1. HAITIAN FIGHT SONG (11:57)
2. BLUE CEE (7:48)
3. REINCARNATION OF A LOVEBIRD (8:31)
4. THE CLOWN (12:29)
THE CHARLES MINGUS JAZZ WORKSHOP
CHARLES MINGUS: BASS
SHAFI HADI: ALTO & TENOR SAXES
JIMMY KNEPPER: TROMBONE
WADE LEGGE: PIANO
DANNIE RICHMOND: DRUMS
The narration on The Clown is improvised by JEAN SHEPHERD
Shafi Hadi plays tenor sax on The Clown and alto sax on the other selections.
Recorded on March 12, 1957, at Atlantic Studios, New York, N.Y.
Recording engineer: Tom Dowd Original monaural recordings.
The Clown was recorded on February 13, 1957, at Audio-Video Studios, New York, N.Y.
Recording engineers: Larry Hiller & Tom Dowd.
PRODUCED BY NESUHI ERTEGUN
All the selections were composed by Charles Mingus and are published by Jazz Workshop, Inc., BMI.
Hand coloring: Curtice Taylor
Photography: Giuseppe Pino
Art direction and Design: Bob Defrin
The album was first released in 1961 as Atlantic 1260.
Some weeks ago, for no reason at all but curiosity and pleasure, I listened for several days to nothing but Charles Mingus recordings from the 1950's, What particularly struck me was how fresh the music continues to be. Since Mingus was never modish and therefore never fell into idioms that were "hip" at the moment, his musical voice was and still is ertirely, compellingly his. But also, as I listened through the hours, I heard more true originality, more boldness of line and colors and rhythms, and more depth of all kinds of emotions than I hear in much of what is regarded as "advanced" jazz in the 1980's.
Mingus does indeed live. And I don't mean that sentimentally. Like the sounds and meanings of Duke Ellington, Charles Ives, Thelonious Monk, and not many other musicians, Mingus's work survives its creator in ways that reverberate backward and forward in history.
Like The Clown survives. I wrote the original liner notes, and I remember playing the acetate over and over, sometimes yelling out in delight and wonder and the myriad other feelings Mingus awakens. One of the things I mentioned, because Mingus often talked about it, was tradition. As can be said of every authentic original in any field, Mingus very well knew where he came from and what influences he had absorbed before he went on to transcend them. And so, in 1951, when he was 29 but was already unmistakeably Mingus, he wrote in a letter to critic Ralph Gleason something that also recalls T. S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent:
"There is something to be learned from every score of the great composers, old and modern: each page bears evidence to the musical tightrope walker that he has looked only at his tiny rope, not realizing that men have not only walked ropes years before him, but tiny threads - perhaps the water."
Mingus listened to all kinds of tightrope walkers. Every once in a while, the phone would ring, and I'd hear music. No introduction of either the caller or the sounds. After a while, Mingus would come on the line. "What'd you think of that?" Sometimes it was a new piece by him, sometimes it was music from long, long ago. Always, it was music that took chances.
But he also thought a lot about the individual talent within the tradition. He thought about it when he picked musicians for his groups. He wanted players who were themselves. Or, as he told me in 1953 in Boston during an interview for DownBeat:
"We've now fallen into standardization. Great artists like Bird, Ives, Dizzy, Max Roach, Jimmy Blanton, and Charlie Christian have worked and suffered to develop their own style. Then the copyists come, singing their praises while stealing their phrases. And worse yet, these copyists have more success than the creative artists from whom they have stolen."
Mingus went on to say that the only way he could deal with that kind of thievery was to be unyieldingly himself in his music - all the time. And since his music was an intricate gestalt of his instrumental virtuosity: his compositions; and the way he showed his musicians how to enter deeply into those compositions; it has been hard to steal from him.
Three years later, also in Down Beat, Mingus wrote An Open Letter to Miles Davis which turns out to have been the basic credo of his own life:
"I write or play me, the way I feel, through jazz, or whatever. Music is, or was, a language of the emotions. If someone has been escaping reality, I don't expect him to dig my music.” My music is alive and it's about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It's angry, yet it's real because it knows it's angry.”
