By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
By Derek Askey
At least one former band member thinks the troubled Mingus used a feel for craziness to stave off his rage and endless disdain for life ruled by a racist music scene, dishonest club owners and his own manic depression.
"A lot of people don't recognize his humor," says trumpeter Jack Walrath, one of several former Mingus cohorts who will be playing at the Nogales gathering. "They play off the negative aspects of him being a tortured soul who led this very solemn, unhappy life. But there's a lot of humor in his music. That's where his energy and depth came from."
Walrath played in his band from 74 through 78, when health problems permanently put an end to the tempestuous bassist's playing. Angry and proud to the end, Mingus died in 1979 of a heart attack. A decade later, Walrath found himself fronting the Mingus Dynasty, a group widow Sue Mingus put together to keep her departed husband's music alive. "Mingus showed me how to keep the music fresh and unpredictable," Walrath says. The influence is obvious from Walrath's own Blue Note albums, where he has tunes titled "Meat!," "Beer!" and "Village of the Darned." He even recorded a jazz version of a Hank Williams song with Willie Nelson supplying the vocals.
Pianist Sy Johnson underlined the rowdiness of a typical Mingus project when writing in the liner notes of a 1979 Mingus anthology, Passions of a Man: "When he felt the band had become too facile--just swinging along--he'd destroy that ambiance because he wanted us to think about what we were playing. He'd suddenly switch from four to six beats to the bar, and it was like slipping on a piece of ice on the street. You'd fall on your ass. He never thought his function was to support the soloist, but rather, to stir him up."
Mingus goaded his band into its best with the same assaultive tactics he used on his enemies. If it hadn't been for his sense of humor and the beauty of the music, a band member would most likely have found himself unable to tell if Mingus were about to offer him a solo or punch him in the mouth.
His quick-draw leadership and angry humor would have been enough to guarantee him a permanent mark in jazz. But Nogales and the rest of the world continue to overlook his most subtle contribution--one that places him high among the best composers in jazz.
"He also instigated the long, melodic line," Walrath reminds us. "Most jazz before Mingus was built on riffs and short phrases, built over certain chord patterns that were commonly used. But Mingus would write the melody first, and then work out the chord pattern to support it. He came up with these very long musical phrases that had probably only been in classical music before his time."
The uniqueness of his composing style is most evident in his tribute to saxophonist Lester Young, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat." It's a theme familiar even to children. The title doesn't sound familiar? You'd recognize it if you heard it. Mingus knew how to write jazz themes so catchy children would hum them. "I know every version of 'Porkpie Hat' there is," laughs Yvonne Ervin, "from Rahsaan Roland Kirk's to Joni Mitchell's. My very favorite tune when I was 3 or 4 was 'The Boogie Bossa Nova' on an old Quincy Jones album, which is just a bossa nova version of Mingus' 'Boogie Stop Shuffle.'"
Mingus knew he was a hot--as well as hotheaded--composer and, for the years prior to his death, secretly worked on an overview of his musical compositions to be called Epitaph. Gunther Schuller, a critical musician-writer equally versed in jazz and classical music, admiringly called the piece "composition in the truest sense." Discovered years after Mingus was dead, the piece was found in a trunk in the house of his widow by the music scholar Andrew Homzy. The two-hour-plus piece served as a worthy overview of the crazy man Mingus, the uncomposed composer. It debuted in New York, and found its way onto disc in 1990. Every jazz rag in the world gave it coverage.
Nogales will make Mingus and Epitaph news again.
"Andrew Homzy was at the New York Public Library doing some research on Benny Goodman," recalls Ervin. "This was after Epitaph had been premiäred in New York. The librarian asked him if he would be interested in seeing the music from the library's two other collections of jazz composers, Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus. So Andrew opened the file on Mingus and found this missing movement from Epitaph. Mingus, not the most organized person, had lost the piece before taking it to be copied back in 1962. So we got Sue Mingus' permission to premiäre that movement from Epitaph."
Mingus had titled the lost segment "The Inquisition." Ervin states that the composition is not only somber, but also, appropriately, has a definite Latin feel. An 18-piece band, the Tucson Jazz Orchestra, will perform the recently found piece. Former Mingusites Walrath and bassist Ray Drummond will join them, giving "The Inquisition" a tie to the old bands Mingus led. Even famed jazz critic Gene Santoro will make an appearance to lecture on the importance of Mingus in jazz history.