Charles Mingus - bass, compositions; George Adams - tenor sax; Ron Hampton - trumpet, flugelhorn; Don Pullen - piano; Doug Hammond - drums
For the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival in New York City, George Wein put on a series of concerts at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. With help from the Harlem Cultural Center, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, and a few corporate sponsors, Wein showcased great jazz artists for three nights in the historic venue where Ella Fitzgerald won her first talent contest as an aspiring 17-year-old singer in 1934, before joining Chick Webb's band and where James Brown had recorded his classic Live at the Apollo in 1962. Tickets prices were set at $2 for this event, with three bands appearing on the bill each night. But as Wein noted in his autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music: "We barely sold any tickets. It took this discouraging experience to teach me that the artists who could fill Carnegie Hall were no necessarily marquee attractions in Harlem. Aretha would have sold out. But our jazz artists floundered."
Nevertheless, there was plenty of world-class jazz to be had in those three days, including this set by the Charles Mingus Quintet. Simultaneously broadcast on WRVR, New York's sole commercial jazz radio station from 1961 to 1980, this brief performance by Mingus' quintet kicks off with his "Fables of Faubus," a politically-charged protest song aimed at Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 sent out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African American teenagers. The piece originally appeared on Mingus' 1959 landmark, Mingus Ah Um, and remained in his band book up until his final performances in the mid-'70s. George Adams digs in here on a particularly galvanizing outré tenor sax solo while drummer Doug Hammond's insistently swinging pulse drives the band. (Hammond is mistakenly called 'Dave' by announcer and WRVR host Ed Beach, and there is no explanation given as to why Mingus' longtime drummer Dannie Richmond is not on this gig). Don Pullen's whirlwind solo, somewhat in the vein of Cecil Taylor's more avant garde-ish explorations on the keyboard, is a highlight on this 15-minute opener. Trumpeter Ron Hampton follows with some heat of his own in the upper register, and Mingus turns in a potent bass solo of his own on this classic number.
Next up is a mellow rendition of perhaps Mingus' most famous composition, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." A melancholy paean to the late, great saxophonist Lester Young, this haunting piece also first appeared on his 1959 landmark, Mingus Ah Um, and has since become an oft-recorded jazz anthem, covered by everyone from Horace Parlan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Gil Evans to Joni Mitchell, John McLaughlin, and Jeff Beck. Adams' bold, probing tenor solo, teeming with fierce blowing in the altissimo register, is gripping here. Pullen settles into a soulful vibe on his piano solo, occasionally rolling his fingers around on the keys in his signature fashion, pushing the envelope as he continues to explore the harmonic fabric of the piece. Hampton adds an especially lyrical touch to the mournful proceedings on flugelhorn before Pullen's glistening arpeggios inspire him to take it 'out.'
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 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 a 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 a 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. (Milkowski)