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LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC      (Columbia CK 48910)


In our survey of Charles Mingus's recordings these albums finish off his ambitious, large-orchestra works. And in several ways they are the result of his 1962 Town Hall concert -- its reputation as "a disaster," and Mingus's still unfulfilled need to see some of his more ambitious compositions properly performed and recorded. (See my review of that concert elsewhere in these pages.)

In 1964 Mingus had taken a 12-piece band to the Monterey Jazz Festival and met with some success there, in terms of both audience and critical reaction. The following year he intended to return to Monterey with an octet, which he had rehearsed in New York, but a series of misunderstandings ended in the octet performing instead a week later at UCLA. (Both the 1964 Monterey concert and the 1965 UCLA concert were recorded by Mingus and issued by mail order on his own Jazz Workshop label. Subsequently Fantasy bought and reissued many of the mail order releases, including MINGUS AT MONTEREY, on both LP and CD. But the UCLA concert album has never been reissued in any form.) The UCLA concert marked the debut of two compositions, "Once There Was A Holding Corporation Called Old America," and "Don't Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid Too."

The following five years were rough ones for Mingus, and saw him quit the music business, get evicted from a New York City loft (documented on the film/video, MINGUS), and committed to hospitals and given heavy medications. I met him in Susan Graham's apartment in 1970 for a photo session to accompany an article I'd written about him for CRAWDADDY magazine and he was as fat as I've ever seen him and remarkably subdued. Most of my conversation was with Susan, then his manager but not yet, I think, his wife.

But in 1970 his autobiography, BENEATH THE UNDERDOG, was finally published (he'd been using "excerpts" -- which weren't in the published book -- as album liner notes since the mid-sixties) and Mingus began getting back into music. In 1971 his long-time friend and now Columbia Records producer Teo Macero talked Columbia into re-signing Mingus and making an ambitious new album. The result was LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC, perhaps Mingus's most ambitious and most successful album. (On the cover of the original 1972 LP Mingus thanks Macero for "his untiring efforts in producing the best album I have ever made," placing his own stamp of approval on this album.) Three pieces were performed by a large orchestra "consisting of ten woodwinds (from piccolos to contra-bass clarinets), brass including French horns and tuba, a section of six bassists and a cello." (Inexplicably, no record of the actual personnel exists, but the total orchestra was close to thirty pieces -- similar but not identical to the 1962 orchestra at Town Hall and duplicated on EPITAPH; note that string section of six basses and a cello.) The rest are performed by "a small big band with five reeds and five brass (including two French horns)" plus rhythm, of course.


"The Holding Corporation Called Old America" had acquired a new title, and led off the album as "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers" -- hardly any shorter or, for that matter better, as a title. But the piece was based on the UCLA performance, as transcribed (from the recording -- the sheet music was lost in Mingus's eviction) by Sy Johnson -- and included Hobert Dotson's 1965 trumpet introduction, now written out. Johnson also transcribed "Don't Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid Too" from that concert recording. (Johnson did a lot more than just to transcribe, of course. Mingus ended up using him as an uncredited collaborator, giving him riffs and themes -- sometimes played or sung over the phone -- to work into the pieces he was ostensibly "arranging," "orchestrating," or "scoring," not only for this album but for the concert which was recorded as CHARLES MINGUS AND FRIENDS IN CONCERT soon thereafter -- about which more shortly.)


The album's second piece is called "Adagio Ma Non Troppo," but is in fact an orchestrated (by Alan Raph) transcription (by Hub Miller) of a Mingus improvisation on piano, first recorded for MINGUS PLAYS PIANO (a solo piano album) on Impulse in 1963, where it was called "Myself When I Am Real." Under either title it is an extraordinary piece in several movements, moods and tempi, the more extraordinary for having been spontaneously composed in a recording studio.

"Don't Be Afraid" borrows briefly from "The Clown" (Atlantic, 1957) and also makes use of sound effects which are phased to a chillingly surreal effect in the opening and closing of the piece -- an unusual (for Mingus) production device. The CD reissue of this album includes a bonus track, "Taurus In The Arena of Life" (originally "Number One Grandson"), recorded at the session, which opens with pianist Roland Hanna playing a bit of Bach. It holds up well with the rest of the album. (The CD is sixty minutes long; this was a long album before the addition of "Taurus," which itself runs less than five minutes.)

Like "Taurus," "Hobo Ho" and "The I Of Hurricane Sue" are new compositions. But "The Chill of Death" is not. Mingus claims he wrote the first version of it in 1939. As such it was a fully written out composition over which he narrates here a rather jejune poem of adolescent reflections on death. The composition lacks the sprightliness of his other adolescent composition, "Half-Mast Inhibition," being somewhat doleful and in places ponderous. Worse, the music is faded to a background level whenever Mingus speaks, diminishing its rich sonorities. (Mingus's own voice is, however, equally rich in sonorities, reminding a little of Orson Welles.) However, the entire score is played a second time (without pause), this time as the vehicle for a Charles McPherson alto solo, improvised over it throughout. This form works far better, and one could only wish it had been presented as a separate track, so that the narrated version could be skipped over.

