Graded on a Curve: Charles Mingus,
The Black Saint and
the Sinner Lady

Bassist-bandleader-composer Charles Mingus remains one of the most important figures in the history of recorded sound. A jazzman of uncommon versatility, his extensive achievement is deeply linked to a voluminous personality and an occasionally volatile temper. In 1963, as part of a brief, fertile association with Impulse! Records, he waxed The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady; it’s widely rated as the apex of his career, which in turn awards it placement amongst the great moments in 20th century music. A vinyl reissue is out now courtesy of Superior Viaduct.

Please forgive me if I’ve fallen egregiously behind the times, but I continue to perceive the goal of education as more than a factory churning out highly efficient producers brandishing economically useful skills, a mass of graduates left to dodge underemployment in hopes of spending decades in the modern workplace’s existential ditch. But maybe I’m just frightfully naive in considering higher learning as the valiant endeavoring to intellectually engage with generations of individuals, hopefully leaving them at least somewhat prepared for the ups and downs of existence, and potentially armed in adulthood with the knowledge to utilize portions of history’s immense landscape to their advantage.

And not only history but art, which is easily the most disrespected component in contemporary academe. This may come as a shock to anyone aware of the number of art schools, conservatories, and Liberal Arts institutions taking up residence from sea to shining sea, but my observation concerns quality rather than quantity; to get down to the matter at hand, while Charles Mingus’ life and music are far from absent in the educational curriculum, I know of no school offering an extended, intensive course in Mingus Studies.

That’s a shame, for it’s a program of vast possibilities, and though discerning jazz fans might think it contrary to his legacy, the objective wouldn’t be the tailoring of copycat instrumentalists (bluntly, an impossible task) but instead an immersion into reading, writing, discussing, creating, and of course a whole lot of listening.

Naturally the syllabus would be broad and encompass the jazz spectrum. One obligatory ingredient: The ’53 Massey Hall show featuring Mingus and drummer extraordinaire Max Roach anchoring a congregation of Bop giants, specifically saxophonist Charlie Parker, his trumpet cohort Dizzy Gillespie, and the pianist Bud Powell.

Perhaps it should all begin with a dose of prime Kid Ory, the great New Orleans trombonist and bandleader who played beside Mingus in Barney Bigard’s outfit of 1942. But indispensable to Mingus Studies is Edward Kennedy Ellington, and in varying contexts; Bigard served as a renowned clarinetist for Duke, though the larger connection would be one of influence. Integral to Mingus Studies is imparting how the subject’s art benefits from intertwined abilities.

To start, there’s his strength as an instrumentalist, predominantly on bass but also on piano, his virtuosic yet earthy approach integrating with a rare perceptiveness regarding the beauties possible in structured improvisation, both from his own hands (those Mingus Fingers) and the digits and lungs of his fellow band members.

The music was honed in his Jazz Workshop and hit many heights including Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, issued through Nat Hentoff’s Candid label, and the fiery Mingus at Antibes, one of a slew of beauties for Atlantic. Absolutely crucial is his aptitude for composing, Mingus’ talent unquestionably impacted by Ellington’s precedent yet simultaneously bold in signature Modernistic individualism.

Just as the ear can quickly recognize Duke, so it is with Charles, and the pair comprises the front rank of player-bandleader-composers, a duo that would get fruitfully up close and uncomfortably personal in 1962. That year United Artists arranged a session leading to Money Jungle, an LP teaming Duke with the more-than-a-rhythm-section of Mingus and Roach. It’s since become a canonical piano trio date detailing the interaction of three essential musicians, but while it was well received upon release, it was initially no big deal. Ellington apparently wasn’t even under contract at the time.

In addition to bountiful sonic rewards, Money Jungle is famous for documenting and surviving a clash of personalities. Unsurprisingly, the differences fall on the shoulders of Mingus, the holder of mood swings and a temper that if indicative of an intrinsically human fallibility was also frequently triggered, sometimes to violence, by injustice and racism individualistic and institutional.

The specifics are hard to pin down. Some have claimed Mingus was unhappy with Roach’s playing, but more likely he was upset due to his compositions being overlooked; all the tunes derive from either Ellington’s pen or his book. Conspicuous among them is “Caravan,” the music by Juan Tizol, notably the recipient of Mingus’ ire in a fight that resulted in the bassist’s dismissal from Duke’s band after just four days in 1953.

In retrospect, it seems a decade later that Mingus was simply buckling under strain. Less than a month after Money Jungle’s recording came the “disastrous” Town Hall concert; at some point in between, during preparation for the event Mingus punched his longtime associate Jimmy Knepper in the mouth, knocking out a tooth, permanently affecting the trombonist’s embouchure, and in the process losing him for the Town Hall show and as a collaborator until 1977.

So, a crummy year, with Money Jungle the best of it, though as stated its stature grew over time. And it didn’t actually hit racks until February of ’63 as part of a 12 month span seeing Mingus rebounding in impressive fashion. The period holds three distinctive albums cut for Impulse! under the supervision of Bob Thiele.

Alongside the LP reviewed here can be found Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, a set loaded with re-recordings of extant tunes (and interestingly, Duke and Bigard’s “Mood Indigo”) that effortlessly transcends any Best Of limitations through inspired performances by two different 11-piece bands (the personnel does overlap), and Mingus Plays Piano, a truly solo effort (also currently available by Superior Viaduct) illuminated by its subtitle Spontaneous Compositions and Improvisations.

