A More Complete Introduction to Mingus

Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

Ken Burns’ “Jazz” seems to have resulted in conflicting attitudes not all that dissimilar from those associated with the recent national election. Many are enthusiastic about their first widespread exposure to the music, its history and many (but not all) of its major practitioners. And that’s all to the good for jazz.

Others have concentrated on the documentary’s many flaws, omissions and narrow view of the music’s parameters. But that might be to the good, as well, if it means that subsequent attention given to the omissions brings more attention to deserving jazz artists.

Charles Mingus was not omitted. It would be hard to imagine how that could have been possible. But he certainly wasn’t granted the status the documentary accorded its primary jazz composer, Duke Ellington, or, for that matter, Thelonious Monk. Yet one could make a convincing case that Mingus--as a composer and instrumentalist--reached a comparable level of achievement and accomplishment.


Mingus’ extraordinary body of work stretches from the late 1940s to the late ‘70s, virtually all of it high quality, despite often unsettled recording situations and, in the last years, deteriorating health. Although he did not have the good fortune--as did Ellington--to have a consistently available group of familiar musicians at his beck and call, his recordings are notable for their blending of inventive spontaneity and well-crafted compositional organization. Mingus had a justified reputation for being difficult to work with, and there are numerous tales--many of them true--of verbal and physical altercations with musicians and audiences.

But it was probably his passionate intensity, a drive to transform his visionary ideas into the hard facts of performance reality, that made his music such an extraordinary combination of accessible melody, driving rhythms and insistent social statement. His live performances were often delivered in chaotic settings, but they were never dull. And his recordings could easily serve as the passionately interactive soundtrack for the unfolding civil rights developments of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Should he have been more prominent in “Jazz”? Yes, of course. There are those, this writer included, who see Mingus and Monk as the paired successors to Ellington. It’s probably reducing a complex association to near simplicity, but look at it this way: Monk’s efforts were an extension of the songwriting, theme-creating Ellington, while Mingus’ music enhanced and elaborated on the Ellington approach to ensemble composition. And there are some angry observers--this writer not among them--who have suggested that the relatively short emphasis on Mingus actually reflects Wynton Marsalis’ influence on Burns, and Marsalis’ desire to leave the post-Ellington throne unoccupied and thereby available for his own ascendancy.

Whatever the case, and with or without Burns’ imprimatur, we have the Mingus recordings, as well as his remarkably colorful autobiography, “Beneath the Underdog.” The cross-label compilation “Ken Burns Jazz Collection: Charles Mingus” (****, Sony/Columbia) is an invaluable single-CD introduction. It includes such classics as “Haitian Fight Song,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Original Faubus Fables,” “Better Git It in Your Soul” and “Peggy’s Blue Skylight.”

Two other reissues are arriving this month, adding even more dimension to the rich tapestry of Mingus’ recorded accomplishments: “The Very Best of Charles Mingus” (****, Rhino/Atlantic Jazz Gallery) and “A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry With Charles Mingus” (*** 1/2, Bethlehem Archives).

The Rhino collection also includes “Haitian Fight Song,” as well as “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” “Tonight at Noon,” “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” and the exuberantly rhythmic “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.” Aside from the sheer inventiveness of the music, a sense of life and spirit invests each of the performances, their impact driven by Mingus’ sheer creative force.


The Bethlehem album is a bit more problematic. Neither a symposium nor poetry, it includes “Scenes in the City,” an extended work with a narrative text by Langston Hughes and Lonne Elder III, delivered by actor Melvin Stewart. Fascinating in its intent, it doesn’t quite succeed as a complete work, but it’s a shame that Mingus didn’t pursue more efforts in this genre--clearly one that allowed an unusual latitude for his imagination. The balance of the album consists of lesser-known Mingus originals and some tracks not included in the original release.

A pair of new reissues from two other artists who are prominently featured in Burns’ “Jazz” are worth noting. The selections in Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” (****, Capitol Jazz) have been affecting jazz players and composers virtually since they first arrived in 1949 and 1950 (at that time on 78-rpm singles and 45-rpm “extended play” recordings). This particular release has been considerably enhanced by engineer Rudy Van Gelder using the sessions’ original tape masters rather than, as with previous editions--including one from just three years ago--the initial 12-inch LP release from 1957. (The collection is subtitled the “RVG Edition.”) The results are what sound like enhanced clarity and a better balance that bring even more life to such superb, still-irresistible items as Denzil Best’s boppish “Move,” Davis and Gil Evans’ “Boplicity,” George Wallington’s “Godchild” and Johnny Carisi’s dark-toned “Israel” (in arrangements by Mulligan, Carisi, Evans and John Lewis).

Artie Shaw, still going strong at 90, made some of the most trenchant observations in the entire Burns documentary. RCA Victor is now supplementing his remarks with “The Very Best of Artie Shaw” (****), an 18-track program encompassing Shaw recordings from 1938 to 1945. The expected items are here--”Begin the Beguine,” “Stardust” (with Shaw’s stunningly beautiful solo) and “Concerto for Clarinet.” But there also is “Any Old Time,” with a Billie Holiday vocal, as well as the lesser-known “The Maid With the Flaccid Air,” an unusual Eddie Sauter piece reflecting Shaw’s continuing desire to stretch the envelope of popular music.