Published in Jazz Improv, V. 4, No. 1 (12/2002)
Charles 'Baron' Mingus: West Coast 1945-49, Uptown, UPCD 27.48
Uptown Records. Released 2000. Originally recorded in Los Angeles, Hollywood, and San Francisco, and released on 78s in 1945-49.
1. “The Texas Hop”; 2. “Baby, Take a Chance With Me”; 3. “Lonesome Woman Blues”; 4. “Swingin' an Echo”; 5. “Ain't Jivin' Blues”; 6. “Baby, Take a Chance With Me”; 7. “Shuffle Bass Boogie”; 8. “Weird Nightmare”; 9. “Make Believe”; 10. “Honey, Take a Chance With Me”; 11. “Bedspread”; 12. “This Subdues My Passion”; 13. “Pipe Dream”; 14. “Mingus Fingers”; 15. “These Foolish Things”; 16. “Story of Love”; 17. “He's Gone”; 18. “Pennies from Heaven”; 19. “Lyon's Roar”; 20. “Say It Isn't So”; 21. “Boppin' in Boston”; 22. “The Story of Love”; 23. “Inspiration”; 24. Arranging the intro to “He's Gone”.
Personnel: Charles Mingus, bass and vocals, and numerous others including Buddy Collette, Art Pepper, and Eric Dolphy, alto sax and clarinet; William Woodman, Lucky Thompson, and Maxwell Davis, tenor sax; Herb Caro, bari sax; Nat Bates, Karl George, and Vernon Carlson, trumpet; Britt Woodman, trombone; Richard Wyands, Robert Mosley, and Lady Will Carr, piano; Lee Young and Cal Tjader, drums; Jean McGuire, 'cello; Claude Trenier, Herb Gayle, and Helen Carr, vocals.
Review by Virginia A. Schaefer
In his introduction to this single-disc compilation, scholar and musician Andrew Homzy states that, surprisingly, this is the first CD reissue of the existing recordings that Charles Mingus made as a leader before he moved to New York in 1950. And this disc follows only one LP reissue of some pre-1950 Mingus work as a leader and player (The Young Rebel, 1986, on an Italian label). Homzy suggests that one reason for neglect of this work is technological: these recordings were shellac 78s and thus ignored by collectors, who preferred the vinyl LPs of most other "modern jazz" recordings. (Fortunately, however, the fidelity and balance of these 78s was generally good for the era.) Another possible reason for neglect is musical and regional: there's been little discographical research into West Coast jazz and R&B of post-WWII era. Homzy also provides penetrating musical and historical commentary on each selection in this invaluable release.
The first four tracks come from the two 78s recorded in 1945 under the name Charles Mingus Sextet. Three of these were composed by Mingus, and although in a popular, club-date style, all the performances show Mingus's already outstanding bass playing; as well as in his solos, the Mingus touch is evident in the finely-crafted backing lines with eighth-note and triplet fills. Homzy also points out that in the Mingus-composed jump-style piece “Texas Hop”, the saxes' background riffs are collectively improvised, a Mingus compositional hallmark.
The next releases (tracks 5-8), recorded in 1946 by the ten-piece Charles Mingus Sextette [sic], reveal more of Mingus's individuality as composer and arranger. Horn sections are skillfully voiced, often playing chromatic lines that show an Ellington influence. “Shuffle Bass Boogie”, with frenetic bass soloing and stop time, foreshadows Mingus's later “Boogie Stop Shuffle”. On “Baby, Take a Chance With Me”, Mingus showed his facility at composing a hummable tune and appealingly wistful lyrics, which Homzy speculates could have led other performers to cover this song. “Weird Nightmare”, which Mingus recorded later several times under various titles (track 13 is an example), exhibits the kind of Mingus through-composed (non-repeating) form that became characteristic of his balladic works. Weird Nightmare is also an early example of the style of Mingus lyrics that strings together commonplace, even hackneyed phrases ("paid the price of love" and "love with a heart of gold") to an effect that's surprisingly moving and sometimes surreal.
The next group of recordings (tracks 9-12) came out later in 1946 under the name Baron Mingus and His Octet, another misnamed group of ten players. The record producer coined the “Baron” nickname to suggest such jazz nobility as Count and Duke. Indeed, “Make Believe” (words and music by Mingus) has the pop-sophisticate flavor of an Ellington song; Homzy points out its harmonic and melodic resemblance to Ellington's “Everything But You”. “Baby, Take a Chance with Me” reprises the earlier “Honey, Take a Chance with Me” in a slower, more suave treatment. “This Subdues My Passion” is Ellingtonian in its voicings and chromatic lines, but with a Mingus tendency toward fast-shifting thematic material and tonal centers. Recorded on Lady Will Carr with Baron Mingus and his Octet (track 13), “Pipe Dream” is a reinterpretation of “Weird Nightmare”, without vocal and featuring Carr's deft piano. In this rendition, the slightly menacing tune is performed with a jaunty, two-step beat.
In 1948, Mingus made one record (tracks 14-15) called Baron Mingus and His Rhythm, which featured a quartet with Mingus on bass and Buddy Collette again on reeds, joined by piano and drums. “Mingus Fingers” is a bebop-style original that to me sounds like an accent-shifted version of Charlie Parker's “Moose the Mooche”, also built on “Rhythm” changes. Homzy assesses Mingus's bass improvisation here as “parallel to, but remaining a bit independent of, the established [New York] bebop movement”. On the standard “These Foolish Things”, Mingus plays the melody in a very high register for a unique effect.
