By the mid-fifties, Mingus had a fearsome reputation as a bassist, but I wonder what people thought of him as a composer? We know he’d been writing since he was young, and his early output is ‘interesting’, but that’s perhaps all it is. He tried to emulate the swing sound of the forties, and didn’t seem to achieve the lightness of touch of the greats of that era; he wrote pop music, but there were others who far better at that than him. My guess is that his contemporaries had huge admiration for his bass playing, but were less impressed by his compositions- bemused, perhaps.
But the music had been gestating within him for two or three decades (or possibly more, if you believe Mingus’s hyperbole) and, in ’57, it came out, came to fruition, exploded, in an intense eight-year period of creativity almost unrivalled within jazz, after which Mingus was so exhausted, he didn’t perform or record for several years.
Think of it: in 1957, Mingus recorded several fantastic- classic- albums: The Clown, Tijuana Moods, East Coasting and the lesser, but worthy “A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry” along with true gem Mingus Three. In one year!
Yes, he took a year off in 1958 but then: 1959! Many say “Ah Um” was Mingus’s greatest album, but it wasn’t even his best album that year! That, of course, was Blues and Roots, with Mingus Dynasty also shining. These albums, for a lesser musician, would have crowned an entire career.
Inventiveness and beauty poured from Mingus in the years that followed: Mingus Revisited, At Antibes, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Oh Year, Tonight at Noon, The ’62 Town Hall Concert, The Birdland Broadcasts, The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, then, in ’64, many wonderful, truly wonderful, large-scale live recordings, reaching a peak- in jazz, not just for Mingus, in the early hours of 19 April 1964 in Paris, followed not long after by the triumph of Monterey….
…but preceded by Eric Dolphy’s tragic and untimely death.
A while ago, I read Robin D G Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk. In it, Kelley tells how the critics became frustrated with Monk re-using the same tunes, again and again. I can understand this contemporary view but, for me, this was Monk’s great strength: in some period before he made records, he forged his own sound, and never deviated from that path. In the 70s he sounded way ahead of his time and completely original- but he sounded that way in ’47 when he recorded “‘Round Midnight.”
Look at Mingus’s output from ’57 to ’64. Every album is different! Not just different tunes, but a whole different outlook, and yet distinctly Mingus! We have the privilege, looking back, to view this period in context and, with this consideration, it surprises me not at all that he took a break from music towards then end of the 60s.
So, why 12 March 1957? Because, on that date, Mingus, along with newly-acquired drummer Dannie Richmond, Wade Legge, Shafi Hadi and that aristocrat of the trombone Jimmy Knepper, recorded “Haitian Fight Song”: to me, the first authentically Mingusian recording. Nothing before, for me, had quite fulfilled Mingus’s desires, and there was no period that followed in which Mingus, despite the odd mis-step, ever really let me down.
Mingus came back from his musical hiatus of the late sixties and produced music the equal of anything he’d done previously, but that’s a story for another day. However, if you read this, think back sixty years ago to the very day when thousands of hours of practice, hundreds of gigs and handfuls of callouses gave birth to one of jazz’s, America’s, the world’s greatest musicians