Mingus in the Classroom

During “Before & After” in the April JazzTimes, Ben Allison was played a 1957 Charles Mingus recording of “I Can’t Get Started.” Instantly he said, “That’s Mingus…Probably the greatest bass player-composer-band leader. For me…he’s the most influential.” That instant recognition reminded me of picking up the phone early one morning and hearing music. After a couple of bars, I knew whose it was. Then the composer, Charles Mingus, came on: “What do you think of that? I just recorded it.” Like Ellington’s, Mingus’ music used to be considered too difficult for other groups to play becauseof its complex originality. But, with regard to Duke, high school bands—provided with the scores and Winton Marsalis astute notes—are proving the music’s accessibility to students in the annual Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Essentially Ellington” competition.

As for Mingus’ huge body of compositions, Sue Mingus reports: “I have heard ‘Fables of Faubus’ and ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ performed with passion by students in Sophia, Bulgaria, who have never been in an American jazz club in their life.” Sue, who keeps Mingus’ music alive throughout the world, adds: “I recently heard two different ensembles at the Julliard School of music perform two hours of Mingus- astonishing arrangements the students not only played but arranged themselves. The 1000- seat hall was packed and overflowing with energy on both sides of the stage.

“It was thrilling to experience Mingus music translated so powerfully through the instruments of young students who were not even alive when Mingus died in 1979.”

It’s hard for me to realize that Mingus died that long ago. I sometimes still feel his presence, as I do Duke’s. For Sue, the next logical step to exposing young players to the confidence–building of being actually able to play his music is to establish a foundation that will support, among other educational projects, a national Mingus competition.

She plans, once the foundation is set up, to “disseminate Mingus competitions to music departments where not only teaches affiliated with a particular high school or university can teach his music but also musicians who have performed in Mingus bands or taught Mingus courses themselves can participate in Mingus clinics and workshops to help carry the raw vitality and excitement of Mingus directly into the classroom.”

Sue Mingus never thinks small—as shown by the variety of Mingus combos, bands and other orchestras she has organized. So, along with performance competitions of Mingus music she had in mind “a national Mingus competition in composition.” This competition would encompass variety of forms: “improvised and thoroughly composed classical, jazz and folk forms, as well as for a variety of string instruments, not limited by genre.”

I’d also sure like to see the Thelonious Monk’s Institute further its work in this area by engaging in a similar wide-ranging American and global project to make Monk’s rivetingly original music score more available to student musicians in schools. Young players who actually experience—and not only listen to the jazz canon (from Armstrong to Basie to Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, among others)—will be particularly influential recruiters for jazz audiences to come—and will be able to teach the music to the next generation.

Sue Mingus’ account of the celebratory exploding of energy at Julliard during student-arranged and performed Mingus compositions reminded her of a previous rejection of Mingus’ works by Julliard: “Shortly after Charles died in 1979, an all-night tribute took place at the Village Gate in New York. I expected to raise enough money to offer a jazz scholarship at the Julliard School of Music, and a meeting was held with members of the board and with former Julliard students who had gone on to prominent musical lives in the world.” The Julliard Board turned down her offer. Why? “Their wisdom at the time,’ Sue explains, “Was that ‘teaching jazz at Julliard would undermine creativity.’”

When she told me that, I recalled being in Thelonious Monk’s apartment long ago interviewing him when alto saxophonist and composer Gigi Gryce burst into the room and excitedly announced to Monk, “I’ve been accepted at Julliard!” After a characteristic silence, Monk looked at Gigi, and said: “I hope you don’t lose it there.”

Times have changed, and Sue’s Julliard description of the two-hours of Mingus by students years later is evidence that “creativity”—“it,” in Monk’s phrase—was not lost by having the schools’ students immersed in discovering how much of their inner feelings and life experiences could be plumbed through the act of making jazz.

Or, as Sue puts it, “Charles used to shout to his musicians, ‘Play yourself!’ in order to fully be part of his compositions. It’s evident now that students are able to perform his music with a natural vitality as they find themselves in it.” For more information about the Mingus foundation as it’s evolving, Sue Mingus and the Jazz workshop are at 212-736-4749 www.mingusmingusmingus.com.

In the mid-1980’s, the Library of Congress acquired the entire Mingus catalog of recordings, tapes, original scores, correspondence, etc. Obviously, it’s important that these historical resources are safely there. But jazz is living music. Charles once told me: “I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is that I’m changing all the time.” As students keep playing his music, they’ll be changing too.

Originally published in June 2006

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