In early 1949, Mingus recorded Charles 'Barron' Mingus Presents His Symphonic Airs (tracks 16-17). This jazz orchestra of about 20 players included flute and 'cello, as well the standard complement of reeds, brass, and rhythm. “Story of Love” is Mingus's first composition to make significant use of a Latin American musical style. Like the Afro-Cuban influenced works of Dizzy Gillespie's big band a little earlier (“Manteca”, “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop”), this arrangement follows a Latin-rhythm section with a strongly swinging section. In “Story of Love”, a tambourine plays clave-like rhythms throughout, setting up an ambiguity that's unsettling (Homzy calls the tambourine “annoying”). Rather than Afro-Cuban, Mingus was influenced more by the Mexican music that derives partly from Spanish flamenco; compare his later work “Ysabel's Table Dance” with its use of castanets. On the other side, “He's Gone” introduced another innovation in its truly symphonic arrangement of 'cello, flute, clarinet, and bari sax in the intro and interludes. Incidentally, the last track on the CD is from a tape of Mingus composing a bit of this material in cooperation with the songwriter Ralph Manza; this offers a rare opportunity to listen in on Mingus's compositional process.
Slightly afterward, he recorded Barron [sic] Mingus and His Rhythm (tracks 18-19). As well as Mingus on bass, the group comprised bari sax, piano, drums, and voice. The unusual downtempo rendition of “Pennies from Heaven” recalls a little of the off-kilter and ironic approach that Thelonious Monk brought to standard tunes. Slightly later, another record was made as Baron Mingus and His Rhythm (tracks 20-21). Despite the similar group name, other than Mingus the personnel was entirely different, on trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, piano, drums, and vocal. Mingus also contributed some competent scat singing to “Boppin' in Boston”.
The last record sides in the collection (tracks 22-23) were made in spring 1949 under the name Charlie Mingus and His 22 Piece Bebop Band (Stan Kenton's Sidemen). The “bebop” in the title was the misleading contribution of a record producer who perceived a market for that style. This large jazz orchestra, most of whom had indeed worked with Kenton, masterfully executed (although hampered by under-rehearsal) a more polished arrangement of “The Story of Love”. They also performed Mingus's “Inspiration”, an ambitious work (long enough to require two sides) with lush voicings that often push horns into precariously high regions. This is an excellent example of Mingus's absorption of late- or post-Romantic-era compositional styles; Homzy cites Scriabin, Richard Strauss, and Mahler as possible influences. Mingus recorded “Inspiration” again later as “God's Portrait” and yet again, with lyrics, as “Portrait”.
More on Mingus's World
The hefty enclosed booklet includes lots more background information. Preceding Homzy's introduction (which starts on page 74) is a long essay by Robert E. Sunenblick, who co-produced the reissue with Chuck Nessa. The enclosure also suggests some books on Mingus, including the excellent Charles Mingus: A Critical Biography, by Brian Priestley; see Chapter 2 for a cogent account of his musical development in the late '40s. It also lists Mingus web sites, notably the one posting Stefano Zenni's penetrating analysis of early Mingus works, cited by Homzy in his notes.
Sunenblick's essay describes the South Central Avenue area of Los Angeles, in the post-war years a thriving black neighborhood with a number of lively jazz clubs, where Mingus played with his first regular group, a trio called Strings and Keys. The account then turns to lengthy and sometimes digressive descriptions of the five small companies that recorded Mingus – their founders, musicians they recorded, and others that those musicians played with. After that, a section of musician bios summarizes (and often duplicates) some of the preceding material. There are numerous photographs, mainly of the musicians but also of the labels on all the records sides in the collection.
This background material, although hard to follow at times, does compellingly evoke the people and trends that helped shape the life and work of Charles Mingus. Of the many musicians who contributed to the performances in this compilation, several are singled out for the quality and importance of their work: tenor sax player Buddy Collette, who skillfully handled the jump-band solos; smooth singer Claude Trenier; gifted bari sax player Herb Caro, who died at 22 of a drug overdose; steadfast drummer Lee Young, brother of Lester Young; singer and record company cofounder Herb Gayle, whose musical career never took off; trombonist Britt Woodman, known for his work with Ellington; tenor sax soloist William Woodman, brother of Britt; songwriter Ralph Manza, who later had a successful career as movie and TV actor.
Sunenblick offers testimonials and photographic evidence that Lady Will Carr was indeed a woman (some had believed her name a pseudonym for Billy Strayhorn), who in addition to her notable work with Mingus played with several other women jazz musicians in the '40s and '50s. The bio of trumpeter Karl George, soloist with the Mingus Octet, tells that he turned down offers to work with Cab Calloway and Count Basie in order to play and record with the Stan Kenton band as its first black member, an occurrence unusual enough to be noted in Down Beat. George went on to work with Basie, Lucky Thompson, Dinah Washington, and with Mingus again; but after the late '40s his life spiraled downward for unknown reasons and he died sometime in the '50s.
These stories are arguably only tangential to the early output of Charles Mingus, but they may well resonate with the listener who wants to understand the opportunities and obstacles faced by Mingus in the world in which he worked and developed.