The music on this LP has been reissued on CD as Jazz Portraits. Bassist Charles Mingus pushes his quintet (featuring altoist John Handy, Booker Ervin on tenor, pianist Richard Wyands and drummer Dannie Richmond) to play with intensity and creativity on four lengthy selections including "Nostalgia in Times square" and "Alice's Wonderland."
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
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This is part of a concert given by the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop on January 16, 1959 at the Nonagon Art Gallery on lower Second Avenue.
The Nonagon series (which has since moved to the Circle In The Square) has become one of the most inventive and distinguished in New York. Its Composers' Showcase concerts have included the work and presence of Roger Sessions, Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, Carlos Chavez and others. Its Jazz Profiles have featured the Modern Jazz Quartet, Cecil Taylor, Tony Scott, Mai Waldron, etc.
It's Mingus' feeling that he and his group are best recorded outside a regular recording studio. Larry Gushee has noted in Jazz: A Quarterly of American Music that "Mingus' great achievement is his ability to generate a kind of trance-like enthusiasm and excitement, unparalleled in jazz or elsewhere." I'm not so sure about the "elsewhere" in view of what some Eastern music can do, but in any case, when Mingus is able to create that "trance-like excitement" and can in turn feel the passionate response of the audience, he and his musicians are further spurred. And that's why it was decided to record this program where there would be an audience consisting of more than an engineer and an a&r man.
The result, Whitney Balliett noted in The New Yorker the following week, was "a reaffirmation of the passionate intelligence Mingus has for several years been pouring into his work..." It was not only a triumph for Mingus and the group expression that is really a further extension of his own, but it also introduced an alto saxophonist of rare control, sensitivity and individuality. This is the first recording of John Handy who has since left Mingus, because as Charles realizes, "He's a born leader and he couldn't wait."
Because of space, I'll have to compress Handy's biography which is quite full despite his youth. He was born in Dallas, February 3, 1933. The family stayed there for ten years, moved to Los Angeles from 1943-1944, and then came back to Dallas from 1944-1948. His first real instrument was a clarinet when he was 13. He bought a self-instruction book, and in three days, was admitted to the high school band. On the fifth day, he started playing first clarinet. After a year and a half of music, he started boxing, winning an amateur featherweight championship in 1947.
Music regained its pre-eminence in Handy's life when the family moved back to California, settling first in Richmond, and then in Oakland. In early 1949, he began playing a school alto. "I got the horn on Wednesday, and on Friday was playing my first professional job." He spent four months in Cleveland in 1950. Bill Hardman was a fellow student in high school and made Handy more aware of the importance of chords as a guide to improvisation. Handy was graduated from high school in 1951 hi Oakland, and that year he was able from proceeds of day and night jobs to buy the first horn that was entirely his own. In fact, he bought four. He went to San Francisco State College (whose former students include Jerome Richardson, Paul Desmond, Richard Wyands, Dave Brubeck and Alien Smith). There he majored in clarinet and became thoroughly grounded in theory. He was in the army from 1953-1955 and then returned to school, first at the City College of San Francisco and then back to San Francisco State, where he stayed from 1956-1958. He needs only a few more credits for his degree, and eventually intends to get an M.A.
During all his years in the San Francisco area, Handy played regularly at night, jamming with musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham and other visitors to the city. His main training grounds were the after-hours sessions at Bop City, where he was a regular participant. He played with Art Tatum there one night and received the advice that if he was really serious about music, he'd have to concentrate on being nothing but the best. Until the middle of 1958, incidentally, Handy had been playing mostly tenor for several years. He now uses both tenor and alto and is also working on flute and clarinet again.
Handy didn't leave for New York until July 1958. ("It took me seven years to prepare.") In addition to Mingus, he's worked here with Randy Weston. Besides forming his own unit, his ultimate goal is to "start a music school where a musician could be trained for anything and would become expert in improvisation, whether his main field was jazz or classical music." This is also the first record for tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, a player of impassioned force and directness. He was born in Denison, Texas, October 31, 1930. A trombonist from the ages of eight to fourteen, Ervin was in the Air Force from 1949-1953, and it was there that he picked up the tenor. The next year he studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and in 1955, was on the road for a year with the Tulsa-based rhythm-and-blues band of Ernie Fields. He worked Dallas for half of 1956 and Denver from then on until the end of 1957. There were six months in Pittsburgh, and he's been in New York since May, 1958. He lists his primary influences as Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane.
