Duke Ellington's finest year

Duke Ellington band

A year of creative peaks, a year to marvel at. For Duke Ellington 1940 was a triumph against the odds, says Stuart Nicholson

The media love anniversaries. Whole programmes are devoted to anniversary events on radio and TV, the daily press and monthly magazines regularly come up with “anniversary issues” of this event or that – it seems we can’t get enough of them. From the Battle of Britain to national sporting triumphs – the football world cup is a perennial favourite – to the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon, Princess Di and President Kennedy, and, in the jazz world, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, the list goes on and on. How strange then, that the jazz world has not seen fit to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s towering achievements from the year 1940, the year that saw the true flowering of his great genius.

That year, Ellington was in the recording studio 11 times, and the majority of material he committed to wax were some of the best performed, most adventurously crafted and emotionally serious work ever produced by a larger ensemble in jazz. Yet extraordinarily, he gave little intimation of what was about to come during the late-1930s. By 1939, with the Swing Era well under way, Ellington, who had been recording under his own name with his big band since 1926, was feeling the competition. The death of his mother in 1935 and his father two years later had sent him into a depression that saw his career slide into a holding pattern. Musical problems in his orchestra were beginning to mount – his two-bass configuration was rhythmically lumpy compared to, say, the svelte propulsion of the Count Basie orchestra; hit records had been few; his repertoire seemed dated and, from the public’s point of view, the band lacked a “hot” tenor man such as Count Basie’s Lester Young, Cab Calloway’s Chu Berry, Benny Goodman’s Vido Musso or Artie Shaw’s Georgie Auld.

Finally, at the end of 1939, Ellington reacted and put his personal problems behind him. His reception in Sweden (he would write ‘Serenade to Sweden’ in tribute) during a tour to Europe had lifted his spirits and would be responsible for a creative high that would propel him into the 1940s.

He broke ties with his management, the Mills Organisation, which had guided his career to date, left Columbia Records and signed to RCA Victor making three important additions to his personnel. Jimmy Blanton, one of the finest bassists in jazz, transformed the rhythm section, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster added solo excitement and a new tonal dimension to the sax section and composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn would challenge and inspire Ellington to greater triumphs.

 

“‘Jack The Bear’ contains a rare moment of jazz history actually being made”

 

The first intimation that Ellington and his orchestra were on the threshold of greatness came from their second session for RCA Victor in Chicago in March 1940. ‘Jack The Bear’ contains a rare moment of jazz history actually being made – Jimmy Blanton shattering the traditional concept of jazz bass playing with his virtuoso pizzicato technique. On it he shows how the bass could contribute exciting solo lines and interact with the ensemble without surrendering its basic timekeeping role. Then there was ‘Ko Ko’, which has been described as “one of the monumental events in jazz music”. It is an orchestral tour-de-force with the minimum of solo space (24 bars from ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton and 12 bars from Ellington) that succeeds as a piece of absolute or ‘pure’ music in that its minor 12-bar blues form (repeated seven times) has no obvious ‘melody’ in the conventional sense. Its tonal ambiguity and use of dissonance, particularly in the fourth chorus, instantly separates Ellington from the conventional dance bands of the period. Here is a glimpse of the future more profound, even, than Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko Ko’ from 26 November 1945 (not the same tune). Here Ellington looks both ways, to freedom (bi-tonality and his amazing piano splashes of colour that anticipate Cecil Taylor) and form.

Within a week, Ellington was back in the studios and two more classics resulted. ‘Conga Brava’ has an elusive 20-bar form and contains Ben Webster’s first major solo statement with the band, climaxed by a brilliant brass quintet at the end. This headlong tour through exotic rhythms was followed by ‘Concerto For Cootie’, which like so much of his work from this period showed Ellington’s complete mastery of the three-minute form allowed by the then industry norm of 10-inch shellac discs. In an analysis of this piece in 1954, André Hodeir, in Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, called this piece a work of genius.

But the simple fact is that Ellington did not just produce one work of “genius” during this period, indeed it would be most unusual if the same depth of intellect was incapable of sustaining such greatness if such a term is to meaningfully apply. While it is not possible to deal with every recording in this remarkable period, certain works do merit further attention, such as ‘Cotton Tail’, featuring Ben Webster, on Ellington’s brilliant arrangement built on the chords of George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’. The arrangement is full of deft Ellington touches, such as the trumpet doubling the sax lead at the end of the first chorus, the ingenious counterpoint between brass and saxophones and the stunning saxophone soil, reputedly the work of Webster himself. Note too, how piano and guitar drop out at points in Webster’s solo, anticipating the “tenor trio” of sax, bass and drums masterfully exploited by Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson in later years and today by Joshua Redman. Throughout 1940, Ellington was producing two, sometimes three genuine masterpieces every time he went into the studio such as ‘Bojangles (A Portrait of Bill Robinson)’, ‘Portrait of Bert Williams’, ‘Blue Goose’ that borrowed the first eight bars of harmony from ‘Stardust’ and has Johnny Hodges’ last soprano sax solo, ‘In A Mellow Tone’ (a reworking of ‘Rose Room’), ‘Across the Track Blues’, the superb Blanton feature ‘Sepia Panorama’, ‘Rumpus In Richmond’ and of course ‘Harlem Air Shaft’, the latter an inspired piece of writing notable for creating a remarkable climax in a short space of time during the final chorus.

What is remarkable about these pieces is Ellington’s organisational methods within the popular song form. Often there are several themes in one piece, different rhythmic figures emerge and recede and surprisingly, in view of the limited time span available, transitional and developmental passages. Ultimately, however, it is the sound of Ellington’s Famous Orchestra that sets him apart in contemporary music, what Billy Strayhorn called ‘The Ellington Effect’ – the use of highly individual, sometimes idiosyncratic soloists in combination to create great richness of tonal colour that was both unique and distinctive. Ultimately, however, these recordings are neither landmarks of jazz improvisation or big band dance music popular at the time. The conventional categories of jazz or even classical music seem inappropriate to embrace these major works, which are among the finest bodies of music created in the 20th century. 

Recommended recording

Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra

The Duke at Fargo 1940

Storyville 103 8435 | ★★★★ Recommended

Wallace Jones (t), Ray Nance (t, vln), Rex Stewart (cnt), Lawrence Brown, Joe ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton (tb), Juan Tizol (v, tb), Otto Hardwick (as, cl), Johnny Hodges (as, sop, cl), Barney Bigard (clt, ts), Harry Carney (bs, clt), Duke Ellington (p), Fred Guy (g, whistle), Jimmy Blanton (b), Sonny Greer (d), Ivie Anderson and Herb Jeffries (v). Rec. 7 November 1940

Danish label Storyville last issued their double-CD of this legendary ‘live’ Ellington dance date in 2000, labelled reasonably enough as the ‘60th anniversary edition’. Now they’ve released it again, sub-titled this time as Special 60th Anniversary Edition. Prior to Storyville’s involvement an earlier edition appeared in 1990 on the US-based Vintage Jazz Classics label. I mention this because that version boasted a 19-page booklet essay by Ellington scholar Andrew Homzy, a superlative track-by-track evaluation of the music which is not replicated on the Storyville release or matched by the Jerry Valburn-William Strother-Jack Towers’ notes repeated here from their 2000 release. Even so, there’s enough here to place the recording in context. Towers and the late Dick Burris, tyro audio engineers, had seen the band back in 1939 and resolved to record it when it came to Fargo, North Dakota, setting up their rudimentary gear having cleared their endeavour with the booking agency and Duke himself.

And what a feast of music they captured for this was the famed Blanton-Webster line-up caught in all their blazing glory on a one-night dance gig in the boondocks. No compromises offered bar the occasional pop song, the core repertoire – ‘KoKo’, ‘Sepia Panorama’, ‘Never No Lament’, ‘Cotton Tail’, ‘Boy Meets Horn’ (with every kind of cornet noise from Stewart) etc – all included. Forty-five pieces in all, some truncated for disc changeovers etc, the vocals less well caught than the ensembles. Trumpeter Nance, making his first gig with the band, sounds good, as do all the established stars. What comes across most for me is Blanton’s incredible buoyancy and the extraordinary rhythmic verve he and Greer demonstrate throughout, this exemplified on the outrageous version of ‘St Louis Blues’ that precedes ‘God Bless America’ as the gig’s closer. Then again there’s the sheer energy and audacity of the ensemble playing, every man on song and in the form of their lives. Oh yes, the sound is surprisingly good considering. Don’t wait another 13 years: snap this up now. (Peter Vacher)

This article originally appeared in the Dec 10 / Jan 11 issue of Jazzwise; the review appeared in the Oct 13 issue. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Return to Jazz Artists.

