Charles Mingus: Epitaph Lost and Found
It was nearly three decades ago that the legendary bassist-composer-bandleader Charles Mingus died from a heart attack after a long battle with the terminal nerve illness amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A larger-than-life figure and world-class curmudgeon with a well-documented volcanic temper, Mingus had spent the last year of his life in a wheelchair, unable to use his legs or hands. He spent his final months seeking a miracle cure in Mexico, under the guidance of a prominent 72-year-old Indian witch doctor and healer named Pachita, before finally submitting to the dreaded disease. Jazz’s Angry Man passed away on the afternoon of Jan. 5, 1979, at the age of 56. The following day, his body was cremated on the outskirts of Mexico City, and a week later his widow Sue Mingus traveled to India to scatter his ashes on the sacred Ganges River.
While Mingus may have left this earthly plane a long time ago, his legacy continues to grow, thanks to the tireless efforts of Sue Mingus. In the decades since her husband’s death, she has managed to shepherd three separate bands—the Mingus Big Band, which maintains a weekly Tuesday-night residency at the Iridium nightclub in New York, along with the Mingus Dynasty septet and the 11-piece Mingus Orchestra—while also scheduling tours, producing concerts, maintaining a Web site (mingusmingusmingus.com) and presiding over reissues and other special projects relating to the work of her late husband.
In what would’ve been his 85th year, there is a sudden flurry of Mingus-related activity. In July, Blue Note Records will release a live two-CD set documenting a never-before-heard Mingus concert from March 18, l964, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., with his sextet featuring Eric Dolphy, Johnny Coles, Clifford Jordan, Dannie Richmond and Jaki Byard. Producer Michael Cuscuna calls it “a joyous, rollicking performance where they’re having a great time … like a drunken frat-party thing where they just let go and play their asses off.” Highlights of this concert, which was recorded on mono tape by the Cornell University radio station, include a raucous rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and a Dolphy arrangement of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” along with a 30-minute version of Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” and a 31-minute rendition of his “Meditations.” In September, Jazz Icons will release a DVD from a 1964 TV appearance in Belgium with that same sextet lineup. And this spring will also see the inauguration of a multi-million-dollar Charles Mingus Junior Arts Center next to the Watts Towers, near where Mingus grew up.
Most significant in this flood of Mingus activity is the remounting of his monumental symphonic work Epitaph, which had its gala world premiere on June 3, 1989 at the prestigious Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. “It’s been nearly 18 years since it was last performed in the States,” says Sue Mingus of her husband’s 2 1/2-hour suite in 19 movements for 31 musicians. “A whole generation of jazz fans has not heard it.”
And no one has ever heard it in its present state. This latest incarnation of Epitaph, conducted by Gunther Schuller and featuring Christian McBride in the Mingus chair, is the most complete version of Mingus’ provocative masterwork to date, containing a missing piece of music that was discovered through a combination of coincidence and detective work. As of this writing, it is scheduled to premiere in New York on April 25 (three days after Mingus’ birthday) at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater and will be performed two days later at the Tri-C JazzFest in Cleveland. On May 16 the suite hits the Disney Center in Los Angeles, where NPR plans to record it for a fall broadcast, and on May 18 it visits Symphony Center in Chicago. “We’ll probably be doing it again next year,” adds Sue Mingus. “We haven’t set definite dates but the Kennedy Center is interested and a number of organizations have expressed interest … if I have the energy to do this again.”
A massive undertaking, the original 1989 performance of Epitaph, which the New York Times called “one of the most important musical events of the decade,” took more than two years of preparation and 10 rehearsals with the full orchestra before it was premiered posthumously, 10 years after Mingus’ death. “I wrote it for my tombstone,” he had said prophetically, three decades before its premiere. Consisting of pieces written between 1940 and 1962, it’s a cohesive work that includes sections previously recorded by Mingus in small-band settings, including “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul” and “Peggy’s Blue Skylight.” The oldest pieces in Epitaph are “Chill of Death,” written when he was 17, “The Soul,” written in the late 1940s for the Lionel Hampton band, and “This Subdues My Passion,” also composed in the late 1940s.
