Winter Study Performance class travels to NYC club for Mingus big band concert

Over 30 years ago, Charles Mingus, a noted but under-celebrated bassist and composer, succumbed to a rare nerve disease. Since his death, his widow, Sue Mingus, has dedicated herself to educating the public about her husband, ensuring the preservation of his music through its continued performance.

In an effort to understand Mingus’ living legacy and prepare for their upcoming concert, John Menegon’s winter study class, “The Music of Charles Mingus,” traveled to New York City on Jan. 16 to attend a performance by the Mingus Big Band. Under the artistic direction of Sue Mingus, the band is perhaps one of her most successful contributions to today’s jazz scene and to her late husband’s memory.

The band performs two sets every Thursday night at The Fez, located under the Time Café at the corner of 3rd and Lafayette in the East Village. The band’s reputation extends beyond weekly performances, however; besides traveling extensively, their latest album, Tonight At Noon: Three or Four Shades Of Love, released in April of last year, recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. This honor marks the band’s third Grammy nomination.

The Fez retains an authentic and casual atmosphere despite the band’s reputation. Fourteen musicians appear onstage weekly, and although the band adheres to standard jazz instrumentation, the identity of the musicians varies and the band’s roster is surprisingly long. Sue Mingus is always present to introduce the musicians and oversee their performance.

As a subway car passed beneath the club, causing the floor to rumble, Sue Mingus explained the challenges of jazz, which students of Menegon could appreciate: one must know how to play in an ensemble, improvise, read music like a classical musician and demonstrate personality all at once.

She also noted the band’s “raw sound,” a trademark of Mingus, many of whose tunes represent a return to the feel of rural blues, as well as their superior ensemble work, admitting that at its most extreme, the band sounds like “a four-ring circus.”

To those familiar with the complexity of Mingus’ music, this last observation does not come as a surprise. Finally, Sue Mingus reminded the audience that the band’s goal is “not to become complacent.” To remain truly representative of Mingus’s work, the band must necessarily curtail some of its own creative endeavors and focus on the original intent of its namesake.

An impressive bass solo opened “Haitian Fight Song,” which also featured an extensive trumpet solo and special sound effects from the trombone section. Like most of the other pieces to follow, “Haitian Fight Song” was played at a more rapid tempo than heard on Mingus’ original recordings. The energy resulting from this decision created an aura of intensity that persisted throughout the evening. The band further complicated the selection by playing it in the round – an act that only musicians with significant experience in the style of Mingus could perform with such ease.

“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” featured one of two tenor saxophonists, who opened the piece with a solo that both mimicked and defied the original melody.

To contrast the relative cleanness of the first solo, the band next engaged in collective improvisation, a feat typical of Mingus. The sound of 14 talented musicians playing simultaneously was both dizzying and wonderful, and made the sound of “Haitian Fight Song” played in the round seem straightforward.

Selections like “Pinky Don’t Come Back From the Moon” offered additional insight into the character of Mingus, whose music was theoretical but also expressive of the limitations confronting African Americans at the time. Charles Mingus described his music to Down Beat Magazine in 1955: “My music is alive and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It’s angry yet it’s real because it knows it’s angry.” Much of the energy behind Mingus, who was known to yell and swear while performing, came from that anger and his desire to make it “real.”

The band also played “Junk Monk,” whose title refers to great pianist Thelonius Monk, “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” a ballad which featured the piano and contained extensive bass solo work, “O.P.,” which demonstrated the dexterity and tightness of the saxophone section, and ended with “Better Get Hit In Your Soul,” a favorite of Menegon’s students.

The intimacy of The Fez heightened the enjoyment the audience derived from the performance. Lucky attendees sit within a few feet of the saxophone section, surrounded by music. The chemistry within the ensemble is evident in their playing; as they gesture to one another, gaze at their neighbor while he solos and collaborate to create amazing harmonies and improvise complex countermelodies, the band appears to take more pleasure in the music than the audience does.

One member of the trombone section spent the majority of the set with his eyes closed, listening to the ingenuity of his fellow musicians. Sue Mingus, whose quips interrupted the silence between selections, contributes to the authenticity of the experience, as does the presence of Mingus’ original bass in the hands of the bass player. Menegon’s students traveled to The Fez mostly for learning purposes, but as any of them would confirm, jazz aficionado or not, the Mingus Big Band’s performances are a weekly treat.

More information about the Mingus Big Band is available at www.mingusmingusmingus.com.