Jazz’s ‘Angry Man’: a portrait of late bassist Charles Mingus

The class was called “The Music of Charles Mingus,” yet it could have been equally well-labeled “The Music of the Human Experience.” Charles Mingus, the man around whom the class revolved, truly experienced it all; from growing up in poverty, to international stardom in the 1960s, from periods of perfect clarity of mind and bouts of pure genius, to nearly a decade of total alienation and bitter disillusionment, Mingus left a legacy of innovation that continues to influence jazz today.

He was a musical Renaissance man who turned away from the bebop establishment in the1940s to define his own style. He was a fervent revolutionary who fought racism and persecution in the music industry. He was jazz’s “Angry Man,” vehemently shattering musical and social molds and then rebuilding them in his image.

Yet, his music is revered not for its comprehensive expression of his kaleidoscopic life, but rather for its ability to draw selectively from human experience, giving us musically what Picasso gave us visually – multilayered, perpetually enigmatic works whose meaning is often left to the interpreter. His music is difficult to listen to and confrontational. But this is the soul of Mingus – always challenging the status quo, defying authority and asking the world the meaning of jazz with each pluck of the stringed bass.

The class performed several of Mingus’ best-known and most representational works on Jan. 29 in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. Led by instructor and talented bassist John Menegon and accompanied by guest drummer Jeff Siegel, the musically diverse ensemble consisted of alto saxophonists Charles Jakobsche ’04, Ariel Peters ’06 and David Cohen ’05; clarinetist Katherine Davisson ’05; bass clarinetist Matthew Lipson ’04; oboist Jeremy Koulish ’04; violinist Basema Safa ’06; trumpeter Alan Cordova ’06; trombonists Sarah Steege ’06 and Spencer Lutchen ’05; pianist Paul Vichyanond ’05; guitarists Elliot Baer ’04 and Matthew O’Malley ’05 and vocalist Gillian Weeks ’06.

As the lights dimmed, the silence in the auditorium suddenly gave way to Lipson, whose resonant low woodwind solo began the concert with one of Mingus’ most popular songs, “Moanin’.” Soon, the woodwinds joined in, adding a new layer to the sound. The theme was then repeated, accompanied by brass phrases that colored the background and gave “Moanin’” its sense of raw emotional energy.

A grand crescendo brought the ensemble to its climax as individuals began to solo simultaneously. Here, at the brink of chaos, the music no longer flows from the regimented notes on the page but from the keys and strings of the artists, offering a glimpse of Mingus’ brilliance. The ensemble section was followed by a clarinet solo by Davisson, which contrasted well by providing a moment of respite that allowed time for individual reflection on the piece’s musical themes.

With the final note of “Moanin’” still echoing through Brooks-Rogers, the ensemble began “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” a slow, deeply reflective work that draws from the blues, the ancient chords that form the very foundation of jazz. The song came about while Mingus was on stage performing; upon receiving the news of the death of saxophonist Lester Young, he began playing a mournful melody that was later developed into a complete work. Weeks sang the lyrics and Jakobsche soloed on alto saxophone.

Next, the concert proceeded to “The Clown,” a poem in both word and tone. It depicts the allegorical tragedy of a clown who, despite the best intentions, is misunderstood by everyone and whose work is only recognized after his demise. Koulish and Weeks narrated the story and Cohen, Lutschen and Steege soloed.

“Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” presented a straightforward recognition of Ellington’s contribution to music. As much as Mingus loathed many musicians, he deeply respected the way Ellington painted portraits of life, using the instrumentalists in his big band as an artist uses paints. Ellington pioneered the fusion of jazz and classical music, a combination that Mingus used often throughout his career.

“Nostalgia in Times Square” told the story of a baritone saxophonist auditioning with the Mingus band and surviving the group’s unpredictable directions and breakneck speeds. Weeks sang the lyrics, reflecting the saxophonist’s anxieties and eventual relief when accepted.

Menegon’s bass solo began Mingus’ most important folk song, “Haitian Fight Song.” If forced to reduce Mingus’ myriad works down to one song, “Haitian Fight Song,” written in 1957 at the very height of his creative capacity and popularity, would be a popular choice.

Like “Moanin’,” it begins with a simple underlying theme and builds steadily until it has encompassed every mode of expression and involved every member of the ensemble. Each performer soloed, painting individual pictures on the piece’s musical canvas. The solo section was concluded by Menegon’s towering bass solo, truly paying tribute to the power of Mingus.

The concert concluded properly with the exuberant, free-spirited “Better Get Hit In Your Soul,” a popular Mingus spiritual.

The ensemble skillfully interpreted Mingus’ complex, abstract pieces, presenting the audience with a concise musical encapsulation of his diverse spectrum of compositions. The audience was given a fascinating portrayal of one of jazz’s most multifaceted innovators. Though the concert was comprehensive, it still managed to leave some questions unanswered. Mingus wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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