Bass Instincts

Happy Birthday: The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra pays tribute to bassist and composer Charles Mingus.Photo: Frank Stewart

I am a good composer with great possibilities, Charles Mingus wrote during a stay at Bellevue, but “jazz has too many strangling qualities for a composer.” Though Mingus doubted that jazz itself could ever become institutionalized, 21 years after his death, jazz institutions are thriving.

The Mingus Big Band and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Scenes in the City: The Music of Charles Mingus offer competing versions of his vision. Thanks to the devotion of his widow, Sue Mingus, the irascible bassist and composer has been getting his due on a weekly basis at Time Café, where devotees flock to hear a raucous, loose-knit ensemble. This year would have been Mingus’s 80th birthday, prompting Jazz at Lincoln Center to give an overdue institutional nod to a composer nearly edited out of Ken Burns’s Jazz. Mingus refuses to be edited out of New York’s cultural life, though, and these performances remind us why.

In 1966, Mingus was evicted from a loft on Great Jones Street, where he was trying to start a jazz-education program. The fourteen-piece band at Time Café, located right around the corner, reclaims Mingus near the scene of his dispossession. Each of the tunes performed last week demonstrated how Mingus could take a number of styles – the blues, Latin, gospel, even variations on sonata form – and put his inimitable stamp on them, with infectious melodies and an aesthetic of excess that challenged each form it took. Who but the mischievous trombonist Frank Lacy could show us that the classic, frenetic “Boogie Stop Shuffle” had the same melody as the theme song to Spider Man? A righteously indignant “Fables of Faubus” and a comically apocalyptic “Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” demonstrated a level of high artistry that still could go for the jugular. The group is irreverent, loud, and even parodic, yet it sacrifices none of Mingus’s dexterity, complexity, or scope. The Big Band likes to close its shows with an exuberant version of “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” – after all, a Mingus tribute should never get too tidy.

Mingus is served up raw at the Time Café; would Jazz at Lincoln Center offer the overcooked version? Not to worry: Mingus’s music brought out the best in Wynton Marsalis’s fifteen-piece orchestra. Anyone in the habit of hearing the loose small-group interaction on the original recordings of “Orange Was a Color of Her Dress” or “Better Get Hit … ” might have been initially put off by slower tempos, or tighter, more mapped-out arrangements. But Marsalis was less interested in the visceral thrill of noise (although he summoned quite a virtuosic wail or two in his trumpet solos) than in exploring the tone palettes with meticulous precision. By the time the band got through a dexterous “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” and the closing “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid, Too,” it had loosened up enough to turn Alice Tully Hall into a big top, merging the carnivalesque with the classic.

And so we can have our pick of Minguses – the rowdy or the reverential. Mingus is a large enough figure to call for both a spontaneous repertory band and a tightly arranged orchestra. He once lamented that he never heard his music performed the way he envisioned it in his head, and no group could fully recreate Mingus’s idiosyncratic rhythms, moods, humor, even his neuroses. In a conservative time when so many jazz musicians feel enslaved by tradition, Mingus still sheds light on the liberating possibilities of the jazz tradition. Let My Children Hear Music, said the title of a Mingus record. These competing visions of Mingus show that his wish will be fulfilled for many years to come.

Mingus Big Band
At Time Café.
Scenes in the City: The Music of Charles Mingus
Jazz at Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall.

Bass Instincts