Charles in Charge

There comes a point in every rock fan's listening career when he or she feels obligated to "try" jazz. It's tricky musical territory for the novitiate, full of snobs and geniuses and difficult theories. There's much talk about "tone" and "phrasing" and other things that don't necessarily matter much in rock and roll. There seem to be hundreds of important names in jazz, each with dozens of albums available. Where to begin?

With Miles Davis, most would say, or perhaps John Coltrane. The former's Kind of Blue (1959) and the latter's Lush Life (1957) remain staple albums in the collections of college sophomores and jazz dilettantes everywhere. Certainly Davis epitomizes what we think of as a jazz artist: the cool, moody trumpeter searching for the lost note. Coltrane has more soul appeal: sultry and smoky, a little sex in his saxophone. And yet -- at the risk of simplifying these artists' work a little further -- their brand of jazz rarely offers the same visceral, instantaneous thrill of rock and roll.

But that's exactly the sort of thrill that Charles Mingus provided, especially in the early years of his career, which are captured on Rhino Records' new six-CD boxed set, Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1956-1961. Almost all of these 40 tracks -- beginning with "Pithecanthropus Erectus" and ending with "Eat That Chicken" -- have something rollicking and wild in them, something hot, loud, fierce, and even a bit nuts. That something is Mingus, the big-bellied bassist, bandleader, and composer. He wasn't searching for the lost note; he was chasing it down the street with a knife.

By all accounts Mingus was more than a little unhinged. During his brief stint in Duke Ellington's band, he ran after the hornman Juan Tizol with a fire ax. He threatened his fifth wife, Susan Graham Ungaro, with a penknife. He smashed his bass in concert and berated his band members on stage. In the studio he was equally violent. He punched one of his best sidemen, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, so hard that Knepper lost a front tooth. At one point in the late Sixties, Mingus voluntarily checked himself into New York City's Bellevue Hospital. They wouldn't let him out.

On many of this set's tracks, the five-foot-nine-inch, 275-pound Mingus can be heard bellowing in the background, great wordless hollering that electrifies the music better than any amplifier ever could. These whoops and shouts became hallmarks of Mingus' playing, almost as identifiable as Ornette Coleman's squawky saxophone or Lester Bowie's penchant for growling through his trumpet. "People say I'm hollering," Mingus is quoted as saying in this collection's 120-page booklet. "Man, I feel like hollering."

The booklet also features a short remembrance by Tom Dowd, who served as sound engineer on every track (except the live recordings) that Mingus laid down for the Atlantic label. Dowd recalls that Mingus used to pick up his bass and walk around the studio, going from musician to musician in an effort to stoke the band's musical fire. "My solution was to tie a microphone to the tailpiece of his instrument and hope for the best," Dowd writes. That may be the source of the audible thumping and bumping during Mingus' supple, intensely focused solo on the alternate take of "My Jelly Roll Soul."

"You never knew who was going to be screamed at or humiliated," Ungaro once recalled, "or wooed and loved into playing what Charles wanted him to play."

"The Angry Man of Jazz," as the press nicknamed Mingus, was born in 1922 in Arizona but grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Like many black musicians of the era, Mingus was raised on gospel music. Yet it had little direct influence on his music. Despite the title of "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," the only thing gospelish about the track is its energy (and Mingus' testimonial cries). It's really a roiling brew of blues-based melody and wild, bop-style improvisation. Mingus was not a traditionalist but an experimenter. Listening to jazz radio as a boy, he came to idolize Duke Ellington, one of the first and most prolific composers of original jazz music.

"What is a jazz composer?" Mingus would eventually ask in the liner notes of Let My Children Hear Music (1971). "Each jazz musician when he takes a horn in his hand -- trumpet, bass, saxophone, drums -- whatever instrument he plays -- each soloist, that is, when he begins to ad-lib on a given composition with a title and improvise a new creative melody, this man is taking the place of a composer. He is saying, 'Listen, I am going to give you a new complete idea with a new set of chord changes. I am going to give you a new melodic conception on a tune you are familiar with. I am a composer.' That's what he is saying."

This philosophy can be heard everywhere on five discs here (the sixth is a 76-minute interview with Mingus). In many ways Mingus' bass-playing is the least important thing about his music. His brilliance lies in his arrangements, his ideas, and the energetic execution of his compositions. Mingus looked down on what he called "pencil composers," preferring instead to mastermind his pieces like a conductor, commanding his sidemen to create the music along with him. In fact "sideman" barely describes the role of Shafi Hadi (born Curtis Porter), whose tenor saxophone lifts "Reincarnation of a Lovebird" out of its carefully placed funks. And "sideman" certainly doesn't do justice to trombonist Jimmy Knepper, who alternately paces and races the rhythm on "Haitian Fight Song." For the most part Mingus stays hidden in the center of the band, like a furnace fueling a train's engine.

Mingus seemed to be the result of two polarized personalities: an intellectual with erudite musical theories and a primitivist who created sounds from someplace deep within himself. Though Mingus had only a high-school education and never learned to read music very well, he somehow acquired the ability to write and speak like a liberal arts grad student; he liked to refer to Wagner, Stravinski, and "the late Beethoven quartets." Janet Coleman, Mingus' friend and one of the many editors who worked on his infamous autobiography, once wrote that she steered clear of discussing music with the man: "I had seen too many fans and jazz buffs go down in defeat, pissing him off with musical opinions he regarded as moronic."

His autobiography Beneath the Underdog, a rather well-washed version of his original manuscript Half Yaller Schitt-Colored Nigger, was published in 1971, the end result of some ten years of writing and just as much psychoanalysis. It's a Joycean jumble of narrative voices, childhood memories, and base sexuality. It may be the only autobiography that begins with this disclaimer: "Some names in this work have been changed and some of the characters and incidents are fictitious." It is definitely the only one in which everyone uses the expletive "schitt."

Throughout the book -- and other writings by Mingus -- there is a visible streak of rage against the racism of American society. As a child Mingus certainly encountered his share of prejudice. As an adult he blamed racism for his personal bankruptcy and the failure of his self-run record label. (In 1968 he was forcibly evicted from his New York apartment.) Mingus' life was interrupted by periods of mental instability and creative drought, and ground to a halt in the late Seventies when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. By 1977 Mingus was confined to a wheelchair, unable to write or play, reduced to singing new compositions into a tape recorder. He died in 1979.

But the Mingus on Passions of a Man is abuzz with ideas, caught up in the moment, and shouting with joy. Though it's only a lark, "Eat That Chicken" closes this boxed set quite appropriately. It's Mingus cutting loose -- "Eat that chicken/Bop, bop, boo-dee!" -- rocking and rolling with a momentum that sounds impossible to stop.

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