Triumph of the underdog

The Mingus Big Band brings jazz composer Charles Mingus’ music to life

Charlie Mingus, on the bass: Don’t be afraid, the clown’s afraid too.

Charlie Mingus, on the bass: Don’t be afraid, the clown’s afraid too.

People who knew Charles Mingus during his heyday, as one of the greatest figures in jazz during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, are often amazed to realize that he stood only 5’9”. Everything about the man, they say, made him seem like a giant.

Not only was Mingus perhaps the greatest bassist in jazz, but he was also an accomplished pianist and composer who wrote thousands of pages of music, ranging from the swinging, gospel-tinged “Better Git It In Your Soul” and the melancholy ballad “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which became jazz standards during his lifetime, to Epitaph, a three-hour orchestral opus that was not performed until 10 years after his death. He also wrote Beneath the Underdog, one of the most imaginative and innovative autobiographies ever penned, and was one of the first musicians to start his own record company (Debut Records, with his then-wife Celia, drummer Max Roach and Roach’s girlfriend) and publishing company.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Mingus was one of the legendary personalities in jazz, a guy who might smash his bass in frustration if the audience wouldn’t quit talking, or fire a saxophonist mid-set if he played too many clichés. He gave his compositions titles like “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon” and “Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi U.S.A.” He was a raging bull, yet also was an incurable romantic and openly sentimental. One example: When police evicted Mingus from his Greenwich Village flat in the ’60s, he armed himself, fired a rifle shot into the ceiling, cracked a bullwhip, stalked around ranting about Nazis and social injustice, then went along peaceably as officers arrested him, tearfully telling onlookers “I think I’m being helped.”

Charles Mingus was such a dominating personality that when he died, succumbing to a rare nerve disease in 1979 at age 56, many assumed that his music died with him. It just didn’t seem possible, without Mingus on the bandstand, that any group could summon the reckless intensity, precise musicianship and bluesy lyricism needed to play his unique blend of Ellington-inspired swing, bebop, Latin and classical influences.

Yet Mingus’ music didn’t die. In fact, today it is more widely played than ever, and his reputation as a composer has continued to grow. The thousands of pages of manuscripts he labored over, from his early teens until his death, are now enshrined in the Library of Congress—a first for both an African American and a jazz composer—and numerous groups now exist solely for the purpose of playing Mingus’ music.

And none play it better than the Mingus Big Band, which will appear in Chico and Davis in two weeks. Featuring some of the finest musicians in contemporary jazz, the New York-based MBB has delivered powerful versions of Mingus classics—along with freshly unearthed compositions—to audiences around the world for over 10 years, winning awards for best big band from publications such as Down Beat and Jazztimes, and garnering two Grammy nominations. This well-rehearsed, highly spirited group of 14 crack musicians is exactly the sort of band Mingus dreamed about while writing his music, says Sue Mingus, his widow.

“Mingus would have killed to write for this group,” she says. “He would have been overjoyed to finally hear these compositions played the way he wanted them to be heard.”

A fiery personality in her own right, Sue Mingus has played an important role in the growing recognition of Mingus the composer, using royalties from Mingus recordings to finance a variety of projects, including the Big Band. As outspoken as her husband, Sue has been known to walk into record stores, swipe unauthorized Mingus recordings off the shelves and storm out the door, daring anyone within earshot to call the police. She hasn’t had to do that recently, she says, in part because she’s discovered another tactic for dealing with these unauthorized recordings: She issues them herself, undercutting the bootleggers with bargain-basement prices, on her own appropriately named label, Revenge Records.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” she admits, noting that a label calling itself Uptown Records recently issued yet another bootleg, a set of Mingus recordings from the ’40s. “I figure one of the best ways to deal with them is to undersell them.”

Sue has used Mingus’ royalties to publish two books on his music, she’s overseen the editing and upcoming publication of a new, expanded version of Beneath the Underdog, and she’s co-produced a film, Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog. “Whatever royalties we get from Charles’ music, that enables us to underwrite all of these projects,” she says.

The money has helped finance a series of groups dedicated to playing Mingus’ music, beginning with Mingus Dynasty, a small group consisting mostly of ex-Mingus sidemen that formed in the early ’80s. Since then, money from the royalties has underwritten projects such as the 31-member Epitaph Orchestra, created in the early ’90s to play Mingus’ orchestral work, the Mingus Big Band and the recently assembled Charles Mingus Orchestra, which pulls instruments like French horn and bassoon into the mix in order to play some of Mingus’ more exotic compositions.

Of these, the Mingus Big Band has probably been the most important and well received. The band features many of the best players on the New York scene—Randy Brecker, John Stubblefield, James Carter, Kenny Drew, Jr., Vincent Herring and many others—and has drawn critical raves. The group has been called “the best jazz orchestra in the world” by the Washington Post. Philip Elwood, the San Francisco Examiner music critic who’s been called “the dean of West Coast jazz critics,” wrote that the band’s 1996 Northern California show was “the most inspired, exciting ensemble jazz performance” he’d attended since the time he’d seen the Mingus Big Band in New York. And Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote that the group has “revived Charles Mingus’ repertory in the brawling, muscular, hard-swinging, bluesy way he wanted it played.”

“It’s all been part of a change in the perception of Charles,” says Sue Mingus. “People are now starting to see him as a composer, as he knew himself to be.”

Though Mingus’ spectacular talent as an instrumentalist and his colorful personality got the most notice while he was alive, even in his teens, he was writing orchestral scores like “Tonight at Noon” and “Half-Mast Inhibition,” pieces he would not have the opportunity to perform for almost 30 years. Throughout his life, Mingus worked on Epitaph.

“Charles said he called it that because he was writing it for his tombstone,” says Sue. “He knew he would never hear it performed.”

Now, the piece has not only been performed, but it was recorded by an all-star ensemble conducted by Gunther Schuller, a composer and musicologist in his own right, and many of Mingus’ most challenging compositions are finally being heard all over the world via Mingus Big Band performances.

“When Charles died, his music was considered somewhat difficult and inaccessible,” says Sue. “With the Mingus Big Band, we’re now in our tenth year of playing to packed audiences of all ages, so I think that’s been disproved. It’s not inaccessible. It has such variety, it can appeal to so many different listeners. There’s bebop, Dixieland, blues, Latin music, Indian music—take your pick.”