Meeting the Underdog: A Mingus Epitaph Memoir

On June 3,1989 I spent the better part of three hours onstage at Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Centre alongside Gunther Schuller, John Handy, Wynton Marsalis, John Abercrombie, George Adams and literally dozens of other legendary jazz musicians in what was called by the New York Times, “the jazz event of the decade.” It was an amazing experience. Here’s how it happened…

Back then I was the jazz critic for the Montreal Gazette, the oldest daily newspaper in Canada. One of my friends was Andrew Homzy, a musician and bandleader who was also at the time head of Concordia University’s jazz department. One day Andy told me a story. Some years after the death of Charles Mingus in 1979, he had called up the legendary bassist ‘s widow, Sue, and asked her whether she had any of Charles’ old charts in her possession. She said ‘sure, come have a look’. Andy was right around the corner in midtown Manhattan and moments later he found himself sifting through hundreds of pages of the great composer’s original handwritten compositions. It was quite a find.

charles_mingus_credit_david_redfern_1975_gettypre.jpgEventually Andy catalogued every page in that pile with a scholar’s care. But one thing was bugging him. Scattered amongst the charts for Pithecanthropus Erectus, for Jump Monk, for Haitian Fight Song and other revered tunes, were these large-format orchestral pages that he couldn’t identify. There seemed to be hundreds of them. And what’s more, they all seemed to be part of the same work because the measures were numbered consecutively well into the thousands. And they weren’t for quintet or sextet but they were detailed orchestrations for a 30-piece band! What the hell was this huge composition written in Charles’ own hand?

Eventually Andy solved the mystery. The piece was called Epitaph and it had been intentionally buried by Mingus after its only attempted performance resulted in the most disastrous and humiliating night of the great artist’s musical life. Back in 1962 Mingus had assembled a top-notch 33-piece band that included Clark Terry, Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Zoot Sims and Toshiko Akiyoshi, among other jazz greats, to perform a 2 1/2-hour piece in 18 sections. But the music was late getting to the musicians – the sheer volume of hand-copied of parts was enormous – and the band had almost no time to rehearse. On the day of the performance there were scribes copying charts in the wings as the band sight-read the complex music. With the volcanic Mingus driving the band in his unique and ferocious way, the band was stressed to the limit. As the concert progressed, the venue-owner objected to the length of the performance. At the stoke of midnight he shut off the power, plunging the entire hall into darkness. It was bedlam. Mingus was crushed.

The concert – such as it was -– had been recorded and eventually portions of it were released on the United Artist label as The Town Hall Concert. But Mingus never mentioned Epitaph again, and eventually people forgot it had ever existed. He cannibalized it once in a while by pulling out sections and arranging them for his small ensembles. But it wasn’t until Andy uncovered all of this 30 years later that it was learned that songs that had appeared on albums such as Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Ah-Um had originally been part of Epitaph.

So, now that he had pieced it all together and reassembled this epic work (without a doubt the single most ambitious composition in the history of jazz at the time it was written), what was next? To Andy it was obvious, the music had to be played. And properly this time. Although he could have put himself in charge (his own big band was terrific) he brought on board Gunther Schuller, famed musicologist, conductor and President of the New England Conservatory of Music. Schuller and Andy, along with Sue Mingus spent several years preparing until finally, in late 1989, they were ready.

This was the story that Andy had told me in Montreal. I was – needless to say – blown away. I wrote about the upcoming event in the Gazette and soon after Andy asked if I’d like to accompany him to New York for the week of rehearsals. I was stunned. And so I went, feeling incredibly grateful and fortunate.

That week was extraordinary. The band was truly the crème de la crème of various jazz scenes. Among the players were Sir Roland Hanna on piano, George Coleman on tenor sax, Urbie Green on trombone, Reggie Williams on bass – the list went on and on. And other wonderful players who had played with Mingus but weren’t in the band – like drummer Paul Motian and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave – also dropped by regularly. Stanley Crouch was around a lot. (I recall having a beer with him and being told by Stanley that he had ascertained that Charlie Parker had died from hitting his head on the curb after being punched by Art Blakey, but that he couldn’t write about it for fear of being sued by Art.) And the band was huge. 6 trumpets, 7 saxes, 4 trombones, 2 basses, 2 pianos, drums, guitar, percussion, tuba, vibes. Wow.

epitaphbullet.jpgIronically, the rehearsals were plagued by the same problems that had caused Mingus so much trouble 30 years earlier. This time a new computer program was being used to print out the charts but it wasn’t working properly and time was running out. The day before the highly-publicized concert at Lincoln Centre the band was still playing parts of the 3-hour piece for the first time. And the music was complex. Really tricky and demanding. Guys were sweating. At one point. Drummer Victor Lewis threw up his hands. He was frustrated because he had to read 5,000 measures of music. His chart was as thick as a small telephone book. “How can I possibly do this by myself?” he asked. “Can’t you get someone to turn pages for me?” The room went silent. Gunther, who was conducting, looked around and said, “is there anyone here who can turn pages for Victor?”