Billie Holiday – The highs and lows of Lady Day

Billie Holiday left an extraordinary legacy and made an indelible impression on the cultural landscape. Yet the raw emotional pull of her music was the result of a desperately chaotic lifestyle that the singer seemed unable to control. Stuart Nicholson details the highs and lows of Lady Day's life

Billie Holiday, probably the most moving, unadulterated jazz singer of all time, was born on 7 April 1915. When she died 44 years later, on 17 April 1959, she still had a long career ahead of her as a cultural icon, yet to try and reconstruct her life as that of an ordinary woman beset by trial and tribulation is to misunderstand her with a degree of perversity equal to her own. Billie was no ordinary woman. The sound of her voice still has people reaching for metaphor to explain its effect; it engages our deepest emotions because that is what she strove to reach within herself. Yet the great paradox of Billie Holiday was the very singer who could freeze an audience into their seats with the emotional power of her singing, struggled throughout her life with deep emotional problems of her own that she could not begin to understand.

Just how our childhood experiences continue to influence us into adulthood is a question researchers are still trying to answer. One area of consensus, however, is how the degree of emotional support a child receives in their early years has a bearing on social life and even romantic relationships twenty or even 30 years on. Perhaps, then, Billie’s traumatic childhood is a place try and understand her. Being constantly abandoned to friends and relations by her mother, the emotional havoc wrought by her rape as an 11-year-old and her arrest at the age of 14 on the streets of Harlem for prostitution could well have contributed to the diminished sense of self those close to her spoke of. These feelings would also go some way to explaining her abnormally dependent personality, her desire to attach herself to someone who would love and care for her, and then, once in a relationship do anything and accept anything – including physical violence – to maintain it. Equally, her lack of parental supervision from a young age may also have had a bearing on her lack of moral discipline, expressed at an early age through truancy and lack of interest in academic activities, and in later years in drug and alcohol abuse.

Yet such calm rationalisation can never fully explain a life overtaken by the dark and destructive forces that inhabit human nature. Billie was never able to come to terms with her personal demons and much of her life was spent running away from them, retreating into the pursuit of pleasure, something that was in conspicuously short supply during her childhood. From her early teens, she associated marijuana and alcohol with good times. As a young woman she lived it up with a vengeance in the fast track of Harlem nightlife of the late 1920s and early 1930s. She was unconcerned if her indulgences affected her singing career, which progressively left John Hammond, her influential patron and record producer, more and more disenchanted. What he wanted was for his commitment to her career to be matched by hers. In 1939 she was introduced to Buddy Tate, and the tall, elegant saxophonist from Count Basie’s band and the beautiful jazz singer became an item. But when he realised the role alcohol and marijuana played in her life he told her, “Lady, you can’t get high all the time, not every day.”

In 1941, her affair with Tate behind her, Billie married small-time drug dealer Jimmy Monroe and subsequently gravitated to opium for her highs. That all changed around 1943-4 when heroin began to fill a void caused by the wartime shortage of opium. For a while she used intermittently, but then succumbed to addiction, spending vast sums of money indulging herself and her former drugs runner Joe Guy – now her new boyfriend – in monumental highs. In an attempt to protect his main client Louis Armstrong from a drugs bust, her manager Joe Glaser cooperated with law enforcement agencies in 1947 to have her busted for possession. It made the national news. By the time she was released from prison in 1948, she was clean and played two acclaimed Carnegie Hall concerts but quickly re-succumbed to addiction. By 23 January 1949 she was back on the front pages of the tabloids, arrested for possession by Federal narcotic agents.

While the charges were eventually dismissed because of a technicality, her divorce from Jimmy Monroe, her sordid relationship of violence with John Levy, a small-time nightclub owner, followed by marriage to Louis McKay, all interspersed with brushes with the law were acted out in the pages of the tabloid press. Audiences now read Billie’s real-life story into her performances, as if each word might reveal some deep, dark secret about her private life, and songs such as ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’ (recorded 1949) reinforced her ‘notoriety’ while defiantly justifying her indulgence of the self. This simple step reinforced her authenticity as an artist. As a young woman, she sang from the standpoint of being unlucky in love. Now, as an older woman never far from the clamour of tabloid headlines, she sang from the perspective of a woman unlucky in life.

In 1952, her downward spiral into alcohol and drug addiction was interrupted by Norman Granz, who recorded her for his Verve label, and although there were times when her soiled realism blurred into stylised realism, the raw nerve endings exposed by her voice served only to reinforce her authenticity as a jazz singer. Granz told me that by 1957, he felt he had done all he could to help her and wished she had helped herself more. Her parting shot was two albums – Lady in Satin (Columbia) from 1958 and Billie Holiday (MGM) from 1959 – that defy conventional critique; here the emotional destiny of her work is ultimately commanded by knowledge of her real-life story in order to realise their powerful emotional impact. They are harsh, even terrifying, statements that make you afraid to listen because her voice contains a glimpse of death.

 

“Above all else she was a great artist, not because of the suffering her hedonistic lifestyle brought her, but in spite of it.”

 

On 30 May 1959 she collapsed and was admitted to the Knickerbocker Hospital, located on Convent Avenue and 131st Street in Harlem, at 3.40 pm. On the 11 June a nurse discovered heroin in the Kleenex box by her bedside and she was arrested on her deathbed, denied visitors by a police guard unless they had written permission to see her from the 23rd Precinct. When she finally passed at around 3am on the night of 10 July her worldly fortune amounted to just $848.54 in cash. Over 3,000 people attended the requiem mass held for at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church on Columbus Circle on 22 July, yet hardly anyone had visited her in her tiny apartment at 26th West 87th Street during the final years of her life. Already her career was being overshadowed by that quirk of the human condition that sees fascination in those who gamble with life and lose. Just like Charlie Parker, James Dean, Janis Joplin, Marylin Monroe, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and a host of others, her life found unexpected definition through a premature route to eternity. All share one thing in common – a sainted, metaphorical afterlife where the myth has grown larger than the life.

Yet standing back from this simmering life engaged to disaster, a life with so many wrong turnings, wrong associations, seemingly inexplicable behaviour and a failure to take responsibility for a career that once showed such great promise, a pattern does emerge. Throughout her career she seemed never to learn from her experiences in life. Despite her extraordinary talent she always seemed to throw away what she had gained not once, but time and again. Yet in prison, when confronted with her shortcomings, her medical records reveal a person who was both keen and anxious to mend her ways, but it is clear that what she said was only for the moment. However convincing her promises, resolution passed as soon as she was released. Her outward appearance of warmth, loyalty, pride and sincerity seem to have concealed a lack of remorse or any desire to avoid damaging indiscretions or destructive behaviour. Maybe the extreme contradictions to be found in her character created the tensions that gave rise to her genius, who knows?

Ultimately, the key thing about Billie Holiday was that above all else she was a great artist, not because of the suffering her hedonistic lifestyle brought her, but in spite of it. That she was able to achieve so much with the burden she had to carry must surely be her ultimate triumph. 

This article origiinally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.

Return to Jazz Artists.

Explore...

Feature Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

Review Anita O'Day – Sings for Oscar; Cool Heat ★★★★★  

Review Max Roach – Complete 1958-59 Plus Four Sessions ★★★★★

Sonny Rollins - Tenor of our times

Sonny Rollins

Right there when bebop was freshly minted and he was running around with Miles and the fast set, through his startling early flowering with the classic Saxophone Colossus, to his London jazz club days in the 60s, and up to today when he steps up to the mark once again live and in the studio, very few come near Sonny Rollins. Interview by Stuart Nicholson 

'Rollins – Unique And Absorbing'. The headline of a review in Melody Maker during Rollins' first visit to London in 1965. “His nightly sessions [at Ronnie Scott’s] are something which no serious student of jazz can afford to miss,” continued the review and it has remained that way ever since. A Rollins concert continues to be an event to be savoured, Rolling Stone magazine once saying that in the future people will boast of having seen Rollins perform much as the lucky few now boast of having seen the great bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.

