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A Mingus discovery

Mingus poster

While listening to Louis Moholo, Jason Yarde, John Edwards and Alex Hawkins come very close to taking the roof off Cafe Oto the other night, I started thinking about Charles Mingus. The ingredients of the music were so similar: the warmth, the drive, the spontaneity, the shouted cues, the sudden turns from brusque lyricism to maximum intensity, an extreme sophistication drenched in the blues at its most elemental, the way the past was metabolised into the present, the feeling that this summed up why jazz really is different from everything else.

Then, the next morning, an unexpected package dropped on to the mat: a five-CD box called Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden, a recording of a club gig by one of Mingus’s later quintets in February 1973, previously unheard and released with the approval of Sue Mingus, the great bassist’s widow and guardian of his legacy.

The recording was made by Roy Brooks, the fine drummer who was a member of the Mingus band during this period, while Dannie Richmond was off exploring the world of rock. A Detroit native who had replaced Louis Hayes in Horace Silver’s quintet in 1959, Brooks died in 2005; it is to his widow, Hermine, that we owe the discovery of the tapes.

Mingus went through something of a personal and artistic trough at the end of the ’60s. I saw him at the Village Gate one night in, I think, 1971, playing with a complete absence of fire and commitment — a devastatingly desolate experience for one who had grown up on the volcanic excitements of Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah. By 1973, however, he had recovered his appetite for battle and regained all his old characteristics, as we can hear in his Philharmonic Hall and Let My Children Hear Music recordings from the previous year.

Just about everything that was great about Mingus was on display at the Strata Concert Gallery at 46 Selden Street in Detroit’s Midtown. The band is superb: Joe Gardner on trumpet, big-toned and confident; John Stubblefield on tenor, bringing to mind the fluent bluesiness of Hank Mobley; the mercurial Don Pullen on piano, brilliantly spanning the eras as many of Mingus’s pianists (Jaki Byard, Roland Hanna) were expected to do; and Brooks himself, providing an unflagging, explosive drive.

The repertoire includes Mingus favourites such as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress (Then Blue Silk)”, and a handful of those compositions that demonstrate how beautifully he could structure and pace a fine melodic line: “Celia”. “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”, “Dizzy Profile” and “The Man Who Never Sleeps”. In that respect he was the peer of Benny Golson. And anyone who wants to hear a medium-up 4/4 walking bass that hustles without hurrying should listen to “Peggy’s”, where he gives a masterclass in that difficult art. And the slow blues called “Noddin’ Ya Head” is an after-hours symphony (complete with Brooks’s musical saw).

This was a club gig, so the atmosphere is relaxed and the customers’ voices are sometimes heard. But it was recorded for broadcast on a local radio station, WDET-FM, so the balance of informal atmosphere and undistorted instrumental sound is just about perfect. There’s also an interview with Brooks, and a soliloquy by the station’s jazz DJ, Bud Spangler.

As a representation of how Mingus sounded in a club, it would be hard to beat. One of the finds of the year, without a doubt.

* The box set is released in November on the Barely Breaking Even label. Mingus fans might like to note that the programme of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival includes an event called “Jazz Experiments: Exploring Jazz through the Music of Charles Mingus”, in which the excellent band Blues & Roots will encourage members of the audience to play with them before performing their own set. It’s in the South Bank’s Clore Ballroom on the afternoon of Sunday, November 18, and it’s free. If you want to play, apply via the website:

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris Welch #

    I remember seeing Charles Mingus at Ronnie Scott’s Club in the 70s. Dannie Richmond was practising some rock licks on his drum kit while they were setting up and Mingus
    growled at him – ‘You’ve got rocks in your head…’ This box set sounds like a gold mine.

    October 15, 2018
  2. Bill White #

    I saw Mingus with Roy Brooks in the UK. I think it may have been in ‘73. Roy Brooks definitely played ‘musical saw’ but sadly I can’t recall the other musicians. Possibly Bobby Jones on tenor?

    October 15, 2018
    • Eddie Preston (tpt), Charles McPherson (alto), Bobby Jones (tenor), Roland Hanna (piano), I think.

      October 15, 2018
  3. Tim Adkin #

    This indeed sounds essential. I love and treasure the Atlantic albums made by his 73/4 band: “Moves” and the 2 “Changes” sets with Pullen still present and correct (mercurial is indeed the word) but with the great George Adams and the returning Richmond (I actually liked what he did with the under regarded Mark-Almond) also in the ranks. A veritable treasure chest by the sounds of it.

    October 15, 2018
  4. #

    the Mingus looks to be great, but, better is to get a new piece from Mr. Williams.

    October 15, 2018
  5. Where will this be obtainable from?

    October 16, 2018
  6. Mick Steels #

    Remember a riveting interview you did with the Great man round that time where he said him and Duke could make an avant-garde that would cut everybody

    October 16, 2018
  7. GuitarSlinger #

    For me the last great memory on disc of the great man will forever be his collaboration with Joni Mitchell … the much maligned severely misunderstood ( by both Joni and Charles fans ) ” Mingus ” that in reality was one of the best Jazz/Pop collaborations ever setting the platinum standard never equaled to this very day .

    ” God Must Be a Boogie Man ” ( a song for our times along with Metheny/Bowie’s ” This Is Not America ” if there ever was one ) ringing thru my head as I write this

    Suffice it to say all ye jazzholes unacquainted with this masterwork from two of our greatest masters …. buy a copy .. deal with your inner prejudices .. and see for yourself what an incredible last testimony to the great man ” Mingus ” was .

    PS; I’ll 2nd nightnick9’s sentiment . Tis great to see you back in the saddle Mr Williams


    October 17, 2018
  8. Phil Mendelson #

    A small correction. This wa snot recorded on multitrack equipment. It was broadcast live and recorded in stereo to two track tape. I know this, as I wa sthe one who mic’d and mixed it!

    October 18, 2018
    • Thanks. I’ve corrected it. And thanks for the excellent job you did on the recording.

      October 18, 2018

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