Curiously enough, this piece is the only piece also performed on EPITAPH, the posthumous recreation of the 1962 Town Hall concert. The version used there is significantly different, however. In his notes for that album Gunther Schuller notes that "'Chill of Death' exists in a much shorter earlier version" -- the version on LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC, in fact -- and that "earlier through-composed version ... is also contained in the 'Epitaph' manuscript," but he chose not to use it. He contends that the version he did use "represented Mingus' latest (revised?) thinking on the piece," which is nonsense, since he is in each case relying on a 1962 manuscript, while LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC represented Mingus's thinking almost ten years later, in 1971. (It's clear that in his supposed score for the epic "Epitaph," Mingus first presented the "through-composed" version of "Chill of Death," probably with the recitation, and followed it with what Schuller calls "the jazz version," heard only on EPITAPH. Schuller offered the excuse that "we were doubtful of finding anyone to do the recitation in the inimitable way Mingus narrated it," but that hardly washes, since a narrator was found for "Freedom" -- another recitation included on EPITAPH. This was simply an editorial decision of Schuller's and one which compromised the goal of EPITAPH, to present all the music intended for but not performed at that 1962 Town Hall concert.) In any event the EPITAPH version is more than twice as long and liberally sprinkled with solos (some very short), making it a very different piece.

Something impossible not to notice in Mingus's music is the occasionally rough and ragged feel of it -- a sound that has sometimes been due to underrehearsal but more often is there because Mingus wanted it that way. It is at times the sounds of simultaneous and polytonal improvisation -- at other times the sounds evoked by using each instrument to play a different, contrapuntal line, building "pyramids" of sound. Sometimes Mingus juxtaposes atonal instrumental cries over sweet melodic chords. In most cases what is produced is vigorous and complex music, thick-textured and yet supple. Mingus can write melodies that melt your heart with their bittersweet beauty, and he can write ferociously angry, screaming music.

What is most impressive about LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC is how well it is realized. There are no underrehearsed moments here. The rough edges, where they exist, are purposeful and exciting. The time was taken to do things right. In most respects this was the antithesis of the 1962 Town Hall session for United Artists, where things were rushed, last-minute, and haphazard, fraying everyone's tempers and producing mixed results. Macero was the producer Mingus needed, and Columbia the right label. It cannot be coincidence that three of Mingus's very best albums (MINGUS AH UM, MINGUS DYNASTY and LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC) were recorded for Columbia. Doing this album at last the way he wanted it done must have been enormously satisfying for Mingus. He had waited thirty years.

Naturally Columbia couldn't leave it at that. Late in 1971 it was decided to "launch" the release of LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC with a concert at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall. A twenty-piece orchestra was assembled, including such saxophone luminaries as Lee Konitz (who would reprise his performance of "E.S.P." which he'd first recorded for Debut in the fifties) Gerry Mulligan and Gene Ammons. (Ammons was the real surprise. Relegated for more than a decade to a minor role in jazz he distinguished himself performing Mingus's music with warmth and depth.) Sy Johnson's notes for the CD reissue of the album recorded at this concert make it clear that this concert had an uncomfortable amount of things in common with the 1962 concert, including the last-minute composition of the "Little Royal Suite," intended to honor its featured player, Roy Eldridge. (Eldridge is generally regarded as the trumpet-playing "link" between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, and his career was a long and honorable one. But he was unable to perform at this concert and his role was taken over by an 18-year-old Jon Faddis, who rose well to the occasion.) In the end the piece was co-composed by Mingus, Teo Macero and Sy Johnson.

The concert occurred on February 4, 1972, and was generally regarded as a success despite the occasional mistakes by the musicians (missed cues, departures from the score by soloists, etc.). It was subsequently issued by Columbia as CHARLES MINGUS AND FRIENDS IN CONCERT in 1973. The concert was emceed by Bill Cosby, and other guest artists (present for only specific pieces) were Honey Gordon (who sang "Strollin'," reprising her unreleased recording of the piece in 1959 -- now on the Columbia boxed set), Randy Weston, James Moody and Dizzy Gillespie (who sang briefly, dueting with Cosby on "Ool-Ya-Koo," but did not play trumpet).

The choice of material was interesting. Only two pieces were used that had been recorded for the forthcoming album -- "The I Of Hurricane Sue," and "Don't Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid Too" -- although "Taurus In The Arena of Life" (not included on the LP) is also performed, minus the Bach. But the concert opened with two pieces from earlier in Mingus's career, in the fifties, "Jump Monk" and "E.S.P." -- each of which could as easily have been part of the 1962/EPITAPH concerts. They were followed by "Ecclusiastics," the piece Mingus had recorded with Roland Kirk in 1961 -- in which a large orchestra proves unequal to the challenge of besting Kirk's one-man sax section -- and "Eclipse," a mid-forties composition, sung here by Honey Gordon. "Us Is Two" (a newer composition) leads to "Taurus," a blues jam ("Mingus Blues"), and an intermission. Following the intermission came the "Little Royal Suite," "Strollin'," "Hurricane Sue," "E's Flat, Ah's Flat Too" (also recorded as "Hora Decubitus,"), "Ool-Ya-Koo," "Portrait" and "Don't Be Afraid." Interestingly, "Portrait" was part of the 1962 Town Hall Concert although Schuller omitted it from EPITAPH.

Of the last two pieces Johnson says in his notes that they "are an exhausted band and bass player's last gasp, and represent a complete account of the evening and little else." When this album was originally issued on LP five pieces (including the last two) were not used. This form of the album is available on CD as an oversized Japanese import -- and is not recommended. Columbia has now issued the complete concert on a domestic two-CD set, and that's the one with Johnson's extensive and illuminating notes. (It's also better mastered.) I recall being disappointed by this album when the original LP came out, and although I like the fuller, complete-concert version better it is still rather weak when compared with LET MY CHILDREN HEAR MUSIC. It's great to hear Konitz, Mulligan and Ammons playing Mingus's music, but despite the large orchestra this concert has a loose, blowing quality more typical of jam
sessions. Mingus himself summed it up afterwards when asked what he thought of the concert: "Mingus looked up ... and replied quietly, 'Too many friends.'"

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