As I look at that again, I remember scores of nights in clubs with listeners finding out just how real Mingus's music was. Some could barely handle it: some exulted in it. That music was also a powerful experience for most of his sidemen - unlike any they'd ever had in a band. People changed after they played for and with Mingus.
As for the music on this album, this is what he told me back then:
"Haitian Fight Song, to begin with, could just as well be called Afro-American Fight Song. It has a folk spirit, the kind of folk music I've always heard anyway. It has some of the old Church feeling too. I was raised a Methodist but there was a Holiness church on the corner, and some of the feeling of their music, which was wilder, got into our music.
"There's a moaning feeling too in those church modes. Try a song like Dizzy's Woodyn' You, for example, and make some changes. Fit a church minor mode into the chord structure, and you'll hear what I mean.
"I'd say this song has a contemporary folk feeling. My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can't play it right unless I'm thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There's sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling: 'I told them! I hope somebody heard me.’
"Blue Cee," said Mingus, "is a standard blues. It's in two keys - C and Bb - but that's not noticeable and it ends up basically in C. I heard some Basie in it and also some church-like feeling.”
Mingus started to explain Reincarnation of a Lovebird this way: "I wouldn't say I set out to write a piece on Bird. I knew, when I first started writing it, that it was a mournful thing. Suddenly, I realized it was Bird! Then, on developing the piece, we tried to play little things that would bring back that era.
"I like the line a lot," Mingus added. "I think it can be played in different ways. I think it cries. It's mainly about my misunderstanding Bird. I never thought that he might not have thought he was as great as everybody said he was.”
Mingus and I talked about a desolate, terrifying night at Birdland shortly before Bird died in 1955. The band had included Bird, Bud Powell, and Mingus. I was in the audience. There were acute dissonances, musical and personal, between Bird and Bud that evening. and at one point, Mingus announced over the microphone that he was disassociating himself from what had been going on.
"Bird came back later that night." Mingus told me for the first time. "And he kissed me on the cheek. He said, 'I know you love me.’
And I did. It was Bird who'd called me out of the post office in December, 1951, when I had almost decided to stay there. And Bird encouraged me about my writing. He never mentioned whether he thought my bass playing was good or bad, but he always thought I was a good writer. In California in the mid '40's, he heard a poem-with-music I'd written, The Chill of Death. He heard it in the studio: they never released it. Bird said that was the sort of thing I should keep on doing, and that I shouldn't be discouraged.
"In one way, Reincarnation of a Lovebird isn't like him. It's built on long lines, and most of Bird's pieces were built on short lines. But this piece is my feeling about Bird. I feIt like crying when I wrote it. If everybody could play it the way I felt it! The altoist did. Finally."
The Clown has improvised narration by Jean Shepherd who at the time was active on the New York jazz and was also a truly original radio improviser - his instruments being memory, desire, and a very singular imagination that made his wordscapes unlike no one else's on the air.
Mingus told me how The Clown had originated:
"I felt happy one day. I was playing a little tune on the piano that sounded happy. Then I hit a dissonance that sounded sad, and I realized that the song had to have two parts, The story, as I told it first to Jean Shepherd, is about a clown who tried to please people – like most jazz musicians do - but whom nobody liked until he was dead. My version of the story ended with the clown's blowing his brains out, with the people laughing and finally being pleased because they thought it was part of the act. I liked the way Jean changed the ending; it leaves more up to the listener.
"We rehearsed once at my house, and then did it in the studio. His narration changed every time. He improvised within the story. As for the musicians, Jimmy is the leader in this piece. We play around what he does. When we do a work in a place where we have no narration, Jimmy is the clown."
Jimmy Knepper, along with drummer Dannie Richmond, were the two musicians through the Mingus years who brought exceptional ingenuity and passion to Mingus' music while also becoming integral parts of it. Wade Legge had been with Dizzy Gillespie before joining Mingus, Shafi Hadi (Curtis Porter) had had extensive rhythm and blues experience; working with Mingus was his first jazz engagement. At the time, after making this record, he said, "I think more jazz groups should tell stories like Mingus does, instead of just playing notes and techniques."
And those stories, as in all the works in this set, are so strong, so real, so full of life that Mingus' music has not faded a bit since these tales were first conceived. Indeed, they have become more and more vivid with time, for they keep speaking for and through generations who come to them new.
- NAT HENTOFF