Mingus Big Band Rocks Hancher with
Blues and Politics:
A Night to Remember
Unlike classical music, jazz is an art form with the emphasis primarily upon the performer, rather than upon the composer. The rise of be-bop in the 1940s increased the emphasis on improvisation, and further diminished the importance of the composer. It should come as no surprise, then, that only a handful of the most significant jazz musicians are known as great composers. Three names stand above the rest: Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and Charles Mingus.
The voice of Charles Mingus was much in evidence when the band dedicated to the preservation of his legacy performed at Hancher Auditorium on Saturday, January 20, 2001. As Mingus Big Band trombonist par excellence and bandleader, Conrad Herwig, said, "The amazing thing is that anyone can play his music and explore it Ė a swing player, a be-bopper, an avant-garde musician Ė and it still comes out Mingus." In impassioned representations of eight of the masterís compositions, the Mingus Big Band explored the many facets of the pen of the mighty bass player. The performance showed that Mingusí powerful compositions provide an inspiring framework for improvisation, while still retaining the musical character intended by the great musician. What is even more amazing is that the Mingus Big Bandís spectacular combination of virtuosity and faithful representation of the composerís intentions is accomplished with a roster of rotating personnel. As a result, Saturday nightís band had to prove itself without many of the best-known soloists from the organizationís most recent CD, including Randy Brecker, Earl Gardner, and Bobby Watson. But prove themselves they did.
When Charles Mingus died of Lou Gehrigís disease in 1979 at the age of 56, he left behind hundreds of compositions, many of which had never been recorded. In 1991, Sue Mingus, Charlesí widow, formed a big band to sustain the legacy of her husbandís music. While some ghost bands, like the current Glenn Miller Orchestra, exist to provide a nostalgic look back at music that was popular in a bygone era, the Mingus band exists to provide a living interpretation of Mingusí music. The Mingus band showcases not only the compositions themselves, but also the workshop-like freedom Mingus gave his players to put their own personal imprint upon his music. This situation was very much in evidence Saturday night.
The Mingus Big Band members, with Herwig at the helm, really "cooked" during their Iowa City performance, and they served up a delightfully rich smorgasbord of Mingus tunes, ranging from the most familiar to the rarely heard. Although Better Git It in Your Soul was relegated to the position of a tag at the end of the first half, other favorites like Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat, Haitian Fight Song, and Moaniní were interspersed with thought-provoking lesser-known gems from their most recent CD, Blues and Politics.
The concert began with a steaming version of Gunglinging Bird, Mingusí homage to the seminal be-bop alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker. With the ease and grace of an equestrian master negotiating a difficult course, the rhythm section led the band through a series of rhythmic and feel changes that demonstrated the eclectic nature of Mingusí composing. Brilliant solos by John Stubblefield on tenor saxophone, Walter White on trumpet, Peter Madsen on piano, and Jonathan Blake on drums set the bar high for the rest of the evening. The remaining soloists did prove, however, to be equal to the challenge in a performance that eventually included blowing time for each and every player of the band. The multi-layered excitement of Bird was an excellent demonstration of the freedom that Mingus gave his musicians, while still creating distinctive compositions.
In keeping with the political theme, the band next performed Mingusí sardonic Fables of Faubus, about Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas who so vehemently opposed the court-required desegregation of the Little Rock schools. The band swung about as hard as you can swing, as alto saxophonist David Lee Jones laughed musically at the politician, and trumpeter Eddie Hendersonís solo gradually disintegrated into a humorous series of squeaks and squawks like clucking chickens. The saxophones contributed impromptu snippets of Dixie and Yankee Doodle, until finally We Shall Overcome led the piece to its bluesy conclusion.
After the burning opener and the smoldering blues, it was time to cool things down with a ballad, this one a tribute composed the night of the death of the great tenor saxophonist, Lester Young. Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat began with a solid, unaccompanied improvisation by tenor saxophonist Craig Handy, with judicious references to Youngís signature Lester Leaps In. Pork Pie, which is in a subtly disguised twelve-bar blues-based format, enriched by chromaticism and substitute chords, benefited from the contributions of long-time MBB arranger, Sy Johnson. The unique rhythmic interpretation of the head and the occasional double-time feel gave the old standard a freshness unusual for a tune so oft-performed.
Bassist Boris Kozlov was next to be featured, and he quickly demonstrated why he was worthy of holding down the bass chair in the masterís orchestra. With astonishing deftness, flawless intonation, a gorgeous rich tone, and inventive use of the instrument, including hammer-on technique and chording above the left hand, Kozlov quickly established his mastery. After eliciting shouts from the audience as he reached to the upper ranges of the bass, he settled into an uptempo version of the familiar vamp of Haitian Fight Song, and the band took off, even faster than it did on the CD, which, in turn, is still faster than the famous recordings Mingus made of the piece.
