The Jazzcat

"Epitaph" The Music of Charles Mingus at the Walt Disney Concert Hall

by on May.28, 2007, under News

Click Picture above to listen to EPITAPH interview with Christian McBride

Don’t be late when you go to experience music at the Walt

Disney Concert Hall. It is a real drag to have to wait until the first number

is over before you are able to go to sit and enjoy. Luckily, I slipped in just

in the nick of time to see Sue Mingus walk out onto the stage. She spoke of her

man, the Majestic Taurean Titan who walked tall, played with the passion of life

and geniusly composed one of the worlds longest, most masterfully prolific

compositions in any genre of music. Charles Mingus, the underdog indeed, had

been writing and preparing for this masterpiece all of his life. Certain

movements like “The Chill of Death Self Portrait was written in Watts, when Charles merely 17 years old. 


Sue praised Christian McBride and Laura Connelly for having

the foresight to present what too many is considered to be such abstract

material. Quite frankly, the music may be complex to perform but, if your ears

and body have been constantly filled with a lifetime of the great sound of

jazz, you will find the artistic expression well within the boundary of

beautifully crafted and accepted music, not abstract at all. Just shearly

impressive in the thought provoking emotional scenarios you find yourself

contemplating or re-living.


Gunther Schuller, a great conductor and friend of Charles’s

conducted the orchestra back in1989 for the first complete performance of

“EPITAPH”.  Sue presented Gunther who comes

to the stage to say a few words before the presentation begins.  Extreme, complex, gentle, wild and the full

gamut of emotional expressions with four thousand and twenty-three movements”

is Gunther’s attempt to put into words what this music will behold. But, the

live experience is a must. You must wear the music like a finely woven garment

whose tapestry has endured time yet is still as beautiful as upon first glance.



This is a double orchestra with tubas, contrabass, bassoons

and all kind of great instruments that come together to make such a wonderful

masterpiece sing. Simple, atonal, classical, from blues to jazz to gospel,

everything is mixed in the pot. Mingus was a self-taught individual born right

here in Los Angeles

with dreams of joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic but, that never

happened.  Yet, this incredible

individual wrote some of the most prolific extended pieces of music,

collaborated its many movements and produced an unparalleled manuscript that he

himself did not get a chance to perform in its entirety; a lifetime worth of

work to represent a lifetime worth of emotions. 

This masterful piece “Epitaph” includes many of the pieces and fragments

of Mingus's music that we have come to experience over the years where, in some

cases, there are ideas and concepts that don’t have precedents in any genre of



Obviously there is a big sound.  Mingus was physically and conceptually large

and the many moods of the man misunderstood are expressed in his music.  From the sadness of “The Clown” to “Scenes

in the City” on steroids; from quietly pondering, cognitive contemplation to

flight or flight, the music and you are one. 

We live in each one of the moods of Mingus as we experienced the sounds

of a genius life misunderstood; and it's still all good! Why does a man, full of creativity and artistic genius have

to die before his art is appreciated and accepted for its beauty?  This is not the first time that the masses

have missed the opportunity to give love when and where love is due but, they say

that things are getting better.


Dem blues is swinging hard and if you know much Mingus music,

then you are quite pleased with the common references to many of his wonderful

creations.  The horns scream with tones that

cross each other at every harmonic atonal corner.  Do you remember what would happen with the

music when in the cartoons, someone would knock over a beehive?  It got pretty chaotic.  The music can take that turn and many others at

any given moment, but there is never displeasure. Big ears make for a 2 1/2

hour concerto of loveliness. 


The Taurean spirit must be circling about as the orchestra

congers a  “Love Chant” to wake the dead.

The beautiful, curvaceous, full body, lion headed lady was perched center stage

singing and swinging, ranting and raving. You can hear the poet speak in the

music. Imagine Mingus perched on his soap box pleading for peace, love,

acceptance and the prevalence of human decency, right in the middle of the Watts riot. There is sadness, yet there is joy in all of

the different movements, and for the most part there is expression, there is

strength, and there is a desire for equality amongst men, amongst people

amongst the underdog.


Pardon this digression…..

As I am trying to enjoy the concert, this is the fourth time

that I have been interrupted and had to get up during the performance to let

some people pass by to leave.  Just as I

sat down, I took a look down my row to see who would be the next to leave when

I was hit with this not so shocking discovery, no black people!  I took a look around the entire Walt Disney

concert Hall at that point, and I am astonished at the .05% representation of

support for the music.  This is Charles Mingus,

born and raised in Watts, right here in our

own backyard.  I am appalled once again

by the lack of color.  This is a common

phenomenon with jazz in America

so I don’t particularly know why I am so disturbed today.  It is really a shame that culture has no

culture here in the city. 


At least the people in my row and others that left during

the performance stepped up and came to experience the music. My people, my

people we need to “Get Hit in Our Souls”. Mingus wrote this music for you, for

us! It is about our plights, our passion, our trials and our love and you don’t

even bother to show up? Here is an interesting statistic, about one in every 50

people of color go out to support live jazz music.  Now did I just make that up?  Yes, but ask every musician who performs all

over the world and I bet they would tend to agree. It is after intermission and

only half of the audience remains.  But perhaps

I am wasting my energy. Will things ever change? Will other people and other

cultures always have to support this music that we call our own? Are we

claiming jazz music? Are we proud or are we just giving it away like we have

done so many times before. I should not be so upset.  I expect the support from the large majority,

at least they were here. As for the rest… 

Okay I'm done.


Moods of Monk fill the air as the second half of the

performance transpires. It's not over

now, there is much more to come.  “Peggy's

Blue Skylight” lets the moonlight shine in on romance.  “Wolverine Blues” made use of all of the

horns, marching happily along in a celebration of life. So many great

combinations of instruments to produce the most exquisite and unique sound. The

band laid low, while the bassoon got down in a great, funky, out demonstration

of individuality.  Something that Charles

would certainly not frown upon!


“This Subdues My Passion”, is one of the missing pieces of

music that was discovered in later years and added to complete “Epitaph”.  It is a beautiful piece of dedicated to the

wonderful music and style of a man truly adored by Mingus, the one and only

Duke Ellington.  “The Children's Hour of

Dream” was full of that preschool scared to look under your bed energy, and

when you finally do, you discovered the mysticism of another world with magic

and rabbit holes that run deep!


The final segment starts to swing with “I Am Three”, seems

to emanate the symbolism of the me, myself and I that Mingus was.  “Freedom”, spoke the words of Mingus through

the body of Kumba Frank Lacy. “Freedom for your mama, freedom for your daddy,

freedom for your brothers and sisters, freedom for me!  Stand fast old mule, stand fast”


Charles never wrote an ending to the masterpiece

composition.  Gunther Schuller, in

Charles Mingus fashion, ended the piece with a cavalcade of thundering cacophony

to a gently cascading low tide ripple conclusion.


The man, the myth, the legend, the composer, the lover, the

Taurean power of one who spoke through his bass and tried to change the world

with him music, Charles Mingus’ “Epitaph”.


LeRoy Downs


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