Sonny Rollins is one of the last of the titans from the great era of modern jazz. Noted for his bold tone, propulsive phrasing and buoyant lyricism, he is a master at blending the contradictory impulses of contemporary jazz. He swings even as he fragments rhythms and as he ranges through chorus after chorus of heated improvisation, you always feel the melody is a stone’s throw away. His playing imparts, somehow, a simultaneous sense of struggle and celebration that has helped make him a legend in his own lifetime.

Among the first American jazz musicians to drive a coach and horses through the Musician’s Union ban on visiting American musicians in the mid-1960s, he followed fellow tenor saxophonist Ben Webster into London’s Ronnie Scott club in January 1965 for a three-week residency. As he told Sunday Times writer Derek Jewell at the time, he had accepted the engagement against the advice of his agent because he couldn’t bring his own group. “But I’m glad I did,” he said, adding that he found London a very special place. “I get feelings here like no American city.”

Sonny RollinsForty-four years later, he still remembers that visit with great affection. “When I first came to London for those series of club dates at Ronnie Scott’s I agreed to do something which I was not in the custom of doing, which was to play with a new rhythm section,” he says.

“Since my early times I had my own rhythm section, however, for whatever reason – I forget why I agreed to leave them at home – I was very pleasantly surprised. I had a great group of people, Stan Tracey [on piano], Ronnie Stephenson [on drums] and Rick Laird was our bass player and they were all very competent, talented people so it made my stay there very comfortable and rewarding musically. We hit it off right away and it was very comfortable. It was the original Ronnie Scott’s club on Gerrard Street and it was quite a homely place.”

When he arrived, Stan Tracey recalls he called a rehearsal. “He asked us to play ‘Prelude to a Kiss’,” he told The Guardian. “We played on nothing else but that all afternoon. But he never asked for it at any time in the next four weeks he was at the club. Then next time he came, about a year later, he asked us to play it. Probably the most inventive improviser it’s ever been my pleasure to work with.”

At the end of the engagement, Rollins did an unusual thing, which says much about how he regarded his first trip to London. “I brought presents for some of the staff there, which I am sure was highly unusual. I don’t know, maybe others had done it, but I never heard of it being done. I did it because I really made friends with the people there; I really felt a strong bond with the staff and everybody around the club and parting I felt I wanted to leave something of a remembrance. That indicates how much I felt part of the family, so to speak.”

Described by Ronnie Scott in the pages of Melody Maker in January 1965 as “tremendously moving and technically fantastic”, it was while playing at Scott’s club that Rollins was invited to contribute to a little bit of British movie history by providing the soundtrack for the motion picture Alfie, starring Michael Caine. “I did it when I was working at Ronnie’s,” recalls Rollins.

“The producer of the film came in, we were having a nice successful season in the club, lots of people coming by, and I guess we had some notoriety as being ‘a good ticket.’ And so the producer – actually the producer’s son – heard me playing and said, ‘gee Sonny, you’re the right person who we feel would express the character of Alfie’. Now, after having seen the movie, I don’t know if I should have taken that as a compliment or not! But anyway, I was anxious to do the film, so I did it – I actually wrote the music for the film in the club. When I got through an evening’s performance I would have had to have gone home to a hotel and try to get to sleep, it’s always hard to come down from a concert right away and just get yourself into bed. So I said, ‘Ronnie, after I get through playing tonight I’d like to stay in the club, just lock me up, and I’ll stay here until they come by in the morning to open up, because I want to work on the music and I’ll have a nice private space to do it.’ And Ronnie said, ‘Yes, fine, if you want to do that.’ So, that’s what we did, and I got locked in at night and in the morning the people came to open up the club and clean up the club and everything and I had spent that time working on the score that we used for the film.

“Tubby Hayes was a frequent visitor to the club during our time there but I would have probably have remembered if Tubby had been doing the soundtrack, I don’t think so. I think it was Ronnie [Scott], Stan Tracey, Phil Seamen – the drummer, a good guy. We had a lot of fun with Phil, and all the guys. As I said I was quite friendly with everybody and it was really a very bright period of my life that time when I was playing at Ronnie’s.”

Sonny Rollins wrote himself into the pages of jazz history on 22 June 1956 with a series of nonpareil performances on the album Saxophone Colossus. From the moment it was released it was hailed as a classic. But for the 25-year-old saxophonist it was just another session during a remarkable creative high that spanned almost three years. During that time he recorded 15 sessions under his own name that began with Worktime in December 1955 and ended with Freedom Suite in 1958, taking in Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West plus the classic Blue Note session A Night At The Village Vanguard for good measure.

 

Rollins demonstrated that jazz improvisation could be sustained for lengthy periods with great cohesion, subtlety and even wit

 

By any standards this was an astonishing period of creativity. It saw Rollins prising jazz from the omnipresent influence of Charlie Parker, whose legion of followers mistook speed for content and ended up creating solos like one enormous glissando. In contrast, Rollins demonstrated that jazz improvisation could be sustained for lengthy periods with great cohesion, subtlety and even wit. With blunt, asymmetric phrasing and a big powerful tone, his style was unmistakable. Before your very eyes he seems to dismantle songs and reassemble them in new and interesting ways, a feat performed with such clarity of purpose you could almost hear him thinking.

His solos were propositions, cerebral inventions that sounded as if they could be spun endlessly, rather than the pronouncements of an Armstrong or a Parker, which seemed to arrive etched in stone. “I always stress that music never ends, it just continues, there is no real cut off,” he says. His improvisations were governed as much by the underlying harmonic sequence as the development and thematic variation of a melodic idea. Ever since ‘Blue Seven’ from Saxophone Colossus, shrewdly analysed by Gunther Schuller in the pages of the then highly influential American magazine Jazz Review, Rollins has, over the years, developed and refined this creative process into a unique art.

In September 2008, after more than two decades mainly playing with a quintet (including his nephew Wes Anderson on trombone, an association on record that began with 1984’s Sunny Days, Starry Nights), Rollins decided to perform a concert at Carnegie Hall with a trio. As the New York Times reported at the time, “All those who watch jazz closely stepped back and took a deep breath.” The reason was simple. For many, perhaps most, of his fans, performing with just bass and drums accompaniment was the ideal forum in which to express his remarkable improvisatory gifts. Yet his trio recordings seem to exist almost in parallel to his remarkable career and yield some of his most memorable albums – not least Way Out West, A Night At The Village Vanguard and Freedom Suite.

“When I look back on my career I find that I was playing trio almost from the beginning,” he reflects. “You know when I first met Miles Davis I was playing as an opening act for him, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, some of these stars that were playing down on 52nd Street. This was a place up in the Bronx called the 845 Club and I was hired to play and open up for these guys and as I look back I remember I had a trio then. When Miles, I remember, offered me a job in his band he had heard me in a trio originally. When I look back on my career I find that many records were made with a trio, that’s why nowadays when you find saxophone, drums and bass there’s a little bit of Sonny Rollins in that line-up. I found I had been doing it for so much of my career. I didn’t even realise it until somebody asked me about it a year or so ago, and I looked back and realised how much of my work was with a trio.

Some of my records like A Night At The Village Vanguard, Way Out West, Freedom Suite were made with a trio. I had some more than useful accompaniment too! I had people like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Shelley Manne, I mean I had configurations of groups which really had the crème de la crème and so the success of those records is certainly not only my playing but I do find it has been some years since I played in that grouping. I find that as a soloist it gives me more freedom to hear the harmonic possibilities of any piece of music that we’re playing. With due respect to the piano players, and I have worked with some of the best, the piano is a dominating instrument and if you have 88 keys and the person is playing chords behind you when you are soloing it is very difficult to deviate from their harmonic direction. With a bass and drums I don’t have that, I can hear my own harmony and fill it in myself. I’ve always liked that, when I first started playing as a kid I used to be in the house playing by myself, for hours and hours, and my dear mother used to call me, ‘Sonny, Sonny, it’s time to eat dinner.’ And I’d just be in there in the bedroom playing in my own reverie, my own peaceful trance so to speak. I have always been a person who has been able to create my own harmony when I play.”

