Remembering the magic of Mingus

Two giants of the double bass – one dead, one very much alive – combine to celebrate the centenary of the troubled genius that was Charles Mingus

Thursday, 31st March — By Rob Ryan

Photo by Tom Copi, copyright Jazz Workshop, Inc. (1.8M)

Charles Mingus. Photo: www.charlesmingus.com

JAZZ has a big birthday to celebrate in April: Charles Mingus is 100. Or he would have been if a degenerative neurological disease hadn’t taken him at the age of just 57.

There will be many celebrations of his life coming up, but perhaps none so heartfelt as that from Gary Crosby OBE, co-founder of the Jazz Warriors collective and, along with his partner Janine Irons MBE, of Tomorrow’s Warriors, the teaching/ mentoring programme which has gifted us so many of the current young jazz stars.

I asked Crosby why Mingus appeared to be less well known outside the jazz community than figures such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. “There isn’t anybody in the jazz world who doesn’t appreciate him,” he says. “Outside of that? Not as much as he should be. It isn’t always easy music. If you don’t play it right, it can sound flat. It’s emotional music. And the subject matter is sometimes difficult.”

As was the man. The politically engaged Mingus was forthright and confrontational about the overt and covert racism in America and how the word “jazz” was used to put the musicians down.

“The word jazz means discrimination, second-class citizenship, the back-of-the-bus bit,” Crosby says.

It also riled him that less talented (and usually white) musicians were better known and better paid. He once pinned a note to the back of producer Bob Thiele’s chair with a knife that said: Where the f*** is my money. Mingus. Actually, he didn’t have to sign it. Only Mingus would do such a thing.

“But you know the punks liked his music and a lot of rock and pop people got it,” says Crosby. “Joni Mitchell did an album dedicated to him, working with him just before he died.”

Mitchell once claimed that the record also killed her career, but it has since been re-appraised. “Yes, we are looking to do something on Joni and Mingus later in the year at the London Jazz Festival,” says Crosby.

Gary Crosby

Elvis Costello actually toured with the Mingus Big Band (after the leader was long gone) in the 2000s; Ray Davies made a film about him (in which Keith Richards and Charlie Watts perform the horribly apposite Oh, Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me); and David Bowie always put Mingus’s Oh Yeah in his list of top albums (and borrowed the not-too PC refrain “wham bam, thank you ma’am” from it). It seems Mingus had lots of musician admirers outside of jazz.

“His compositions are remarkably powerful,” says Crosby. “The thing is, everything he did, he did with passion, energy and full commitment. He could get angry if things didn’t match up to his standards.”

He seemed to have a habit of punching his trombone players if things went awry. “He could be volatile,” admits Crosby.
So, where to begin explor­ing a music that incorporates Ellington, Parker, gospel, blues, the European classical tradition, New Orleans marching bands, free improvisation and the sound of the Mexican mariachi? Not to mention beautiful ballads. Crosby rates Black Saint and The Sinner Lady very highly: “Number three in my all-time albums. It was meant to be a ballet. I’d love to be able to get it choreographed one day.”

Then, Tijuana Moods, which Mingus once said was his best record, East Coasting (which features the great pianist Bill Evans) and Mingus Moves. “That is the album we’ll be doing in full when we play the Pizza Express Soho on Mingus’s actual birthday. There’ll be some vocals too, a few guests and some other tunes not on that album.”

We are promised the poignant and harmonically complex Goodbye Pork Pie Hat aka Theme for Lester Young, for example. “We are doing the show workshop style,” he adds.

“Workshop style” was how Mingus liked to operate his concerts, almost a live rehearsal, polishing and encouraging the band as he went along, not afraid to halt a piece and begin again. Just as long as Crosby doesn’t start throwing punches like a frustrated Mingus would. “That’s very unlikely,” he chuckles.

It will be a very special gig for Gary Crosby, one of the most popular men on the jazz scene for the past 30-odd years, because it is an important milestone on his journey of recovering from a stroke in 2018. Surely Mingus is a jump in at the very deep end at this stage, given the prominent role for the bass in all his music?

“It will be a challenge. There’s a lot of technical, very sophisticated stuff,” Crosby admits. “But I also have some great people who have been helping me through this. I’ll be ready.” I bet he will.

The Gary Crosby Sextet presents ‘Mingus Moves’ is at the Pizza Express Soho on April 22, 8pm. www.pizzaexpresslive.com/whats-on

• Talking of Tomorrow’s Warriors, two of its best-known alumni, Binker Golding and Moses Boyd, are playing The Underworld in Camden on April 14.

They are an unlikely success story – a sax/drum duo of uncompromising intensity, they have brought relatively freeform but beat-driven jazz to young ears and feet (yes, people dance to them).

The duo’s latest album, Feeding the Machine, features modular synths and loops from Max Luthert, bringing new textures to their sonic palette. I saw that show at Ronnie Scott’s and it was a blast from beginning to end, although some of the audience looked a little shell-shocked by the melody-free onslaught.

Binker and Moses have very successful individual careers, but together, and especially live, is where their fire burns brightest for me. Tickets: https://www.theunderworldcamden.co.uk

The pair also play the GALA festival at Peckham Rye Park (June 2-4, tickets: ra.co/events/1474551) which has a plenty of jazz in its mix, including crowd-pleasers Joe Armon-Jones, Nubya Garcia and Sons of Kemet.

Incidentally, one of Peckham’s own, Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu), plays Ronnie Scott’s on April 28, bringing his distinctive of-the-minute brand of electronic jazz-funk to the hallowed hall of Frith Street with a band featuring highly rated French trumpeter Tanguy Jouanjan (ronniescotts.co.uk).

Binker Golding has a solo outing as part of the Brick Lane Jazz Festival from April 22-24, which is focused on the Truman Brewery but spread over several indoor venues.

Some of this column’s other favourites are appearing – Kansas Smitty’s, drummer Jas Kayser, bassist Daniel Casimir, the Banger Factory with trumpeter Mark Kavuma, Empirical’s Jay Phelps (a DJ set with live trumpet) and jazz/electronica/Afrobeat boffins Blue Lab Beats. Day and weekend tickets are available: see https://www.bricklanejazzfestival.com/programme-tickets

Blue Lab Beats also appear in the new Late Night Jazz series (although 9.30pm isn’t that late in jazz time) at the Elgar Room in the Royal Albert Hall with an expanded line up, playing “Orchestral Jazztronica”, no less (April 15).

The programme includes keyboard player and singer Renato Paris, who is a member of Moses Boyd’s Exodus project (April 21) and trumpeter Paul Higgs exploring the music that Miles Davis created from the 40s to 90s (May 26). https://www.royalalberthall.com/about-the-hall/the-elgar-room/

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