I read music but I still wasn’t sure what I was doing when I put up my hand. But nobody doubted me and so off I went. I pulled up a chair next to one of jazz’s most respected drummers and started following Mingus’ music.

And so it was that the next night, before a sold out gala crowd, I found myself onstage at Lincoln Centre, wedged between Victor Lewis and Snooky Young, who was the nearest and most senior member of a trumpet section that also included Randy Brecker, Lou Soloff, Joe Wilder, Wynton Marsalis and Mingus stalwart Jack Walrath. It was awe-inspiring.

Earlier in the day, during sound check, Andy had nudged me. “See that guy,” he said, nodding towards a solitary figure sitting about 30 rows up in Alice Tully Hall. “That’s Jimmy Knepper. You should go talk to him.” So I did. It was significant seeing Jimmy Knepper there because he had been an integral part of many of Mingus’ most celebrated recordings. By rights he should have been part of this. But he wasn’t. And even before I sat down I thought I knew why. Many years earlier, Mingus – in one of his moods – had taken a punch at him onstage. The punch had connected and broken Knepper’s jaw. His playing had never been the same. And as far as I knew he’d never played – or spoken – with Mingus again. Yet here he was, watching, and listening. We talked for a while. He was still bitter, still resentful of Mingus. He told me the story – no doubt for the millionth time – of how Mingus had busted his chops, and he ran him down a bit musically, saying it was the arranger Gene Rowland who had done a lot of the orchestration of Epitaph. Jimmy Knepper had of course been part of that original Town Hall concert. He had been a great player.

At last the concert was almost underway. Looking at drummer Victor Lewis, I could tell he was worried. He had to hold this huge band together for 3 hours. But that didn’t stop him from kibbitzing with Snooky Young, admiring the genteel trumpet man’s red leather shoes. (Snooky, like alto saxist Jerome Richardson, tuba-ist Eddie Bert and a couple of others playing at Lincoln Centre, had been on the original Mingus band performing the music back in 1962 at the Town Hall!) and I myself was wearing a silk suit I’d had tailored in Bangkok a few years earlier. Everyone was dressed to the nines. This was an event. There were speeches, By Sue Mingus and I can’t recall who else. And then the music started.

The band performed spectacularly. Among the highlights etched in my memory are: Wynton Marsalis playing a dirtier, meaner and more gorgeous lowdown solo than I ever imagined he was capable of; a plunger solo by trombonist and former Ellingtonian Britt Woodman that left me oozing with funk; George Adams bobbing and weaving with hawkish fury; cascading saxy grooves and massive brassy climaxes, all driven by the propulsive rhythmic intensity and sublime artistry of Victor Lewis. Of course, there were times when he got lost, and once or twice I was actually able to point to the chart and say “we’re here”, and know what I was talking about. And one time dignified white-haired Snooky Young leaned over to me and whispered, “Where the hell are we?” But that particular time I was as lost as he was.

At one point in the concert there was a stretch of 20 or 30 minutes where we had determined I wasn’t needed. So I slipped offstage and out into the audience, where I watched the show with the mesmerized crowd. The band was terrific. All the spotty bits in rehearsal shone like diamonds, crystal clear, perfectly etched. It was such a success that the entire band subsequently toured the world performing the music, although somehow I didn’t get to go along…

That night I went back to my hotel and typed up an article describing my experience. What a coup, I thought, for my newspaper, that their jazz critic should be sitting in the band for this historic event. I wrote about what it had been like onstage and faxed my article in. For some reason, however, my editor thought my ‘subjective’ review sucked and he rewrote it as if I had been just another critic in the audience. What a jerk. What a waste. It was one of the reasons I quit mainstream journalism shortly thereafter.

The next day Andy and I no longer had a hotel room. He ended up staying somewhere else, I’m not sure where, but I ended up sleeping a couple of nights on the floor of Sue Mingus’ living room, literally under the shadow of Charles’ four looming basses, whose huge bulk took up most of the room. Charles Mingus. I could feel the man’s presence. His music – and some of his spirit – had gotten into me. And I do believe it’s still there.

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