Rollins’ instantly recognisable tenor saxophone sound did not come out of nowhere. It includes a synthesis of key players from the generations in jazz that preceded him when he was developing his own voice in the late-1940s. “My idols were originally Louis Jordan, the rhythm and blues saxophonist, then I gravitated to Coleman Hawkins and I stayed with Coleman Hawkins trying to absorb him and then I familiarised myself with Lester Young,” he recalls.

“All the time of course I had heard Ben Webster and tried to absorb some of his playing and the great Don Byas was one of my ultimate favourite saxophone players who I think was one of those unsung heroes. So I tried – I learned a lot, I wish I could have learned more from these people [laughs], I studied them a lot, let me say that! I studied all of them a lot, and Charlie Parker came along and I studied Charlie Parker a lot, the fact that Charlie Parker came on the scene just at the time I was coming into my adolescence he became a prominent source of my inspiration at that time.

“When I first heard Charlie Parker it was in the 1940s – the first record I had by Charlie Parker was a record called ‘KoKo.’ It was a famous record of him playing on ‘Cherokee,’ it was on Savoy. On the other side of that record was ‘How High The Moon’ by Don Byas. I actually bought that record for Don Byas because I didn’t really know Charlie Parker, but listened to Charlie Parker play, it was interesting but after playing it for my friends at school I realised this guy has got something going here, and I began to become a devotee of Charlie Parker.”

 

 I just had a feeling that I was in the right place with the right people, people like Charlie Parker, our idol, our prophet, our god” – Sonny Rollins

 

Later, the great Charlie Parker would become something of a mentor to the precociously talented Rollins. “He looked at me in rather an avuncular way, myself and a lot of other young people, all trying to play like him, and I think he was very proud of us, really,” he says. “As I began playing more and getting some recognition from some of the older players and so on, finally I got to the point where I was playing with Miles Davis and our paths crossed, and Miles said to Charlie Parker, listen to this guy, and Charlie Parker, the first time he heard me, he said, ‘Hey, man that’s me!’ So I really felt great, and he was like a father figure to us all, mentor and everything. People have asked me, ‘Sonny, you played with people like Charlie Parker when you were young, didn’t it make you feel a little bit scared?’ I said no. Actually I loved all those people, they were my gods, but still I had something in me that made me always feel as if I belonged, and that I should be where I was. I just had a feeling that I was in the right place with the right people, people like Charlie Parker, our idol, our prophet, our god.”

Charlie Parker, whose personal life has become legendary, had, as Joe Goldberg points out in Jazz Masters of the Fifties perhaps “too great” an influence on the young Rollins.

“Jazz musicians have hard, hard, hard lives and they are prey to the usual things artists are prey to – alcohol, drugs all these things,” says Rollins frankly. “I would say all artists are subject to getting involved in these things because it sort of goes with living and trying to get closer to nature and music, and these things are hard to find in every day life, every day society, so artists and writers may get into drinking and all that, because we’re trying to find essences of things you’re not going to find in everyday life. That’s what makes art ‘art,’ something separate, so one of the pitfalls is that in order to find those things you drink a lot, you use drugs a lot, you find ways that at least temporarily give you a different consciousness.”

 

 Rollins abruptly dropped out of the music scene to break his pattern of addiction and found work in Chicago as a janitor

 

Having seen two friends, Ike Day and Lowell Lewis, have their careers ruined by addiction, Rollins abruptly dropped out of the music scene to break his pattern of addiction and found work in Chicago as a janitor. He continued playing, but not professionally during this period. It was now 1955, and Miles Davis, who was forming a new quintet, let it be known in print he wanted Rollins to join him. “Well I had been playing with Miles,” he recalls. “When I was away from New York he gravitated towards me to start his band up, we were very good friends, Miles and me used to hang out, at my house, I’ve been in his house, this kind of stuff. Although I had played with Miles and John Coltrane in 1949, I think that’s right but my chronology could be off a little bit, we both played with Miles [around then], so Miles knew Coltrane and he knew me – I think he recounts some of that in his biography. I was very excited when he wrote that he wanted to get Sonny, but I think that was because he and I were very close personally and musically, so probably that’s why he wanted to get me back when he formed his band.”

Rollins was playing in Davis’ quintet with pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones on a July 1955 broadcast from the Café Bohemia in New York City, but in September 1955 he signed himself into Lexington to try and kick his drug habit. He was replaced by John Gilmore, but on Monday 26 September, Philly Joe Jones phoned John Coltrane who joined the band the following day at the Club Las Vegas in Baltimore. The classic Miles Davis Quintet was born. “I’m sure Coltrane was available and was someone who he would have taken also,” says Rollins. “I think he just mentioned my name as the first one at that point, but Miles loved to have a strong saxophone player. That was one of his desires, he always wanted to have a strong saxophone player, as you know he always had strong saxophone players with him. I think it set his playing off in relief, which he enjoyed and he realised it was good musically to play against the pattern of saxophone sounds, it set his playing off in relief that made it made him more cogent and I think he knew that.” 

As Miles Davis went on to make jazz history with John Coltrane, Rollins was about to make history himself. In December 1955 saxophonist Harold Land left the Clifford Brown / Max Roach Quintet at the Beehive club in Chicago, so Roach called Sonny Rollins. “I had been in a rehabilitation hospital for substance abuse, and when I joined Clifford Brown and Max Roach I had been fighting to get free of all of these things,” he recalls. “I had been going along very nicely, in fact I had turned a corner in many ways, I had turned a corner but I had to stay away from music for a while, I had to stay away from the environment of music until I got myself strong enough to be around music and not fall prey to drinking and drug abuse and all that stuff. So I was right at a critical point in my life when I had turned a corner and I was ready to going back to playing, and that’s when I met the band and they asked me to join it and Clifford became such a light to me, because he was playing so great and yet he was completely clean, a clean living person. So he was a great influence on me in a very, very positive way.”

Just about a year older than the mercurial Clifford Brown, Rollins was about to step into a front-line partnership where he would realise his own great talent. “Clifford was a fine, consummate musician, but I certainly didn’t feel, ‘Boy, Clifford Brown, I don’t know if I should be up here,’” he says. “I didn’t feel that, but I certainly felt a big challenge playing with Clifford Brown because of his great playing. However, I was playing a little differently to the fellow I followed in the band, Harold Land, a fine saxophone player. But the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band with Land was set in a certain direction, when I joined the band it sort of opened up a lot of other things, it changed a lot about the band, a lot of people observed that, it changed the character of the band, and in so doing it changed Brownie. He was so great, I don’t know if I was as great on saxophone as Clifford was on trumpet, I’m not sure about that, you know? But what I am sure is that I had it in my hands to go in a slightly different direction which changed the character of that band.”

By now, Rollins had developed a strong musical personality that could challenge Brown and Roach and help them reach new highs, and their remarkable recorded evidence suggests Rollins brought a gravitas to the band which took it to the cusp of true greatness. Potentially their musical relationship could have been one of the most seminal in the annals of modern jazz, eclipsing that of even the Davis quintet. But it was not to be. The clean living Brown lost his life in a car accident on 26 June 1956. Rollins remained with Roach, playing with Brown’s replacement Kenny Dorham for almost a year, but it was to be his last as a sideman, and his association with Dorham was his last significant association with a trumpeter (except for a brief alliance with Don Cherry five years after he left Roach in May 1957).

Since then, as an internationally renowned artist Rollins’ stature within jazz has continued to grow. In 1986 he was hailed as jazz’s greatest living improviser, and he continues to be capable of filling any concert hall around the world.

So what is he looking for, with all that he has achieved, in his constant search for perfection? “I’m looking for continuity of ideas and the perfect cut-off. I’m looking for that type of really beautiful statement, an impressive statement, really on my part. I’m also looking for a good community effort on behalf of the group, not just myself. So I’m looking for the perfect balance, and this you can get to a certain point, maybe 50 per cent, maybe 60 per cent, maybe 70 per cent, maybe 80 per cent but it is never there completely. So that’s what I am looking for.”

