Playing the Truth: Charles Mingus’s Jazz in Detroit/ Strata Concert Gallery/ 46 Selden

Reviewed by Henry Cherry

In January of 1979, two extraordinary losses occurred in Mexico. 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the country’s coast line. Reportedly on the same day, fabled jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus died of heart failure related to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was 56. Mingus had gone to Mexico in the late stages of his disease to seek alternative treatment. He was cremated and his ashes were poured into the Ganges, the sacred river that runs through India and Bangladesh. The whales were also burned, their ashes disposed in a dump.

Decades after his deaths, Mingus remains the truest heir to Duke Ellington’s musical dynamism. That shouldn’t come as a secret. Mingus long adored the legendary composer publicly and privately, even signing on as the bassist with Ellington’s band. Ellington quickly sacked the bassist after Mingus attacked the trombonist Juan Tizol as band opened a show, a story set to legend in Mingus’s autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Published in 1971, it took Mingus almost two decades to write and did little to separate fact from fiction. The book, however, remains one of the most visceral depictions of a life in jazz.

In the spring of 1971, 22 months before Mingus recorded the show that is now offered as Jazz in Detroit/ Strata Concert Gallery/ 46 Selden, Whitney Balliett described for The New Yorker how a late era Mingus performance unfolded. “Most (songs) were done in Mingus’s customary workshop manner. When a number would start hesitantly, he would rumble, ‘No. No, no,’ and stop the music. Then the group would start again… A successful Mingus number suggests a transcontinental train rocking and blazing through the night.” As a band leader, Mingus could be overbearing, angry, and drunk, often all at once- his eggnog recipe is lionized amongst aficionados and neophytes alike. But it is his music that remains is immutable, a brawny aural juggernaut that puts caterwauling American experience to song.

Charles Mingus poses next to a poster for his six nights of performances at the Strata Gallery, Detroit.

On February 13 1973, Mingus hit the Strata Gallery stage in Detroit. Part of a local radio station’s winter pledge drive, the composer brought with him a quintet of diverse musicians, a smaller band than usual. With Roy Brooks on drums and saw (yes, a saw!), John Stubblefield on tenor saxophone, Joe Gardiner on trumpet, and Don Pullen on piano, Mingus laid out more than 4 hours of music. Half the songs are 20 minutes or more. Several more near the ½-hour mark. All but two of the eleven songs are over 15 minutes. For comparison’s sake, the original LP release of Mingus Ah Um from 1959 contained no songs over 8 and ½ minutes (the CD reissue had none longer than 9 and ¼ minutes). By 1970, Mingus was dedicated to letting it all hang out. With the right band, that could be a sublime experience, as ultimately presented here. With the wrong one, or if Mingus’s mood was fouled, performances devolved into audience chastising lectures on courtesy and respect.

Perhaps rehearsals were easier with the quintet. Perhaps Mingus was mellowing, an unannounced parcel from the yet to be diagnosed ALS robbing him of some of his mercury. In any case, the quintet was rabid, digging into the music like Mingus’s own jazz army. Their music swells and recedes, going from placid lake to cyclonic sea several times per song without tiring themselves, Mingus, or the listener.

But make note, this record that won’t solve any leftover Mingus-ian riddles. It is not a Rosetta stone that syncs Mingus’s lengthy mythology with the whales that beached themselves at his death, nor will it expand upon his supposed early years as a Californian pimp who taught himself Stravinsky’s theory of music.

Instead, Strata operates as a sort of key to Mingus’s last decade in music. Much as Coltrane’s recent posthumous offering detailed his great quartet’s swing into their most brilliant phase, Strata holds a candle up to what Mingus could produce live onstage when he stepped away from imperiousness.

At his best, Mingus could grab a council of players, assemble unity from their individual abilities and push that unification into sound brilliance. At his worst, he rumbled with autocratic distraction. Strata demonstrates the former, but allows the latter to be better understood. The knowledge of what he could do when he was firing on all cylinders could power a Mingus led failure into irredeemable vitriol.

That is exactly what happened a decade earlier.

Mingus had played with the giants — Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and as previously mentioned, Duke Ellington — before assuming a throne among them. At the dawn of the sixties, the bassist was leading his own bands. Within those outfits, Mingus’s savagery was legend. Trombonist and arranger Jimmy Knepper left Mingus’s band twice, both times after Mingus assaulted him. During one attack, Mingus landed a punch that cracked the trombonist’s tooth, catastrophically impacting Knepper’s embouchure and essentially reducing the trombonist’s ability to earn a living. Mingus didn’t apologize. Instead, he raged at Knepper for working him further into a frenzy.

Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus

That altercation came about during the lead up to the tumultuous, poorly executed Town Hall performance in 1962 where Mingus attempted the emotional and complex piece of his music known as Epitaph. The somber titled Epitaph is a sprawling masterwork the composer failed to deliver. Mingus knew he was failing in the prep. He took it out on everyone around him, including Knepper who aided the composer in pruning the thousands of measures of music into two segments for the one-night Town Hall gig. Such was Mingus’s resentment with Knepper that, well after the attack, the composer mailed a smallish packet of heroin to the trombonist, then tipped the Feds. Knepper was arrested after signing for the package. The authorities quickly realized the whole thing was a set up and Knepper wasn’t charged. . .

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