird Nightmare". The point is to re-open Mingus's music to contemporary experience, which it helped mold, and use the feedback loop to re-define the music from yet another perspective. And so Charles Mingus's rich and sprawling compositional legacy is like New York itself - an inspired, stormy nexus of past, present and future that's constantly being re-invented. The dynamic re-interpretations of the Mingus Big Band remind us just how contemporary and pertinent that legacy continues to be.”

- Gene Santoro

The booklet notes continue with Sue Mingus offering these observations about Mingus, the music and the musicians on this recording.

"It's like the city", said the trumpet player. "It's about chaos and contradiction, discipline and crazy unexpected beauty". "It's music", said the drummer, "that wears a tuxedo but has rolled around in the dirt." Shifting tempos, clashing harmonies, the unmistakable beat of the city. 

Listen to Ronnie Cuber musically strolling down 42nd Street, recalling an encounter with Mingus at Birdland back in the Fifties as he introduces "Nostalgia in Times Square" with elegant beatnick cool. But make no mistake. Nostalgia is exactly what this 14-piece band is not about. What it's about is the chemistry which has developed - here and now - among a growing pool of New York's finest musicians as they work out on some of the most challenging music in jazz.

Almost 100 musicians have played on these charts since the Mingus Big Band first unpacked its instruments in September, 1991, in the basement nightclub of a Manhattan cafe. Some twenty of them are on this recording. The band's hard core center is the Mingus Dynasty quintet, expanded to include several musicians from the orchestra which has performed Mingus's two-hour work "Epitaph" since 1989, expanded further still to include a host of new musicians able to explore the textures and densities and wider spectrums of Mingus's big band charts.

Not many in the jazz community played Mingus music after his death in 1979, which was why these bands were formed. Mingus music was intensely personal music, solidly linked to its taskmaster. And it was hard. The music could be an obstacle course at break-neck speed for the unwary. Or a deceptively simple trio of exquisite melodies like the tune "Self-Portrait in 3 Colors" on this recording. On a rousing gospel shout straight out of Mingus's roots in the Holiness Church, called "Ecclusiastics". It could be a workshop, as Mingus originally conceived it, involving stops and sudden rehearsals in front of a live audience, with nowhere to hide. It was music that demanded everything you had, and more.

But these compositions - if not quite slated for Easy Listening - are becoming familiar. The rich legacy which Mingus left behind is reaching out to audiences and to other musicians that are suddenly ready. Something is going on in the basement. And the Mingus Big Band, with its first recording in its pocket, is about to say what.

-Sue Mingus

If you are looking for a place to begin your Mingus Big Band Journey, you need look no farther than Mingus Big Band 93 [FDM 36559-2]. Fortunately, I have been able to embed YouTube videos below for many of the tracks on this recording.

Incidentally Ronnie Cuber’s playing on these recordings is some of the best on record and that’s saying something for a brilliant player who’s recording career spanned 50 years and covered every context of popular music imaginable from straight ahead hard bop to gospel and everything in between.  


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