This article originally appeared in Jazzwise, November 2009. Subscribe to Jazzwise.

Return to Jazz Artists.

Explore...

Review Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus ★★★★★

Review Max Roach – Complete 1958-59 Plus Four Sessions ★★★★★

Review Cannonball Adderley – Somethin’ Else ★★★★★

John Coltrane – In the Temple of Trane

John Coltrane

Such was his desire to play the unplayable he would at times take the sax from his mouth and begin to chant and sing over the band. Stuart Nicholson looks at events in both Trane’s life, and society at large, which ultimately helped shape a seething soundtrack to this most turbulent of times

In 1966, the United States was in turmoil with race riots in most large cities, Civil Rights protests, anti-war demonstrations, the rise of the counter-culture and sexual liberation. In jazz, the rise of free jazz – inextricably linked to the social climate from which it emerged – was for many the anthem that screamed rejection of racial inequality. Like American society at this time, saxophonist John Coltrane’s music was also in flux, his growing involvement with the avant-garde, or New Thing, sparking the defection of long serving sidemen while provoking an angry debate among his followers about his musical direction that has continued to this day. As journalist Stanley Crouch has written: “By 1966, Coltrane was not only having trouble in clubs, sometimes being fired on opening night, he could empty an entire park, which, as Rashied Ali recalls, he did in Chicago. During the performance and others witnessed in New York, Coltrane put down the saxophone and started shouting, yodelling and screaming through the microphone while beating on his chest.”

John Coltrane OfferingUntil now, the story of Coltrane casting aside his saxophone and “shouting, yodelling and screaming” has been part of the apocrypha surrounding his final months, portrayed as the existential angst of an artist whose time was running out and could no longer express all he wanted to say through his horn. In an interview in The Sixties, a collection of interviews edited by Lynda Rosen Obst, Rashied Ali, Coltrane’s drummer at the time, described Coltrane’s thinking: “He was studying Buddha sometime near the last gig and found that there was a chant where you could pound your chest and it would change the sound of your voice. He wanted to get that quiver on the horn, and when he couldn’t get it, he’d put the horn down, beat on his chest and scream into the microphone. People really thought he’d lost his mind then.”

With the release of John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple University (Resonance), recorded on 11 November 1966, we have Coltrane vocalising as Ali describes on the compositions ‘Leo’ and ‘My Favorite Things’ that underline the importance of this newly discovered material. Where The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording – recorded 23 April 1967 – is equivocal, muddy and indistinct, Offering is unequivocal, powerful and hard-hitting, providing a valuable insight into the nature and direction of Coltrane’s music at a crucial period in his life. What emerges is a remarkable spirituality, the connectedness of Coltrane’s chanting to the totality of his music purview and the lucidity of his playing. If these recordings bear witness to the dramatic times in which they were recorded, then the music reflects the drama being acted out in American society itself.

In 1964, president Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara fabricated an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to provide the pretext for escalating American involvement in the Vietnam War. By 1966, in the face of military draft to fight a war whose objectives were unclear, a rising body count, and the certainty of victory appearing more and more remote, student protest and unrest were spreading like wildfire through college campuses across the United States. Convinced communist agitators were behind the unrest, an increasingly beleaguered president ordered the CIA and the FBI to begin a massive surveillance and information gathering effort against anti-war activists.

John ColtraneCodenamed Operation CHAOS, top of the FBI’s list of targets was Nobel Peace campaigner Dr. Martin Luther King, who had labelled the United States government, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Three years prior to Offering, in 1963, King had helped organise the March on Washington where he galvanised the world with his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But King’s peaceful struggle was being played out against a background of inner city rioting, the Watts riot in August 1965 shattering American quiescence as fires burned and blood flowed in the streets.

Socially, religiously and culturally aware, the traumatic events in American society seemed to be playing out in Coltrane’s music. In an August 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky, Coltrane observed, “I think that music, being an expression of the human heart, or of the human, of being itself, does express what is happening.” After attending a Malcolm X meeting and left “quite impressed,” Coltrane was asked whether the kind of social and political issues Malcolm X talked about were expressed in his music, and whether he thought they were important. “Well they’re definitely important,” Coltrane responded, “and as I said, the issues are part of what is, you know, at this time. So naturally as musicians, we express whatever, whatever it is.”

As 1964 gave way to 1965, the members of Coltrane’s classic quartet – McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones – found themselves witness to their leader’s deepening engagement with the ‘New Thing’. When Coltrane recorded his classic A Love Supreme in December 1964, he also recorded a further version of ‘Acknowledgement’ adding New Thing saxophonist Archie Shepp and bassist Art Davis. It was not released for some 40 years, suggesting Coltrane’s music was already in transition, even though the organic unity of the ‘A Love Supreme’ suite in its released form suggests otherwise. Coltrane’s thinking became clear with the album appropriately named Transition, recorded on 10 and 16 June 1965 that, while including ‘Suite’, in obvious continuum of his religious preoccupations, suggested in its totality – ‘Transition’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Suite’ and ‘Vigil’ – a gathering of forces that presaged his major work Ascension, recorded on 28 June 1965, barely two weeks later. This recording marked the beginning of what has become known as ‘Late period Coltrane’, portrayed as a rupture with the past and the beginning of the saxophonist’s musical roller-coaster ride into eternity.

While the multi-throated roar of Ascension writ large the change in Coltrane’s music, what actually followed was a period of gradual transition that, although the energy and the drama of his music might suggest otherwise, was marked by cautious and careful rationality. New Thing at Newport: John Coltrane/Archie Shepp, recorded on 2 July 1965 at the Newport Jazz Festival, might have been an unequivocal announcement of his alignment with the New Thing, but Coltrane’s set was with his classic quartet, although his powerfully expressive foray into the altissimo range and free interlude on ‘One Down, One Up’ was a portent of things to come. Shepp, who played a set with his own group would later that summer sit-in with Coltrane’s group at the Down Beat festival in Chicago.

As long, powerful and increasingly abstract as his solos were becoming, Coltrane had achieved such international recognition that by now he was outselling the rest of the Impulse! catalogue put together. Perhaps the financial rewards of success allowed him to experiment by introducing New Thing players into the ranks of the classic quartet – after a week in Indianapolis as a quartet in early September, Pharoah Sanders and Donald Rafael Garrett were added to the group for their performance in San Francisco and appear on Live in Seattle from 30 September that year.

From Seattle, Coltrane moved to Los Angeles adding drummer Frank Butler, where the sound level, according to Downbeat, “was to say the least, intense.” When asked by the magazine if this was permanent, Coltrane said it was purely experimental, “I just wanted to see how it would work out, I may try it again later.” When he returned to New York in October, Sanders, Garrett and Butler were among the musicians on the tracks ‘Kulu Se Mama’ and ‘Selflessness’, while Butler is absent on what Coltrane scholar David Wild called the “acid-etched” ‘Om’.

 

“Lewis Porter has pointed out that Coltrane had dabbled with LSD while Miles Davis went further, claiming it was what killed him”

 

Although it seldom forms part of Coltrane discourse, Coltrane’s biographer Lewis Porter has pointed out that Coltrane had dabbled with LSD while Miles Davis went further, claiming it was what killed him. Somewhere between these two opposing poles lies a truth we will never know, but suffice to say in the worlds of rock and jazz, on both sides of the Atlantic, the ready availability of LSD to both musicians and fans was a fact of life. Tripping on acid had made thinking the unthinkable commonplace and popular culture was awash with new ideas and unusual connections in music, design, light shows, literature and more presenting another context in which to consider an acoustic group creating the energy of an electric rock group or combining jazz and Indian music or combining jazz with Buddhist chants.

In November 1965, the quartet’s appearance at the Village Gate was with the addition of Sanders, Shepp, altoist Carlos Ward and drummer Rashied Ali. The evening was described by Downbeat with characteristic understatement as: “Trane + 7 = A Wild Night at the Gate,” reporting that “One simply couldn’t hear anything but drums on ‘Out Of This World’. I had no idea what the soloists were saying and I doubt the players could hear each other… at one point I saw Coltrane break out a bagpipe and blow into it, but damned if I heard a note of what he played.”

