By Michael Katz
This Friday night’s appearance of Mingus Dynasty in a UCLA Live concert at Royce Hall brings to mind the first and only time I saw Charles Mingus perform. It was at a small club called the Good Karma, in the basement of a health food store in Madison, Wisconsin, circa 1976. I’d guess that Mingus was presenting work from the Changes One and Changes Two albums that were released around then, though Sue Mingus suggests he might have been performing Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, which I recall most distinctly from the Mingus Big Band’s Que Viva Mingus. What I do remember was getting there early and seeing Mingus sitting alone in front of his bass, going over music that would be played that night, the rest of the band nowhere in sight. He was a large man in a small room – it couldn’t have seated more than a hundred folks, if that. I had seen other big jazz names there — Mose Allison, Eddie Harris, George Benson – but none of them would fill the place like Mingus and his band.
I didn’t know, as Sue Mingus related recently, that he had just been given the key to the city. If that seems a little incongruous to someone performing in the basement of a health food store, consider that the mayor was (and currently is again) Paul Soglin. In 1975, Soglin would have been barely 30, having arisen from the anti-war movement that swept over Madison to become mayor in 1973. The Changes albums had songs titled “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” and “Free Cell Block F, Tis Nazi USA,” so it’s not surprising that Soglin – whatever his level of jazz sophistication — would have considered Mingus a kindred spirit.
The fusion of jazz and politics was an essential part of the Mingus ouevre, but it shouldn’t obscure the fact that he was one of the great composers of our time. He could be growling, or soulful, or bluesy, often all at the same time. His more contemplative, elegiac work, most notably “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the homage to Lester Young, as well as “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” were stirring and memorable. His compositions featured complex weavings of the horns and piano in his basic quartet or quintet, but they were engaging and immensely listenable.
Some of the more overtly political themes were clearly reflected in the music. “Haitian Fight Song,” suggests the undercurrents of struggle and darkness in that historically beset land. (Though it also showed up in a VW Jetta commercial a few years ago). “Medititations on a Pair of Wire Cutters,” is similarly brooding and conspiratorial as it builds to a crescendo.
In other tunes, such as the above-mentioned titles from the Changes albums, it’s harder to see the connections, or maybe the issues have just lost currency over the years. “Rockefeller” and “Cell Block F” are bright, aggressive compositions that still sound great, if somewhat disconnected from their original source. And of course there is no shortage of gospel and blues. “Mingus Ah Um,” which was recorded in 1959, leads off with “Better Git It In Your Soul” and includes, in addition to “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Fables of Faubus” and “Pussy Cat Dues.” The recent reissue CD, which also includes the albums The Clown and Pithecanthropus Erectus is a must for anyone’s desert island list.
All this leads up to Friday night’s Royce Hall concert by the Mingus Dynasty septet. By supporting groups such as Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Big Band, Sue Mingus has kept alive the legacy of her husband, who was diagnosed with ALS in 1977 and died in 1979 at the age of 56. Here in LA we don’t get the weekly exposure to the music that the Mingus Big Band provides in New York, though they have toured here on occasion. The smaller Dynasty is closer in size to the classic Mingus groups, and features stellar personnel. Alex Foster on reeds and Boris Kozlov on bass are co-leaders, along with fellow Mingus Big Band stalwarts Seamus Blake on tenor, Ku-umba Frank Lacy on trombone and vocals, Donald Edwards on drums and David Kikoski on piano. Rounding things out is emerging trumpet star Avishai Cohen. The opportunity to see this group playing Charles Mingus’s compositions is sure to be a rare treat.
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