There are few dead jazz players who have managed to transcend the obscurity that comes with dedicating one's life to an art form that will never command a pop audience. Those who have crossed over — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk — are often regarded by well-rounded music lovers and musicians alike as legendary figures whom everyone should hear. Such devotion is especially evident among the disciples of Charles Mingus, a legend among the legends. Not only are there at least three world-class repertory bands — Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Big Band, and the Mingus Orchestra — proselytizing on the bassist-composer's behalf, but there are also a number of groups, like the Bay Area's Mingus Amungus, that directly mine his rich body of work to forge their own distinctive sound. In this way, more than 30 years after his death, both the memory of Charles Mingus and his music remain very much in the present tense.
Even though Mingus abused others with his mercurial behavior (he was not above hurling himself across the drum kit to throw punches at a sloppy bandmate on the other side of the stage) he drew some of the most gifted improvisers of the '50s and '60s into his orbit. His frequent collaborators included saxophonists Booker Ervin and Clifford Jordan, trumpeters Ted Curson and Johnny Coles, pianist Jaki Byard, and drummer Dannie Richmond. His greatest partner was Eric Dolphy, a Coltrane colleague and pioneer on the bass clarinet, whose dedication to pushing music into the stratosphere matched Mingus' own lofty ambitions. Deep respect for collective effort fueled all of these relationships and mostly exonerated the leader from his tantrums. Everyone who worked with Mingus understood that he would not accept anything less than the power that stems from total commitment. Mingus wanted his music to convey his own intense feelings about the world — sometimes ugly, often beautiful, always honest.
His recordings reveal a multifaceted character: soulful ("Better Git It in Your Soul," "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting"), sensitive ("These Foolish Things," "Body and Soul"), reverential ("My Jelly Roll Soul" for New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, "Gunslinging Bird" for bebop innovator Charlie Parker), politically inclined ("Meditations on Integration," "Once Upon a Time, There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America"), and bare-knuckled ("Haitian Fight Song," "Passions of a Man"). His approach to composition and his arrangement of standards bridged multiple generations of jazz, from the big-band swing of Duke Ellington, to the freewheeling bebop of Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, to the '60s avant-garde of Ornette Coleman and beyond. It was an inclusive method of musicmaking, rooted in the triumphs of the past yet always pushing forward, a prototype for the postmodern mashups we take for granted today.
It's easy to see why Mingus Amungus director and bassist Miles Perkins chose the mighty Mingus as the model for his own contemporary jazz explorations. A believer in taking nontraditional routes, the Berkeley native approaches the adventurous spirit of his band's namesake through the lens of 21st-century hip-hop. Think of the Roots to the 10th power, with connections running through all of jazz, including Latin and funky R&B grooves, plus the storytelling and freestyle possibilities of rap. The group also includes dancers versed in Haitian, Brazilian, and jazz-improv movement. Having released only two albums since its inception in 1994, this tribute ensemble is clearly all about performance. When Mingus Amungus hits the stage, Mingus' tunes — along with his character — come alive.