Mingus' regular pianist, Horace Parian, had been forced to make an emergency trip out of town the day of the concert, and Richard Wyands, who had rehearsed some of the music with Mingus a while back but had had far from extensive experience with it, was a sudden substitute. He acquitted himself remarkably well. Wyands was born in Oakland, California, July 2, 1928. He started his professional career in the Bay Area in 1944, and until 1956, worked with many local groups, including Cal Tajer's, and was part of the house band at the Black Hawk and Facks, which allowed him to play for a number of traveling soloists like Stan Getz and Miles Davis. He was Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist for three months at the end of 1956, worked nine months in Ottawa the next year, went on to Carmen McRae, and came to New York around March of 1958. He lists his influences as Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson and Hampton Hawes.
Dannie Richmond, born in New York, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, but came back to study here and then worked as a tenor saxophonist with a rhythmm-and-blues band. He's been a drummer for almost two and a half years and takes great pride in the fact - as well he might -that although he's self-taught on the instrument and relatively new on it, he's been able to satisfy the demanding Mingus to the point that Mingus will use no other drummer unless Richmond is absolutely unavailable. In addition to learning more about dynamics, Richmond says the major lesson he's absorbed from Mingus is "how to compose as I play. How to talk, really."
The program begins with "Nostalgia In Times Square," part of the score Mingus wrote for Shadows, a film produced by John Cassavetes. It's an unusual picture in that it contains a great deal of improvisation - including actors' lines and movements. This part of the score had to reflect and Droiect tension. It also, whether you see the oicture or not, is meant as a kind of sketch of night life in Times Square - sometimes ugly, but sometimes irresistible. Of "I Can't Get Started," Mingus says: "I like the song and can always play it because it applies to me. I always play it differently, and this time, I think, is the best I've done with it." Referring to Ms solo here, Whitney Balliett spoke of the "quick, two-steps-at-a-time clambering around the scale, lightning strumming, sometimes carried out with both hands, and slow, booming notes that seemed to bulge out the walls." And, concerning Mingus' work throughout, there is the further Balliet appraisal that "Mingus has no peer, past or present, on the bass. He invariably gives the impression of accomplishing what the instrument was never intended for, and yet, peculiarly, it is not his virtuosity that one is hypnotized by but the daring and inimitable melodic and rhythmic content that is the result of it."
"No Private Income Blues" gathers in intensity until the final exchanges between Handy and Ervin, which in turn become increasingly truncated (four bars, two bars, one bar, two beats apiece) until the players make simultaneous breaks - a startling experience the first time around and a challenge I'd like to hear accepted more often. "The idea," says Mingus, "is to get a tighter and tighter feeling in a piece before squeezing something and breaking it." "Alice's Wonderland" (subtitled "Diane") is also from the score to Shadows. Or at least it was intended to be, but for various reasons it was not included in the film. Mingus, however, wanted to write for the love scene under which the music would have been played, and so he wrote a continuation of the score for himself. He feels "it may be the prettiest thing I ever wrote." Among other things, it's a portrait of "a girl trying to make it in this big, rough world, like I am. I try to show her sadness (the alto on top) but also her strength in her art and in her conviction in what she believes in (the tenor on the bottom) even if there are still harsh, unresolved parts of her life."
Wrote Balliett: "...a slow ballad by Mingus, with a wandering, thick-textured melody...was...a delight from beginning to end...It was a near-perfect piece. Handy was particularly striking...he played with flawless control, and although the work of Charlie Parker forms a broad dais for his style, he used, unlike most of his colleagues on the saxophone, a highly selective number of notes, a warm tone, and a couple of devices - a frequently prolonged trill astonishingly like that of the old New Orleans clarinettist George Baquet, and ivory-like sorties into the upper register reminiscent of Benny Carter's smooth ascents that set him several paces away from his first model." Those are finger cymbals, by the way, that Dannie Richmond is playing. "You know," said Mingus after a day of editing the tape for this album, "I think maybe I'm finally composing." I think he has been for quite a while, but what I expect he means is that he's gaining confidence that people are moved and do understand what he has to say. The audience this night, for example, was clearly and often fiercely involved in the music, and thereby contributed to it.
To return to Larry Gushee: "Charles Mingus' work remains consistently stimulating, despite many inconsistencies, both in his music and his quixotic public personality. He has ambition and an obsessive desire to communicate, plus an awareness of unexplored musical techniques; at the same time, he remains true to jazz, improvised, or if composed, unwritten, and draws freely on his own musical memories..."
Not only memories. Hopes as well. There's a lot of that in Mingus. And most of all, a lot of the present. The grinding insecurity of not working steadily; the explosive pleasure in being able to talk through music, talk more fully than any other way; and above all, those times, as on this night at the Nonagon, when he has the knowledge that others are listening.
- Nat Hentoff 1959