On 23 November 1965, it would be just Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali who would join the quartet on Meditations, a recording that, as Coltrane himself pointed out at the time, was “an extension of A Love Supreme since my conception of that force keeps changing shape.” The album provides a useful yardstick with which to measure the distance his music had travelled from A Love Supreme, recorded virtually a year earlier.

Although Coltrane featured on the 30 December 1965 cover of Downbeat celebrating “The Year of John Coltrane” and his success in the 30th Annual Reader’s Poll, the comings and goings within the classic quartet had not been met with unalloyed joy by McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. The latter was offended because he considered his ability was being doubted by having another drummer playing alongside him and the former simply complained he could not hear himself playing, leaving in late 1965. When Jones handed in his resignation in January 1966 he cited the same reasons. Shortly afterwards, Sun Ra claimed that Coltrane hired Rashied Ali as a means of driving Tyner and Jones out, and when this was put to Coltrane in 1966 he said, “I was trying to do something. There was – I was trying to do something. Please… there was a thing I wanted to do in the music, see, and I figured I could do two things: I could have a band that played like the way we used to play, and a band that was going in the direction that this, the one I have now is going in – I could combine these two, with these, you know, with these two concepts going. And it could have been done.”

John and Alice ColtraneClearly, playing both ends against the middle did not work, and Coltrane immediately immersed himself in his new musical direction including revising his approach to the saxophone by using the higher registers of his tenor saxophone more, changing his vibrato and seeking greater freedom in tonality. With Tyner gone he turned to his wife Alice Coltrane (neé McLeod), who had been a student of Bud Powell and had previously worked in the bands of Kenny Burrell, Johnny Griffin, Lucky Thompson and Yusef Lateef. In 1962 she had auditioned for vibist Terry Gibbs’ group, “Right from the introduction Alice played on the first song, I knew she was something else,” recalled Gibbs in 2003. “She sounded like Bud Powell. She played chorus after chorus and every note was a gem…so now I had a good quartet!” In 1963 they recorded Terry Gibbs Plays Jewish Melodies in Jazz Time together, “Alice actually stole that date from me,” recalled Gibbs. However, when his band played opposite the John Coltrane Quartet in Birdland, events took an unexpected turn that lead to him losing his star player. “When I first introduced Alice to John, I immediately saw a puppy love romance starting,” said Gibbs. “There was a back booth in Birdland where the musicians could sit and every time we got off the stage, Alice would be there, just staring at John while he played. I think she was falling in love with him.” John Coltrane and Alice McLeod married in 1965 and in 1966 she replaced Tyner’s quartile approach to harmony with a freer accompaniment, which was echoed by Elvin Jones’ replacement Rashied Ali, whose drumming style Coltrane once dubbed “multi-directional.” With Tyner and Jones, Coltrane’s performances had been long; with his new group they became even longer as Live at the Village Vanguard Again (recorded 28 May 1966) or John Coltrane Live in Japan (recorded July 1966) reveal — for example, the 57min 19 secs performance of ‘My Favorite Things’ recorded at the Sankei Hall in Tokyo.

Although Coltrane’s live performances were becoming increasingly outward bound, he did not cut links with his past completely – for example, ‘My Favorite Things’ remained with him until his last live recording in April 1967. As Coltrane expert Ashley Kahn observes, “what Coltrane was diving into at the end of his career, a lot of ideas and devices and advancements that he had made since the 1950s were still being worked into what he was doing — his approach to the instrument, his phrasing, the harmony ideas — he never really discarded that stuff, it’s just that people miss the fact there is an incredible depth to everything he did.”

While it is true that the New Thing had its share of noise makers, performers who came and went, now long forgotten and who failed to make their mark on the ledger, for some it has been tempting to bracket Coltrane’s “final period” with the work of these lesser artists. “There is an interesting Cannonball interview where he discusses exactly that thing,” continues Kahn. “He goes, ‘I am not against the avant-garde, I am against players who don’t know what they are doing and getting by calling themselves avant-gardists or free jazz musicians or the New Thing. Even within the music, there is a hierarchy of players who are making a statement and coming from something and those who aren’t,’ and being the diplomat he doesn’t say which ones are which!”

Certainly energy and intensity were important ingredients in what Coltrane was doing at this time, figuring highly in his musical conception. “Energy. Yeah, I like to have this energy,” he said in 1966. “There’s always got to be somebody with a lot of power, you see, because Elvin [Jones], in the old band, Elvin had this power, I always have to have somebody with it, you know? Rashied has it, but it hasn’t quite unfolded completely.”

In 1966, drummer Jack DeJohnette played with Coltrane for two weeks at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago: “Mentally, spiritually it was one of the most challenging gigs I did,” he said. Coltrane had previously allowed him to sit-in with his classic quartet when he was in high school, but the band with Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali was a different proposition altogether,” he recalled. “I realised on an energy level how amazing John was, so I was relieved that I had developed as a drummer to hold my own, because we had two drummers in that.”

Yet whatever misgivings Coltrane may have expressed about Rashied Ali, they were apparently resolved by 22 February 1967, when he recorded an album of duets with Ali that were finally released in 1974 as Interstellar Space. Conceptually ahead of its time, Coltrane displays motivic development and moments of melodic lucidity in many places giving the album a structural unity sometimes absent in free music endeavours, and in the 1990s, echoes of this album could be heard resonating in the playing of robust players such as David S. Ware and Charles Gayle.

A week earlier he had been in the same Rudy Van Gelder studios with a quartet comprising his wife Alice, Jimmy Garrison and Ali in an album of contrasting calm called Stellar Regions that was not released until 1995, and Expression (which also included compositions from 7 March) that was released in 1967, after Coltrane’s death on 17 July. The liner notes to Expression refer to the material being taken from Coltrane’s ‘last recording sessions,’ and although not intended as a memorial album it seemed that way from the cover art.

The remarkable album Offering, recorded live at Temple University on 11 November 1966, fits into the continuum of this work while simultaneously illuminating it. It has an aspiring New Thing saxophonist Steve Knoblauch, not destined to be a musician but ending up in a career in community mental health, drifting on stage and soloing on ‘My Favorite Things’ with de rigueur shrieks and honks fashionable at the time, and alto saxophonist Arnold Joyner who although uninvited plays a five minute solo on ‘Crescent’. Coltrane’s passion for rhythmic energy is reflected in percussion section of Umar Ali, Robert Kenyatta and Charles Brown on congas and Angie DeWitt on bata drum, that add both density and diversity to the music, reflective of the influence of an “imagined” and idealised African and Afro culture that was given currency by the black nationalists. The presence of tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was an acknowledgement by Coltrane that in his quest for intensity and energy, even his remarkable physical constitution may flag, “I find that physically, the pace I have been leading has been so hard,” he said, adding later, “I like to have somebody there in case I just don’t, can’t get that strength. I like to have that strength in the band, from someone. And Pharoah is very strong in spirit and will.”

In the audience that night was a young Michael Brecker, who attributes the concert and Coltrane’s remarkable playing to giving him his life’s mission, and the young student Francis Davis, who would be similarly inspired to become a jazz writer. But perhaps revealing of the cathartic effect of this concert was how, after Coltrane concluded with ‘My Favorite Things’, the Radio WRTI broadcast of the event continued, featuring a conversation on air between the two students who had mounted the concert, and although not included on the two CD set, Ashley Kahn explains: “The post-show commentary by these two college kids was really special. Basically they knew something really, really important had just happened, they can’t describe it, they’re not jazz critics or music critics, they’re college students and they’re trying to explain the effect it had on them and they are just kinda lost for words, and I think that’s the most important thing about this, the whole idea of Coltrane bringing to each performance the idea that this is a very special spiritual moment that he’s going to share, and that is what comes through on this concert – and by chance it is Temple University and the name of the album is Offering, so it all ties together.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.

Return to Jazz Artists.

Explore...

Feature Charlie Parker – Bird Lives!

