Home Masthead The Importance of Charles Mingus – 100 years on

The Importance of Charles Mingus – 100 years on

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The Importance of Charles Mingus - 100 Years On
Charles Mingus, from Mingus archives (2.8M)

Of all the joys of listening to music – any music, I might add – listening to and taking in the music of the incomparable Charles Mingus ranks among the greatest. With very good reason. The great composer and [ever greater] contrabassist was – first and foremost – a towering, prescient voice in music. Not only did he hold up a proverbial mirror to society as he knew it – and as we also do], but he, in his infinite wisdom, foretold of many changes in future expressions of the art he practiced, crafting extraordinary examples of these changes in his extraordinary oeuvre.

At the height of his powers Mr Mingus was heralded [by many aficionados, cognoscenti and discerning critics alike] as the rightful heir of the great Duke Ellington. After an iconic set in which he played his famous medley of the Duke’s tunes at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1695, Mr Mingus said in homage: “Thank you, but I owe it all to Duke Ellington… I should say… I stole it from him…” Still he had his detractors, some of whom [who shall remain anonymous out of respect for their own legacy] felt he was a great bassist, but not the great composer that he was made out to be.

Casting even a cursory eye over the historic sweep of Mr Mingus’ work provides many clues to his compositional greatness – and suggests that he took the lessons learned from The Duke to the next level of music. The extraordinary harmonic conception of “Half Mast Inhibition” was [by the composer’s admission] in 1949 on Pre-Bird Mingus [Mercury, 1960]. The symphonic structure of the piece, orchestrated with Eric Dolphy and conducted by Gunther Schuller, prefigured what the conductor and many others like him would refer to as the Third-Stream, a tributary in the river of music that was propelled by the waters of classical forms and African-American Blues and Gospel, fused into the mystical realm of polyphonic music.

Charles Mingus, Paris 1964. Photo by Guy Le Querrec.

During the decade of the 1950’s many believe that Mr Mingus was at the peak of his powers. The series of albums he released on the Columbia imprint were mighty signposts of contemporary music. Mr Mingus, critics argued, was at his ground-breaking best in small, medium and larger ensembles. His glory as a composer and orchestrator shone bright on albums such as Mingus Ah Um. But it was also the two volumes of Changes that became milestones in music. With highly advanced harmonic and rhythmic conception Mr Mingus changed the way music was orchestrated, with often roguishly dissonant ensemble playing and soaring soli by all manner of inimitable musicians.

Pianists Jaki Byard and Horace Parlan, drummer Dannie Richmond, trumpeter Johnny Coles, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, multi-reeds and winds genius Eric Dolphy and tenor saxophonist George Adams, led the charge on the composer’s music, heavily influenced by blues and gospel music. But so raucous were the musical interactions that it is hard not to suggest that this prefigured the advent of R&B, Funk, Rock and other iterations and styles of music steeped in the Blues. Meanwhile, as his longer works [such as Meditations on Integration” stayed close to ‘the symphonic’, it seemed that his raw and powerful indictment of segregation, “Fables of Faubus” – with his fiery “call and response” with Dannie Richmond seemed to prefigure “Rap”, Free-Styling” and [ultimately, in its rhythmic] pulse – even Hip Hop”.

Charles Mingus with his wife Sue.

Meanwhile the soli of ‘the great one’ himself, came from a heart and soul that was both frightened and free. As he led from the front in “Meditations on Integrations” and “Fables of Faubus” [among numerous other works], Mr Mingus continued to ring in the changes in mood, with abrupt alterations in tempi and he continued to push composition, innovation and improvisation into an altogether new and rarefied realm of music. All the while, of course, Mr Mingus stayed close to his roots: The Blues, as did everyone who came before him – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bird and Dizzy – while propelling his music into the future.

The music in Mr Mingus’ incomparable oeuvre also tells the story of a musician acutely aware of the fact that music was far from the iteration of the art that developed in Middle Ages, Renaissance and Romantic Europe. It was, rather =, an expression of worship and celebration of the peoples who created the first vaunted civilisations that dated back to the Upper Nile. It is worth noting that musicians such as Shabaka Hutchings and The Sons of Kemet are reaping from what Mr Mingus sowed a very long time ago. In like manner, the avant-garde of the 1960s and after reaped from what Mr Mingus continued to sow in such path-breaking albums as Black Saint and the Sinner Lady [Impulse, 1962/63].

The world of music is now fractured. Afro-Cuban Jazz, which was a branch of the same tree of bore the “first fruits” of so called Afro-American music – in other words, “Black Music” or music that came the harmonies and rhythms of Africa – borne by and developed by – erstwhile slave populations from Benin, Kongo, Nigeria and elsewhere from the African continent – wherever the Black African populations were disperse by colonial powers in the Americas and across the Caribbean. In other words Mr Mingus’ prophetic voice [then] extended to what we now call “Latin-Jazz” or “Afro-Cuban” music – probably more correctly “Afro-Caribbean” music – an extension, if you please, of the Afro-American music.

Photo by Teppei Inoguchi. Copyright Jazz Workshop, Inc.