Altogether they deliver a concise illustration of the artist’s general range, a sort of Mingus Studies Cliff’s Notes if you will, and the pinnacle of this sublime trifecta comes via The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. It’s a disc of unimpeachable group play springing from the presence of the Almighty Three, namely Mingus, pianist Jaki Byard, and drummer Dannie Richmond, the trio establishing a platform while partaking in and encouraging vibrant flights of improvisation, especially from Charlie Mariano on alto sax.

Foremost is the brilliance of the writing. Across six parts the suite’s ambitiousness, at the outset conceived as a ballet, is basically perfect, Mingus revealed as Ellington’s true peer. Broken into four tracks on CD/digital but evenly divided on LP with three segments per side (and with liner notes by both Mingus and his psychotherapist Dr. Edmund Pollack), “Track A – Solo Dancer” (subtitle: “Stop! Look! And Listen, Sinner Jim Whitney!”) opens with the deft wrists of Richmond.

Supported by reeds, Don Butterfield’s contrabass trombone arises with an edge so serrated it could cut tin cans in half. Then, a flourish from Mariano; in short order his alto begins an impassioned swaying progression beneath the gruffness of Dick Hafer’s tenor. Trumpet fleetingly surfaces and mingles beautifully with Mariano in anticipation of Jerome Richardson’s emergence with an increasingly bluesy soprano solo. Meanwhile, Mingus plucks sinewy lines in tandem with the warmth emanating from Byard, and then comes a decidedly more emphatic group statement. The track ends shortly thereafter.

“Track B – Duet Solo Dancers” (subtitle: “Hearts’ Beat and Shades in Physical Embraces”) utilizes a slower tempo commencing with Byard’s stateliness on keys; the band cloaks him in the lushness of a romantic standard, the atmosphere segueing into a tangle of muted brass underpinned by the lowdown gusts of Butterfield’s tuba.

The pace quickens, slows, and then speeds back up, and as the woodwinds join the fray the setting is transformed; we’re momentarily in a celebratory Saturday night jook-joint. After a fervent crescendo and an abstraction of just trumpet and drum there’s a flash of calm before the ensemble reignites, working exquisitely to the section’s finale.

Of the key components in Mingus’ units Byard is arguably the most vital, largely because his expressiveness, like his bandleader’s, sprang from the breadth of jazz history and beyond. “Track C – Group Dancers” (subtitle: “(Soul Fusion) Freewoman and Oh, This Freedom’s Slave Cries”) finds Byard navigating territory redolent of a classical sonata.

Brass and flute (the latter by Richardson or Hafer, who along with Butterfield and Mingus fill dual roles here) enter the scene, the parenthetical of the subtitle becoming tangible, the scope widened further by Jay Berliner’s excellent Spanish-themed classical guitar, his contribution gracefully reinforcing Mingus’ transcendence of compositional strictures. After more of Mariano’s emotional resonance the ‘bone’s rawness resurfaces, the collectivity gaining urgency, attaining a peak and then completely dropping-out save for a side-closing coda from the alto.

The next three parts are designed to flow together, the flip opening with “Mode D – Trio and Group Dancers” (subtitle: “Stop! Look! And Sing Songs of Revolutions!”); first, succinct tidbits from the horns, then Mingus briefly alone followed by uprising activity giving way to a spotlight for Berliner. Brass ascends, progressively more torrid as Richmond rumbles in consort, and then Byard steps to the fore accented by trumpets and flute.

Saxes arrive, again with a ballad-like ambiance offset by the valve section. It leads into a sax-guitar dialogue and Mariano’s gorgeous solo spot. Instruments gradually reenter, and we’ve clearly traveled into “Mode E – Single Solos and Group Dance” (subtitle: “Saint and Sinner Join in Merriment on Battle Front”).

The tempo increases once more, tendrils of audible breath intertwining. Then, a balladic restatement alternates seamlessly with gutbucket grooves expertly deepened by Richmond’s R&B-sourced rhythmic bravado. This is “Mode F – Group and Solo Dance” (subtitle: “Of Love, Pain, and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved, ’til It’s Freedom Day”). As the proceedings near conclusion, the horns gloriously carry on until they reach a head; Butterfield’s sawing trombone returns like an old friend, a theme is expressed, and a solitary reed brings us to the close.

As Money Jungle’s standing has risen, the long in coming expanded edition of the ’63 Town Hall concert, while still problematic, does clarify that the evening wasn’t as dismal as legend and the shoddiness of United Artists’ original vinyl documentation suggests; I may be in the minority, but I’ll take ’94’s The Complete Town Hall Concert over ‘89’s Epitaph, the Gunther Schuller-conducted realization of the posthumously-discovered titular composition, a piece stretching back to the music debuted at Town Hall.

1962 was undeniably a tough term, but when combined with the Impulse! output it all coheres into a statement of massive proportion and heft, even more so if the following year’s performance, belatedly uncovered and packaged to substantial fanfare in 2007 as the behemoth 2CD Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy Cornell 1964, is added to the equation.

As asserted up above, Black Saint is the crème de la crème. Normally, it would be questionable to recommend one of the finest records ever cut as an introduction to the artist that made it, but Mingus newbies shouldn’t hesitate to plunge right in. By extension, folks looking for a doorway into jazz need not be bashful in stepping up to this delightful platter. If The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is one’s first LP in the multifaceted style, it assuredly won’t be the last.


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