Feature Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

Review Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane ★★★★★

Charles Mingus – Triumph of the Underdog

Charles Mingus

Despite the fact that he died in 1979, Charles Mingus' music has an uncanny longevity and his music is more influential today than it has ever been. Mingus biographer Brian Priestley sets the bassist in the context of his times and explains the revolutionary impact his innovations had on the jazz of his day

“His recordings are always surfacing under commercials, films, TV shows, and being sampled in hip-hop and rap records. High school marching bands are marching furiously up and down football fields playing ‘Children’s Hour Of Dream’ from Epitaph.” The words of arranger Sy Johnson in Todd Jenkins’s 2006 book I Know What I Know, graphically describing two aspects of Mingus’s legacy – the recorded and the live. While giving credit to Sue Mingus for encouraging the live performances, Johnson also pays tribute to the strength of the music itself: “Mingus still appeals to the rebels, to the energy and passions of young musicians.”

Frequent are the mentions, in Jazzwise and elsewhere, of players citing Mingus as an inspiration, or reviewers noting his influence on someone else’s work. It’s certainly not only to rebels that Mingus appeals, though that’s undoubtedly a factor in his personality, which we’ll come to later. Energy and passion are just an aspect of the reason why people are drawn to Mingus. Hearing his music is also uplifting because the music is demanding – for listeners and performers alike – and so, when it comes out right, it’s uplifting and fulfilling. But there’s also the attraction that no single way of playing his pieces is the “right” one, since he himself frequently reworked his own themes, and numerous versions of related material resulted.

This is easily confirmed by people already hooked on Mingus, who tend to view “Mingus music” as a separate world unto itself – and it’s true there’s a whole world there to get lost in. But, of course, there are parallels between Mingus and other musicians, specifically the ones who have tried to solve the problem of how to be a “jazz composer”. Not just someone who writes a head and sits back to claim royalties, without doing anything noteworthy to stimulate the contributions of the actual performers. Though such writers often get referred to as composers, perhaps “songwriter” is a more apt description. 

 

“The kind of composer that Mingus triumphantly was, relatively few others aspire to be – and, of those that aspire, few succeed”

 

The kind of composer that Mingus triumphantly was, relatively few others aspire to be – and, of those that aspire, few succeed. In Mingus’s generation, perhaps only George Russell and Sun Ra can also be said to have attempted compositional methods sufficiently open that the musicians involved are virtually forced to engage their own creativity, rather than just filling an allotted space. When the Mingus approach comes off, the results are not only thrilling but they reflect the players’ personalities, just as much as the composer’s personality. Mingus was quite explicit about this being a desirable outcome – when he was assembling his first distinctive band, sideman Jackie McLean was still young enough to be copying Parker licks. But he recalled Mingus telling him, “I don’t want Charlie Parker, I want Jackie”.

In one way, that isn’t far removed from the achievement of openminded bandleaders not known for their writing, such as the early Count Basie, or even Miles through most of his career – with the difference that Mingus’s written input is highly distinctive. In this, his great inspiration was Duke Ellington, the great patriarch of the Basie generation who showed the world how to give individualistic sidemen their heads yet made the collective results sound “typically” Ellingtonian. Even today, some people still express surprise that the kind of super-precise ensemble work developed in the swing era – and beloved by fans of big-band sounds – was sometimes lacking in Duke’s band. But he valued his players’ personalities more than card-punching precision, and the lesson was not lost on Mingus.

The fact that the bassist was also one of the only people ever to be directly sacked from the Ellington band – a whole decade before their reunion on Money Jungle – didn’t diminish his admiration of the older man. The story of his dismissal is told with flair and humour in Mingus’s autobiographical book, Beneath The Underdog, but it was just part of his long and varied experience as a sideman before becoming a full-time bandleader himself. Such an apprenticeship was more common in those days, but Mingus had a particularly enriching background to draw upon by the time he came to the fore. Naming some of his employers in chronological order of their birth shows an impressive array of influential figures. Not only Ellington and Louis Armstrong, clarinettist Barney Bigard (who himself worked for both the aforementioned), vibists Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, Art Tatum and Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Quite a stylistic spread to be exposed to and to learn from, and covering the gamut from “entertainers” like Armstrong and Hampton to “thinkers” such as Tristano and Powell.

That, of course, is still one of the great dividing lines in the jazz world, and it was one of the divides in Mingus’s own musical personality. For much of the first decade of his recording career, his sideman work regularly involved him in the popular music of the day, namely the early R-and-B now often classified as “West Coast blues”. (The West Coast, mostly Los Angeles and briefly San Francisco, is where Mingus lived from shortly after his birth in 1922 for the first 28 years of his life.) The solid grooves of RnB were often mixed, especially by West Coast-based artists such as T-Bone Walker and Charles Brown, with a dash of swing-era “sophistication” that fitted well with Mingus’s previous playing experience. But also the more visceral honking-and-wailing side of the genre, something Lionel Hampton capitalised on, had a direct connection with black gospel, the first music to stir Mingus’s soul as a child.

This “popular” aspect of his background is very much to the fore in Mingus’s own initial recordings. One of the happy by-products of the immediate post-World War II record boom is that he made several sessions under his own name in 1945-46, long before he led his own regular bands. The results clearly show Mingus’s ambition to be a pop songwriter, his jivey dance tunes alternating with ballads that, like Ellington, he recorded more than once for different labels. Mingus later abandoned the songwriting in favour of experiments with poetry and prose readings, but one of the 1940s ballads – namely ‘Weird Nightmare’ – was regularly returned to under different titles, its first re-make (‘Pipe Dream’) showing a love of European classical music that was cemented in Mingus’s teen years. Both that input and the embracing of bebop become clearer in his writing for Hampton in 1947-48 (‘Mingus Fingers’) and in the forward-looking tracks he did after leaving Hampton, including ‘Inspiration’ (aka ‘Portrait’) and ‘The Story Of Love’.

Unfortunately, apart from ‘Mingus Fingers’, these tracks sank without trace when first issued, and probably would have done so even if the small West Coast labels involved hadn’t rapidly gone under. This, of course, was depressing for Mingus but, for us, the fact they were done at all is valuable in understanding the direction – or, rather, directions – which he was coming from. Swing-RnB-Gospel versus Ellington-Bebop-Classical is a volatile mix that few others could handle, and that took Mingus several more years of trial-and-error before he could harness it. It also places him at the very heart of the ongoing debate which claims that honouring the tradition of jazz is necessarily opposed to taking the music in new directions. Mingus did both – sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously.

Given this sterile argument has been rumbling on since at least the mid-60s, it’s revealing that, at the time of his 1971 “comeback”, Mingus told an anecdote about a one-off gig 30 years earlier with Roy Eldridge, regarded as the leading trumpeter of the swing era. Unimpressed by the youthful Mingus’s attitude, Roy said, “You young punks out here,… you don’t know about your own people’s music. I bet you never heard of Coleman Hawkins, I bet you never listened to him, I bet you can’t sing one of his solos.” Note that this was long before college jazz courses – long before published transcriptions, even – when the only way to study a famous recorded solo was to memorise it by ear and then transfer it to your own instrument. Note too that there’s no contradiction between this story and Jackie McLean’s quotation, Mingus’s message being that you need to know the tradition, have it at your fingertips, but also do your own thing with it.

 

“I used to play avant-garde bass when nobody else did; now I play 4/4 because none of the other bass players do.” – Charles Mingus

 

This explains why, when his compositional approach finally came together in the mid-1950s, his live performances mixed challenging new pieces of his own with Parker or Ellington tunes. It explains too why even some of his most original creations make use of textures or motifs that echo Duke or Bird, without quoting them directly, and why other originals are titled as “portraits” of famous musicians. Not just Ellington and Parker – think of ‘Open Letter To Duke’, ‘Bird Calls’ and several others – but also pieces for Monk, Powell, Gillespie and less likely dedicatees such as Lester Young (the famous ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’) and even Jelly Roll Morton. Dedication to both the tradition and advancing beyond it lies behind another Mingus statement from the 1970s: “I used to play avant-garde bass when nobody else did; now I play 4/4 because none of the other bass players do.”