Two emblematic albums: Tijuana Moods [recorded in 1957 but not released until June 1962 on RCA-Victor] and Cumbia and Jazz Fusion [Columbia, 1977] was released almost two decades after he wrote the music of “Ysabel’s Table Dance” from Tijuana Moods. The former album contained two seminal extended works of significant musical import: “Cumbia and Jazz Fusion” and “Music for Todo Modo”. These “extended” works form a corpus of large symphonic works that ended in Mr Mingus’ greatest work: the mighty, Wagnerian work entitled “Epitaph”. The work was 4,235 measures long, takes more than two hours to perform and premiered by a 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller and produced by Mingus’s widow, Sue, at Alice Tully Hall on June 3, 1989, 10 years after his death, and issued as a live album.

There are few people alive today who are championing the legacy of Mr Mingus. None who guards it more closely than his widow, Sue Mingus. However, musicians such as alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, who played with Mr Mingus at that mythical concert in Monterey in 1956, Jack Walrath, who contributed the song “Black Bats and Poles”, a wild, Gospel-infused song on Changes II [Atlantic, 1974] and arranged the epic music of Me, Myself an Eye [Atlantic, 1978] the themes of which were reputedly dictated into a tape recorder, then arranged by the trumpeter and shaped by him and Mr Mingus.

This was something like the manner in which Joni Mitchell wrote and recorded her own tribute to Mr Mingus. The album – Mingus – is spliced with excerpts, which are labeled “(Rap)”, from recordings provided by Sue Graham Mingus, including a scat singing interplay between Joni and Mingus, and Charles and Sue arguing over his age at a birthday party. In “Funeral”, Mingus and others discuss how long he will live and what his funeral will be like. He refers to the Vedanta Society and asserts that he is going to live longer than Duke Ellington, who died in 1974, aged 75, by saying, “I’m going to cut Duke!” “God Must Be a Boogie Man”—having taken shape two days after his death—was the only song Mingus was unable to hear.

The incomparable trombonist Conrad Herwig, courtesy of April Thibeault Publicity

Another musician who has made a deep dive into the oeuvre of Charles Mingus us the trombonist Conrad Herwig, Musical Director of the Charles Mingus Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band. So it is only fair that Mr Herwig be entrusted with putting on the epic concert that will celebrate Mr Mingus’ music at the centenary of the great man’s birth. To commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday (April 22, 2022) of iconic jazz composer/bandleader/bassist Charles Mingus (1922-2022), The Django is hosting special Mingus concerts including this one featuring Mingus Big Band musical director/member Conrad Herwig. New York jazz trombonist Conrad Herwig has recorded 25 albums as a leader, receiving four Grammy nominations. He has also been voted #1 Jazz Trombonist three times in the DownBeat “Jazz Critic’s Poll.” and nominated for “Trombonist of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association on numerous occasions.

Mr Herwig spent his formative musical years in Hawaii under the aura of jazz icon trombonist Trummy Young, graduating from Punahou High School. Later in his career he would complete his studies at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Afro-Caribbean ethnomusicology. Equally well-versed in an array of musical idioms, Mr Herwig’s professional performance career commenced with big band stints with a number of iconic and legendary figures including Clark Terry, Cab Calloway, Buddy Rich, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Mel Lewis. Around that time he also performed and toured with Slide Hampton’s “World of Trombones.” Later, Mr Herwig would work for a number of years with the Frank Sinatra Orchestra. Other important early associations included a stay with bandleader Mario Bauza’s seminal Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, an association that would launch his mastery of the Latin and Latin Jazz genres.

Conrad Herwig standing and ripping out a solo

In constant demand as a sideman, Mr Herwig has performed with Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, and Joe Lovano (featured as a soloist on Mr Lovano’s GRAMMY Award winning 52nd St. Themes CD). In the Afro-Caribbean genre he has toured with legends such as Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Paquito D’Rivera, and Michel Camilo. He is a longtime member of the Mingus Big Band (where he has served as musical director and arranger including on the 2011 GRAMMY Award-winning Live at the Jazz Standard CD). In other big band settings Mr Herwig has also performed and recorded with Clark Terry, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis & Quincy Jones, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. All told Mr Herwig has appeared on more than 250 albums in what is now a 40-plus-year career. Conrad Herwig performs exclusively on Michael Rath Trombones, England.

To commemorate the 100th Birthday of Charles Mingus [and in continuation of the wider celebrations of Mr Mingus’ Centenary, Conrad Herwig will lead the a septet Mingus band for the commemorative performances will include Alex Sipiagin [trumpet], Craig Handy [saxophone], Bill O’Connell [piano], Luques Curtis [bass], Robby Ameen [drums], and Camilo Molina [percussion]. The music is expected to span the entire oeuvre of Charles Mingus, not restricted – as you might expect – to Mr Mingus’ “Latin-inflected” work, but rather to show the sweep and breadth of the great composer’s enduring legacy.

There will be two concerts:
Thursday the 14th of April at 10:00pm and Friday the 15th of April at 7:00pm, at The Django, 2 Avenue of the Americas, NYC. Tickets are available from The Django

Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.

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