Charles Mingus - bass, composition; Bob Neloms - piano; Ricky Ford - tenor saxophone; Jack Walrath - trumpet; Dannie Richmond - drums
"I'm starting to categorize these motherfuckers," Mingus declared to the audience during one of his extemporaneous rants from the stage at the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, France on July 13, 1977. He went on to say, "Last night, Benny Carter didn't want to play with us and tonight Zoot Sims doesn't want to play with us, so fuck him too."
You always knew where you stood with Mingus. He never pulled punches and he always put it out there strong. At this moment in time, just a few months before doctors diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis --known more commonly as Lou Gehrig's disease - and a year before he would become wheelchair-bound and unable to play the bass anymore, the legendary bandleader and composer was still on top of his game. Playing with typical power and swagger, Mingus led a quintet featuring pianist Bob Neloms, tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford, trumpeter Jack Walrath and his longtime drummer Dannie Richmond through a vibrant set at the Grande Parade du Jazz on the French Riviera. The most significant aspect of this concert in the South of France, which takes on a very casual vibe and proceeds with copious amounts of tuning as well as false starts, was the presentation of a new Latin-tinged Mingus piece, "Cumbia & Jazz Fusion," an important latter day work in his massive oeuvre that was inspired by a trip to Columbia, where the heard the national music called cumbia.
Neloms kicks off the concert with a touch of the lyrical "Slow Waltz" (a solo piano piece from the 1978 album Cumbia & Jazz Fusion). It is followed by a series of on-stage banter, tuning and false starts before the sextet tackles the epic "Cumbia & Jazz Fusion." Walrath and Ford are turned loose on top of the hypnotic cumbia groove, and they wail in uninhibited call-and-response fashion throughout, building to a cacophonous flurry midway through the 16-minute piece. A couple of mood changes has the piece traveling through an up-tempo swing section and a more luxurious balladic section before Mingus heads into a spirited, politically-tinged parody of the traditional plantation song "Shortnin' Bread."
Mingus' multi-faceted mini-suite, "Three or Four Shades of Blues" opens with a Bird-influenced head featuring tight, tricky unison lines between trumpet and tenor sax. From there it goes into some quaint solo piano by Neloms that gradually develops into a raucous bebop jam for the pianist to wail over. Walrath is then showcased on some muted trumpet work on a Latin flavored segment that evolves into a spirited jamming vehicle for Ford and Walrath. Mingus follows with a deep-toned bass solo over a Basie-esque blues refrain before returning to the bebop motif that provides a launching pad for another hot tenor solo by Ford. And they put a bow on the proceedings with a direct quote from Mendelssohn's "The Wedding March" to conclude the complex piece (which was also the title track of Mingus' 1977 Atlantic Record album).
Next up is a dramatic run through the Mingus staple, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," the bassist's melancholy homage to the late tenor sax icon, Lester Young. Walrath's trumpet solo here is nothing short of brilliant. He is followed in order by Neloms, Ford and Mingus himself, who turns in a moving solo on this most oft-covered of all of his compositions. Mingus' resounding, blues-drenched solo that opens the earthy shuffle-swing number, "Devil's Blues," is another late period example of his profound bass playing. And they close out the set in blazing bebop fashion with a torrid take on Ray Noble's "Cherokee," an old jamming vehicle from the Swing era. (Note how the tune cleverly opens and closes with a quote from Charlie Parker's 1945 bebop anthem, "Koko").
One of the most prolific composers in jazz, second only to Duke Ellington for the sheer scope and range of his writing (trios, quintets, big bands and full orchestras), Charles Mingus amassed a body of work from the early '50s through the late '70s that ranks him as one of the greats in the history of the music. In fact, Mingus' compositional prowess tended to overshadow his formidable bass playing skills. Born on April 22, 1922 in Nogales, Arizona, he grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Beginning on trombone and cello, he took up double bass in high school and studied with jazz bassist Red Callender and a former bass player with the NY Philharmonic Orchestra, Herman Rheinschagen.
Mingus worked with Barney Bigard's ensemble in 1942 and toured with Louis Armstrong big band the following year. But it wasn't until he joined Lionel Hampton's band in 1947 that he finally found himself in the recording studio (he's featured on his own composition "Mingus Fingers" on a Hampton recording for the Decca label).
Mingus later gained national recognition as a member of Red Norvo's trio with guitarist Tal Farlow from 1950-51. Following a move to New York City in 1952, he worked everyone from Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie to Art Tatum and Bud Powell. He also formed his own Debut Records with Max Roach and in 1953 their label documented an historic concert at Massey Hall in Toronto with himself on bass, Roach on drums, Powell on piano, Parker on alto sax and Gillespie on trumpet. Mingus also had a brief stint in the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1953 (he was one of the musicians to ever be personally fired by Duke). By the mid 1950s, he began to thrive as a composer on the strength of such acclaimed recordings as 1956's Pithecanthropus Erectus, 1957's The Clown. But it was 1959 -- a remarkably fertile year in which he produced three gems in Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty - that certified his place in jazz history.
A disastrous Town Hall concert in 1962 had Mingus over-reaching with an under-rehearsed band on some exceedingly difficult orchestral music (which was posthumously performed, recorded and released as Epitaph). Mingus had some triumphs through the '60s and '70s, including The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (both in 1963), Changes One and Changes Two (both in 1974) and 1977's Three or Four Shades of Blues. One of his last recordings was collaboration with Joni Mitchell on her 1979 Asylum album, Mingus. By then, he was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and was wheelchair-bound during the sessions. He died on January 5, 1979, before the album was completed, at age 56. But his rich legacy lives on through his music, which continues to be performed every Monday night at The Jazz Standard in New York City by the Mingus Big Band, which is supervised by his widow, Sue Mingus. (Bill Milkowski)