In 1962, Mingus had attempted to perform this imposing extended work at an infamous Town Hall concert, with disastrous results. With the concert date pushed up three months and rehearsal time drastically cut back, Mingus and his crew of 30 musicians were ill-prepared to execute this incredibly challenging music, let alone record it live (for the United Artists label). Gunther Schuller, who was in the audience at that historic performance, recalls the chaotic scene that ensued:
“Well, it certainly did lack proper rehearsal time. But it’s even worse than that. During the concert there were three copyists on the stage still writing out parts in the hope of getting some more movements ready. And, of course, the music was so difficult and so strange to even the best musicians. Mingus always got the best readers and improvisers, but even they couldn’t cope with it. It was an absolute pandemonium up there on the bandstand. And Mingus, who could be rather short-tempered, was exploding all throughout the concert, which didn’t help, of course. I mean, it was doomed to failure at that point. And there was no chance that they were ever going to record 19 movements in one concert.”
Twenty-five years after that disastrous Town Hall debut, the original 500-page score to Epitaph was discovered by Montreal-based musicologist Andrew Homzy and pieced together measure by measure from hundreds of yellowing manuscripts he found in a wooden trunk in Sue Mingus’ living room. Finding Epitaph, says Homzy, was like discovering Beethoven’s “Tenth Symphony.”
“I had been going through all these scores at Sue’s apartment and discovered a whole series of pieces written for this huge orchestra,” he recalls. “As I was piecing it together I recognized some of the music that was from that Town Hall concert from 1962. And I could see that Mingus definitely had a plan or a vision that all these scores were of a piece and that they fitted together consecutively. This was reinforced by two things: the fact that the word ‘Epitaph’ appeared along the title page of many of the pieces and that the measures were numbered consecutively.”
In the course of his exhaustive detective work on Epitaph, Homzy noticed that there were places in the scores where some measure numbers were missing. Disregarding these gaps, he finally pieced together an incomplete version of Epitaph, the one performed at Avery Fisher Hall in New York and then a few days later near Washington, D.C., at Wolf Trap to rave reviews. Entertainment Weekly hailed Epitaph as “a revelation ... remarkably coherent and intensely dramatic … a performance that will be talked about for years,” while Time called it “a monumental composition by the protean jazz bassist … difficult but dazzling.”
Two years after those gala performances, the missing piece of the puzzle, “Inquisition,” was discovered by sheer happenstance. As Homzy explains, “I was in New York doing some research work on the Benny Goodman collection. The major part of it is held at Yale University, but the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center has some Benny Goodman material as well. So I went up to Lincoln Center and one of the librarians recognizes me, because I had been there before going through some of the catalogs. And he walks over to me and says, ‘I suppose you’re here to see the Mingus music in our collection.’ And I said, ‘What? No, I came to look at the Benny Goodman collection.’ Then he tells me, ‘Well, we have some Mingus scores in the collection. Would you like to see them?’ And that was like asking me, ‘Would you like to breathe?’
“So he brings out these scores and as soon as I saw them I practically fell out of my chair and set off the alarms in the library because I saw the word ‘Epitaph’ at the top of the page and the numbering of the measures in the same handwriting and with the same pencil as all the others pieces from Epitaph were in. And they also had the rather cryptic title ‘Inquisition’ on them. This in fact was some of the missing measures. It was like finding the Holy Grail. And it’s ironic that while the premiere of Epitaph was being performed in Avery Fisher Hall, just a few doors down, the missing movements, three in all, were peacefully resting on their shelf, neatly cataloged in the music archives. But at that time we didn’t even suspect that the Lincoln Center Library had any of that music.”
Sue Mingus recounts how the score for “Inquisition” ended up at the Lincoln Center. “I remember one day in the mid-’70s somebody showed up at our apartment on 10th Street from the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library wanting to pay real money for scores. Who knew that scores were worth money? So Charles pulled out a couple pieces from the closet to give them. I had no idea at the time that there was this gigantic piece called Epitaph. Charles rarely spoke about it, unless I was complaining about something that didn’t go right, and then he would say, ‘Well, I have a whole symphony that never was performed!’ But it never really meant anything to me. So what he must’ve done … whether he did it with a sense of mischief or who knows … he plucked out a piece from the middle of Epitaph, which turned out to be ‘Inquisition,’ and sold it to the library. And there it sat filed away until Andrew Homzy found it.”
