Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Forty-Two
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed January 5, 1999

Jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus had important ties to Cleveland. They culminated Sunday evening, April 22, 1990, at Cleveland's famed Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra. Gunther Schuller conducted a 30-piece all-star jazz orchestra in an historic concert, the third performance ever of Charles Mingus' monumental two-hour orchestra jazz work called "Epitaph."

The orchestra consisted of such major figures as Clark Terry, Roy Hargrove, Lou Soloff, Joe Wilder, Snooky Young, Britt Woodman, Bobby Watson, Mulgrew Miller, John Hicks, John Abercrombie, and Victor Lewis -- all performing Mingus' 19-movement, 500-page score. It was appropriate the concert was performed in Cleveland because it was native Clevelander Andrew Homzy who discovered the score of Mingus' Epitaph, which some have called "the most important jazz composition since Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige" in 1943. It helped change the public perception of Mingus from "Charlie Mingus, the virtuoso bass player" to "Charles Mingus, the jazz composer."

Born in Arizona in 1922 and raised in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Mingus, as a child first learned to play trombone and cello. At the age of 16, he switched to string bass. In high school, he began playing with a local band led by Buddy Collette.

After high school, his father tried to get him a regular job, but Mingus resisted.

"I went to take the test for the post office," recalled Mingus, but I never took the test. I decided, 'I don't want this, I'd rather shine shoes first.'"

When his father asked, "What are you going to do?" Mingus said, "I'm going to be a musician."

His father sent him to a teacher, a former member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and he studied with him for five years. But, he was also studying with jazz bassist Red Callender.

At the age of 20, Mingus was playing bass with Barney Bigard's group in Los Angeles and toured briefly with Louis Armstrong. He first recorded under his own name in 1945 and in 1947 and '48. toured with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. He returned to LA in '48 and worked a lot of studio jobs. He wrote and played background music for Dinah Washington's early records.

In 1950, he moved to New York where he joined the Red Novo Trio and gigged with such artists as Miles Davis, Billy Talyor, Stan Getz, Lennie Tristano, Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. Mingus became a key figure in the evolving bop movement and jazz historian Martin Williams later said, "Mingus was the first bass soloist who functioned on the level of the very great soloists in jazz. To be the soloist that he was, he had to be a virtuoso player. He's been called 'The Segovia of jazz bass' and that's not a foolish description. He certainly was that."

But, Mingus' wide musical interests were not satisfied by bop alone. He was quietly experimenting with other forms of music. He said, "I started (studying) counterpoint. I was listening to all kinds of music. I enjoy Indian music...maybe as much as Charlie Parker. I like Beethoven. I'm writing string quartets."

When Mingus composed "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," a salute to Parker, many people thought he was through with bebop. But he said he was building on his bop roots and advancing the music in new directions.

His widow, Sue Mingus, later said, "Charles used to wake up frequently late at night and go to the piano. He felt music was there waiting for him. He felt he was a vehicle, a medium, and the music simply passed through him."

Mingus, no doubt would like to be remembered as an important jazz composer, just as Duke Ellington is. While few critics rank him with Ellington, many do consider Charles Mingus an important jazz composer.

And two of the reasons for that assessment have strong Cleveland links. It was Clevelander Andrew Homzy who discovered Mingus' score for Epitaph and it was performed in an historic concert on the stage of Cleveland's Severance Hall.

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1999 Joe Mosbrook

You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).