Whenever I begin to feel annoyance at the very nature of the politically correct, buttoned-down jazz world of the twenty-first century, I like to think of Charles Mingus. From, roughly, the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, Mingus was able to summon forth controversy at hurricane force levels on a regular basis.
He had his chance with Beneath The Underdog, his 1971 autobiography. He had a major publisher behind him and was preparing his recording comeback so the time was right for Mingus to talk about music. Instead he talked about his sex life and the result was awful-I couldn’t finish it. His liner notes to the Columbia album Let My Children Hear Music, on the other hand, were eloquent and are well worth reading these many years later.
Mingus was one of the first leaders I gravitated toward when I was getting into jazz in the late 1950s. My crew used to hear him at jazz festivals in the summer and buy his Columbia, Atlantic, Candid and Impulse albums. When he was at his best, as he was during this period, he was really great. What came later in the 1970s never measured up to that earlier period.
Given all that, I’m delighted to report that Mingus Speaks by John F. Goodman (University of California Press, 2013) is something that all Mingus fans will enjoy. The work consists of two in-depth interviews done by Goodman with Mingus, during 1972 and 74. For the first time, we really get Mingus talking about music.
The interviews are arranged by Goodman so that certain topics are discussed at one time. Chapters include: Avant-Garde and Tradition; Studying, Teaching and Earning a Living; Authenticty: Whose Tribe Are You In? and Debut Records and the Music Business. The interviews are conducted in the 1970s so there is only one mention of Booker Ervin and none of Horace Parlan. Yet Mingus provides wonderful insight into how his music is made and with whom.
Sy Johnson, who worked with Mingus, provides some of his own photos and contributes commentary which helps to clarify much of the material. Highly recommended.
Oxford University Press has undertaken a series titled Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz. These are medium-length paperbacks dedicated to individual groups and specific periods or in the case of Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert by Catherine Tackley, a single event.
Tackley presents her material in three segments: Context, Performance and Representation. They deal with 1) events leading up to the concert 2) the concert itself and 3) the release of the music on LP/CD. Tackley is an especially good researcher and it is unlikely one will find any related subject matter not covered thoroughly here. One bobble: she suggests that “in 1950 RCA abandoned the 45rpm extended play format”. Not true since RCA would continue to issue EPs for another ten years. They did issue their first LPs in 1950.
There has been a lot of controversy regarding the various issues and reissues of this music. The pros and cons of the various editions, the contents and sound quality, are thoroughly discussed. Names are named.
It is only in the musical analysis that one finds some shortcomings. Ms. Tackley is a British academic and distance has always seemed to be the insurmountable barrier. When she suggests that Cootie Williams and Johnny Hodges are “asked to indulge in what might be perceived as inauthentic jazz practice” because they reference their own recorded solos on “Blue Reverie”, she reveals that it is she who misunderstands the jazz process. And just out of curiosity, who would have done the asking?
A second volume in the Oxford series is Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings by Brian Harker. Harker, I think wisely, decides to concentrate on seven performances from this cannon and he dissects each thoroughly. They are: “Cornet Chop Suey”, “Big Butter And Egg Man”; “Potato Head Blues”, “S.O.L. Blues”/”Gully Low Blues”, “Savoy Blues” and “West End Blues”. There are no photos but lots of musical notation. I’m not sure how much can be added to the discussion of these sides that hasn’t been done before. There were times that felt as though the author was indulging in overkill-too much analysis can lead to tedium. Still if you had a jazz student who wanted a place to learn about these spectacular examples of recorded jazz, this would be a good place to go.
It is surely time for a thorough examination of the life and music of Bud Powell but alas The Amazing Bud Powell by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. (University of California Press/Center For Black Music Research, 2013) is not that work. Subtitled Black Genius, Jazz History and The Challenge of Bebop, this work is at least as much about Professor Ramsey’s own theories as it is about anything else. The first forty-two pages including the author’s introduction, acknowledgements and ruminations on people such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Wynton Marsalis have almost nothing to do with Bud Powell.
Ramsey is better when he writes about Bud. Yet what ultimately amounts to one hundred and fifty pages devoted to Powell seems to be very skimpy. There is not even a discography. Peter Pullman, who had been researching Bud for many years, finished his work titled Wail but was only able to publish on the internet. I have not seen this but I am told that it runs about three times as long as The Amazing Bud Powell and for someone seeking the best current information on Bud Powell, this would appear to be the place to go.