While Mingusphiles were understandably excited about the recent performances of Epitaph with the missing piece intact, the world premiere of “Inquisition” actually happened 14 years ago, on April 24, 1993, as part of “Jazz on the Border: The Mingus Project,” a weeklong celebration of Mingus’ music held in his hometown of Nogales, Ariz. Produced by Yvonne Ervin of the Tucson Jazz Society, which co-sponsored the event with the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, this world premiere of “Inquisition” was performed by the Tucson Jazz Orchestra with guests Ray Drummond on bass and trumpeter Jack Walrath conducting.
In retrospect, Schuller ranks Epitaph at the very top of Mingus’ massive body of work. “It is not just perhaps the most important work of all his many compositions, but it has to be listed or registered as one of the absolutely great masterpieces of jazz altogether, not only in its magnitude but in its variety and duration of the work. Just in terms of length, at 2 1/2 hours long it tops everything. The previous contender would’ve been Ellington, who wrote quite a few extended suites, usually in four or five movements. But this piece goes well beyond that at 19 movements … and now 20 with the inclusion of ‘Inquisition.’
“Epitaph is, in effect, a double jazz orchestra,” he continues. “The normal jazz orchestra of the time was about 16 players, this piece has 31 performers. Everything is doubled. Instead of three trumpets there’s six, instead of three trombones there’s six trombones, and there’s two pianists and two drummers, nine reed instruments and on and on like that. It’s an incredible extended work.”
Furthermore, Schuller says that stylistically, Epitaph goes well beyond the scope of the typical jazz piece of its day. “Because Mingus was very knowledgeable and interested in modern classical music—Stravinsky, Bartók and even Schoenberg … the great composers of the early part of the 20th century—he incorporated some of their ideas and concepts in this gigantic piece. So it goes quite a bit beyond the jazz of that time, which was either late swing or early bebop or modern jazz. In all of its dimensions, however you want to measure it, it’s just an incredibly original, innovative work. And one wonders how Mingus came to write this piece when, unlike Ellington, he never had even a steady jazz orchestra at his beck and call the way Duke did. It’s just a tragedy that he could never get it performed in his lifetime.”
For Homzy, the 2 1/2-plus-hour Epitaph is a summary of Mingus’ whole career in making music. “It all adds up to this sort of fantastic, monumental epic,” he says. “And I think with the addition of this missing section, which is fairly substantial, it helps complete that picture that Mingus was trying to express.”
Says McBride: “One of the first projects I thought of doing when I became Creative Chair of the L.A. Philharmonic’s Jazz Series was Epitaph. And when I mentioned it to Sue Mingus, she seemed so happy and excited about having that piece played again.”
As Sue explained, prior to the recent New York premiere of Epitaph: “What’s exciting to me about the notion of playing this again all these years later is that now these musicians have been playing Mingus’ music every week for the last 15 years and they’ve got the music in their pores. We’ve got an army of musicians who have really absorbed this music, and I think it’s going be an entirely different experience. It was much more tentative back in 1989 because it was this gigantic block of material that nobody had heard. Now a number of these pieces we’ve incorporated, of course in a reduced fashion, into the Mingus big band. It’s like Gunther said: When Stravinsky’s music was first performed at the turn of the century, nobody could play it. Now a first-year music student will play ‘The Rite of Spring’ and run it off like it’s nothing. We saw this same thing with a performance of Epitaph in Amsterdam in 1999, 10 years after we premiered it at Alice Tully Hall. We collaborated with half Dutch musicians, half American, and Gunther noted how much more accessible the music was to the musicians who were performing it then. Those guys had never seen the music before and it was already much easier for them. So things change with time and I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be a vibrancy and absorption of this music … a different kind of feeling about the music this time around.”
Said McBride shortly before undertaking this latest incarnation of Mingus’ masterwork: “I actually did a couple of Epitaph performances with the Mingus Big Band back in 1991, one of which was in Russia. So I’m well acquainted with the music. As a bassist, there’s absolutely no way to overlook the Mingus legacy. His accomplishments as a bassist, composer and bandleader were so intertwined; it’s hard to talk about him in just one realm. He made massive strides in all categories. Personally, Mingus touched me most deeply as a composer.
Like Ellington, his music was able to stay modern and ahead of its time without losing the true sense of blues and African-American rhythm. Epitaph is one of many major works by Mingus which follows that concept.”
Originally published in June 2007