Composed in tribute to the Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint LíOuverture, Fight Song, was actually a composition that Mingus liked to use to represent his anger at the injustice of racism. Without a little research, one might think that Canadian saxophonist Mike Sim had lost track of that fact when he quoted from the opening theme of Dmitri Shostakovichís lighthearted Festive Overture. In actuality, however, Simís musical reference was just the kind of sly, subtle humor Mingus himself might have interjected into the piece, referring obliquely to the fact that Sim was surrounded by Russians: Kozlov, who had soloed before him, and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, who was to follow. When Sipiagin presented several choruses with only Madsen and Kozlov, the audience was transported to another emotional plane, one of tenderness and sorrow, before being gradually lifted back up with the entrances of first Blake and then the remaining horns. As the audience cheered for the exciting ending of Haitian Fight Song, the band lit into a quiet version of the closing phrases of Mingusí ever-popular Better Git It in Your Soul, while Herwig introduced the band and announced the well-earned intermission.
After intermission it was finally time to hear one of the most regular members of the Mingus Big Band, and one of Mingusí best-known compositions. Baritone saxophone legend Ronnie Cuber swaggered up to the microphone to lead the band through Moaniní. After an extended solo by Cuber, we had our first chance of the evening to hear another of the great soloists of the Mingus Band, Ku-umba Frank Lacy. The rhythm section, lead by Blake, took on a funky beat for Lacyís solo, and the horns responded with typical funk horn riffs. Madsen then was featured on piano before Cuber came back to the microphone, and with a few measures of unaccompanied baritone, turned the beat into a sizzling Latin number, which was then taken up by the band. Finally, on cue from Cuber, the beat returned to the original burning swing feel with which it had begun.
In the mid-sixties Mingus adapted a text that had been written during the Holocaust, and created a timeless plaint against racism, indifference, and complacency. Donít Let it Happen Here featured Mingusí narration presented by John Stubblefield in a Mingus-like voice. This selection was leader Herwigís opportunity to demonstrate his amazing chops. But, as appropriate for this evening, the real stars were Mingusí music and his political sentiments. Though not quite as exciting as the performance I had heard them give in New York City with Mingusí son Eric narrating, Donít Let it Happen Here was a fine example of Mingusí exceptional ability to combine his political beliefs with his compositional skills to create a moving and thought-provoking work of art.
A somewhat less controversial political statement followed, featuring Lacy singing Mingusí tongue-in-cheek blues, O Lord, Donít Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me. This bluesy tune, with its subtle references to Nostalgia in Times Square and Blue Monk, served as a vehicle for both Lacyís voice and his humor-laden trombone playing. The highlight of Ku-umbaís feature was an impressive full-chorus rising glissando with appropriate airplane motions by the band. Lacyís improvisation elicited one of the more enthusiastic ovations from the large crowd.
All night long the band played with a fire and a freshness that they might have been just beginning their tour. My first clue that maybe they had been on the road for a while came when trumpeter Eddie Henderson insistently and humorously quoted Gershwinís Thereís a Boat Thatís Leaviní Soon for New York, during his solo on the changes of Bomb. After the concert, Road Manager Albert Sun confirmed my suspicions, informing me that the band was on its way home after a concert the next day in Missouri. Henderson also quoted Gershwinís more familiar Rhapsody in Blue during his solo, as well as the old swing standard, Iíve Found a New Baby. Soon the audience members were on their feet clamoring for more as Herwig reintroduced the band, and the players began to leave the stage.
The enthusiastic audience response "demanded a recount" and brought the band back on stage for one final number. To close the concert, the band performed Mingusí tribute to an earlier master of the string bass, Oscar Pettiford. OP was a burning, up-tempo, asymmetrical be-bop head tune, and gave Handy and Herwig one last chance to blow before calling it a night.
The Mingus Big Band showed the amazing variety of Mingusí
compositional output. Their performances and recordings keep his music
alive and fresh with respectful, but personal interpretations demonstrating
three of the most common themes in Mingusí music: his respect for musicians
who preceded him, his love of the blues, and his political beliefs. His
spirit loomed large as life in Hancher on Saturday, as his distinctive
personality shone through on each and every lovingly presented composition
and improvisation. Mingus would have approved. Despite the fact that Charles
Mingus did not originally intend these tunes for big band, and that many
of these players are too young to have played with the late master, this
is literally the band of Mingusí dreams: "Someday Iím going to have me
a big band to record with . . . Man, the big band ainít dead." No, and
Mingus "ainít dead" either. Long live Mingus!
In 1995, after Mingus had been dead for sixteen years, the United States Postal
Service issued a 32 cent stamp in his honor. Iím sure this was not the first
time a jazz musicianís picture was in a post office.