Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus is one of the recordings that changed my life. That 1960 album combined the technical virtuosity of bebop, the raw expressiveness of the blues and the exploratory wonder of the nascent free-jazz scene into one potent mix. I was in college when I first heard the record, and was leading a quartet with the same instrumentation (trumpet, alto sax, bass and drums). It was both slightly devastating and deeply inspiring to realize everything I wanted to accomplish musically had been done to near perfection 35 years earlier.
Trumpeter Ted Curson, the last surviving member of that quartet-with Eric Dolphy on reeds and Dannie Richmond on drums, alongside the leader’s propulsive bass-passed away Nov. 4, 2012, at the age of 77. Most remembrances (this one included) will start with his time with Mingus; too many will end there. Curson sometimes bristled at being identified only with Mingus, as it was just one year in his six-decade career. At the same time, he was part of one of the music’s classic ensembles, and of that he remained justly proud.
It was not only what Mingus brought to Ted Curson, but what Ted Curson brought to Mingus (and all the other music he made). He first emerged during a period when everything was in flux, when the idiomatic boundaries were wholly permeable, and that aesthetic openness fueled his whole life. His playing displayed his hard-bop roots in Philadelphia (where he grew up alongside Lee Morgan), while maintaining the flexibility to work with avant-gardists like Cecil Taylor and the New York Contemporary Five (where he and Don Cherry split duties in the trumpet chair). He co-led a criminally neglected small ensemble throughout the ’60s with tenor saxophonist Bill Barron; that group combined harmonic sophistication with innovative structures and impassioned playing, in a way that rendered irrelevant the binary arguments between form and freedom.
Like many jazz musicians, Curson found more work abroad and split his time between Europe and New York. He cultivated musical communities in different corners of the globe, from a 40-plus-year residency at the annual Pori Jazz Festival in Finland to an eight-year stint leading a late-night jam session at the Blue Note in New York City, mentoring scores of musicians along the way. (He also cultivated an impressive handlebar moustache in recent years, giving him the look of a mystic wizard.) The only time I saw him live was at one of those Blue Note jam sessions. I was too shy to try and sit in; I just sat in the corner and marveled at the personality of his playing, still fresh and still evolving, four decades after the recording that first etched him in history.