What about the importance of Mingus the bassist? Although that Mingus became overshadowed by Mingus the composer and bandleader, it’s clear he was a monster on the instrument. Since everybody who plays it now tries to make it sound like a horn, and a post-Parker horn at that, it’s hard to remember Mingus was the first to do it. And his desire to break up his rhythms behind other soloists was so influential on people like Scott LaFaro that Mingus himself was actually the reason why no one in the 1970s was playing in 4/4. Quite early in his career, he was moving away from the straight-ahead grooving exemplified by Ray Brown (or by RnB) and seeking a more elastic approach to rhythm playing. Even before he found his heaven-sent drummer Dannie Richmond, Mingus was able to play on the beat or ahead of the beat, to use Latin figures or else 6-to-the-bar instead of 4 and – crucially – to vary his volume and articulation in a way that’s still foreign to most jazzers. Few people listen to the barrier-breaking ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’ just for the bass, but it’s all there.

Charles MingusOther compelling reasons why that track is historic include the following: The reclaiming of collective improvisation, consigned for the previous couple of decades to Dixieland settings. The collective improvs being based on a modal, non-harmonic background, and lasting for an unspecified number of bars. The use of distorted, RnB-like wailing saxes, particularly shocking in the polite jazz world of 1956, and the deliberate, unprecedented speeding-up during the final, wild, collective ensemble. The doomy feel of the opening theme, unlike anything previously heard, and the menacing exhilaration of the regular switches from 4/4 to 6/4. (Another great example of the latter comes immediately after Booker Ervin’s unaccompanied section of ‘Moanin’’ from Blues And Roots.) Indeed, the emotional atmosphere of the whole piece is “like a cold shower”, to borrow the description of a later appearance, and the fact that ‘Pithecanthropus’ has a storyline – nothing less than the rise and ultimate self-destruction of mankind – shows that Mingus had come a long way beyond the merely conventional.

There was another aspect to ‘Pithecanthropus’ that was unconventional, namely the fact that Mingus’s composition wasn’t written down. Since moving to New York in 1951, he’d been working with top-flight improvisers like Parker, Powell, Miles (briefly) and Max Roach, with whom he formed one of the first musician-run record-labels, Debut. On the other hand, he was also involved in a collective called the Jazz Composers Workshop, with people such as future Berklee tutor John LaPorta and future Miles producer Teo Macero. Finding the latter experience ultimately frustrating because of its over-reliance on written music, Mingus went in the opposite direction in 1955. As a later Mingus sideman, tuba-and-baritonist Howard Johnson, explained to me, few of the first generation of jazzers could read music, so they developed their abilities by ear. “But then”, subsequent generations learned to read and “Pretty soon, no-one could play the other way.” Mingus decided to do it the other way and insisted his sidemen pick up his original material by ear, phrase by phrase, so they could then interpret it more confidently – and more individualistically – than if they were reading their parts.

 

“With shouted exhortations borrowed from the gospel churches – such as “Oh yeah, I know” and “Going home” – he became the Martin Luther King of jazz”

 

This was pretty revolutionary in the eyes of most “modern” musicians of the day, though soon to become more widespread in the free-jazz that was just around the corner. But it was timely in another way, for Mingus made this stylistic move just at the moment that the civil rights movement took a giant steps, thanks to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. The collective music-making fostered by Mingus’s methods, and the controlled aggression of the jostling saxophones, was very much in tune with the times. And, when he started to encourage his musicians with shouted exhortations borrowed from the gospel churches – such as “Oh yeah, I know” and “Going home” – he became the Martin Luther King of jazz. A valid comparison, despite the fact that sidemen such as Jackie McLean and the great trombonist Jimmy Knepper pointed out Mingus didn’t always live up to his own ideals of non-violence.

One thing that’s noteworthy about the civil-rights aspect of his work is that Mingus, having two mixed-race parents, was relatively light-skinned. Whereas his father had often “passed for white”, as the saying went, Mingus himself could only pass for Mexican – which was indirectly the reason for his genuine interest in Mexican moods and Spanish music. But, having spent so much time living in the black community and working with black musicians, he knew that was where his loyalties lay. So, from the mid-50s onwards, many of his pieces – even if their musical genesis was non-political – received politicised titles. Such as ‘Work Song’, ‘Prayer For Passive Resistance’, ‘Meditations On Integration’, ‘Haitian Fight Song’ (which Mingus said “could just as well be called ‘Afro-American Fight Song’”) and the immortal ‘Fables Of Faubus’. 

In the turbulent decade 1955-65, Mingus had a run of extraordinary albums and a regular turnover of remarkable sidemen, especially saxophonists such as McLean, Ervin, John Handy, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy. He managed to apply his idiosyncratic methods not only to regular working quartets and quintets but to some quite large groups – from the octet of the UCLA concert through the expanding line-ups of Blues And Roots, Mingus Dynasty, Black Saint And The Sinner Lady up to the 12-piece on Mingus At Monterey. Despite some less successful moments and maybe some unwise decisions, Mingus was riding high during a period generally hospitable to jazz. But, after the “British invasion” of U.S. pop and a consequent gearing-up of the mainstream music industry, he spent most of the late 1960s out of the limelight and barely playing music at all.

It was Mingus himself who, with characteristic openness, put the issue of his mental well-being in the public domain, firstly through revelations in album liners, including having the notes to Black Saint written by his psychoanalyst. Then in Beneath The Underdog, which is framed by the literary device of a session with his analyst, Mingus tells his story of having volunteered for treatment at Bellevue Hospital – not a common course of action, especially then. Of course, it would be a foolhardy and arrogant mental-health expert who would dare to diagnose distressed artists belonging to a persecuted racial minority. Which is precisely why foolhardy and arrogant mental-health experts in the 1940s and 50s did issue their diagnoses of, at different times, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach. Mingus made it clear he didn’t buy their findings – according to the version in his book, the recommendation was for a lobotomy! – and was also clear that his self-awareness fed directly into his art. As he famously wrote in 1955, “My music is alive and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It’s angry, yet it’s real because it knows it’s angry.”

Mingus could also be charming, for instance when he gave me a long interview in 1972. But the fact that he was hard to be around at times obviously impacted on his nearest and dearest, including his musicians. Many described him as bordering on the abusive, and others found his needling a distraction from what they thought they wanted to achieve. But, discussing him with hindsight, nearly all found the experience of working with him to be positive, not least in forcing them to perform with maximum energy and maximum creativity. So John Handy, who recalled Mingus as being “embarrassing” and “tyrannical” on different occasions, was happy to play his music in the Mingus Dynasty band and the posthumously premiered Epitaph. And, when Handy said that “Some of the lines being re-created are what we improvised on the original records”, this just takes us back to the relationship of composer versus soloist. In other words, the soloist’s ideas wouldn’t have emerged in the first place if Mingus hadn’t set up the musical situation.

Jimmy Knepper went so far as to criticise Mingus on musical grounds, as well as describing the man himself as “inescapable”. But he nevertheless went back to work with Mingus after an estrangement that lasted more than a decade. He did also say that he earned more money playing Mingus music after the composer’s death than he ever did when Mingus was alive. Perhaps Knepper realised that not only were his own sound and his ideas part of Mingus’s identity, but also that Mingus was part of Knepper’s identity. For those of us listeners who find Mingus inescapable, it’s because once you’ve been hooked by him, you’ll never be the same again.

Explore...

Review Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (50th Anniversary Edition) ★★★★★

Review Max Roach – Complete 1958-59 Plus Four Sessions ★★★★★

Review Eric Dolphy – The Complete Last Recordings In Hilversum And Paris 1964 ★★★★★

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website

If you do not change browser settings, you consent to continue. Learn more

I understand

Call 0800 137201 to subscribe or click here to email the subscriptions team

Get in touch

Jazzwise Magazine,
St. Judes Church,
Dulwich Road, 
Herne Hill,
London, SE24 0PD.

0208 677 0012

Latest Tweets

Piano stars, Shorter, Cullum, Collier and more light up Umbria Jazz 2017 https://t.co/sbpQ147T75 https://t.co/2ZQtUNkQit
Follow Us - @Jazzwise
@MxJackMonroe @rwilliams1947 haha, genius
Follow Us - @Jazzwise

Newsletter

Sign up to the Jazzwise monthly E-Newsletter

 

© 2016 MA Business & Leisure Ltd registered in England and Wales number 02923699 Registered office: Jesses Farm, Snow Hill, Dinton, Salisbury, SP3 5HN . Designed By SE24 MEDIA