JAZZ REVIEW : Mingus’ ‘Epitaph’ Premieres at Hollywood Bowl


The West Coast premiere of Charles Mingus’ “Epitaph,” heard Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl as performed by a 31-piece orchestra with Gunther Schuller conducting, has been variously advertised as Mingus’ “symphony,” a “monumental work” and a “lifetime composition” that took him 30 years to complete.

That it fits none of these characterizations is not surprising when one considers the extent to which it was adapted, revised, added to and subtracted from over the years by Schuller, Andrew Homzy and possibly others. “Memos From Mingus” might have been a more apt title for the work, supposedly 18 or 19 sections long and running to more than two hours in its original form.

As heard Wednesday, it consisted of 80 minutes and nine parts, whose relationship to one another in most cases was either nonexistent or difficult to determine on this single hearing.


Originally known as a master bassist, Mingus became a composer who, had he been well disciplined and more versed in the art of orchestration along the lines of Duke Ellington, whom he idolized, could well have produced a cohesive masterpiece. What Schuller presented was as short on interrelationship as it was memorable themes.

Soon after the main statement came a passage billed as “Started Melody,” actually a complex series of variations on the chords of “I Can’t Get Started.” This led to a revision of “Better Get It in Your Soul,” a single track from a 1959 Mingus album.

Later came “Monk Bunk, and Vice Versa,” its main theme strongly reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” Next was “Wolverine Blues,” which was actually composed and recorded by Jelly Roll Morton in 1923, the year after Mingus was born.

Which, then, was this--symphony or synthesis? Perhaps more compilation than composition? Yet there were moments, particularly in a passage that seemed to be called “Interlude,” when skill and beauty was displayed in the writing and arranging.

Scattered through the work were many improvised solos by Craig Handy on saxophone, Joel Locke on vibes and Kirk Lightsey on piano, among others. One movement even involved a recitative, “This Mule Ain’t From Moscow.”

Mingus, who died in 1979, evidently had a dream of becoming the next Ellington. Had he lived and concentrated more fully on organized personal creativity, perhaps his unfinished dream might have come closer to realization.


Opening for “Epitaph” was a trio set, possibly the weakest ever presented by one of the finest saxophonists of the contemporary seen, Branford Marsalis. With no piano, a great but often excessive drama, and composition of little or no melodic interest, Marsalis fell far below his normal high standards. Attendance was 10,634.