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Music Review: Charles Mingus At UCLA 1965

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Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of a seminal event in jazz history. On September 25, 1965, composer/bassist/pianist Charles Mingus and his octet lumbered into a small auditorium on the UCLA campus to perform one of the open workshops Mingus became famous for. It was an event that allowed a select audience to watch a jazz master at work, struggling to make sense of the music in his head and lay a foundation for his group to interpret that music.

Charles Mingus At UCLA 1965 is a no holds barred, unapologetic look at Mingus’ genius; the frustration, anger and ultimate exaltation he felt while his music took shape. Originally released as an LP in 1966, Mingus was only able to press 200 of the double album set before running out of money. A few years later, Mingus discovered the masters had been destroyed when Capitol Records cleaned out their vaults. This CD set, put out by Mingus’ widow on her Sue Mingus Music label, is a testament to the contentious style her husband employed to re-create the art that burnished his soul.

To say this album is brilliant doesn’t do it justice. There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe the effect this album will have on any Mingus or jazz aficionado. Mingus’ sterling backup band on this album includes Hobart Dotson on and Lonnie Hillyer on trumpets; Jimmy Owens on flugelhorn and trumpet, Charles McPherson on alto saxophone, Julius Watkins on French horn, Howard Johnson on tuba, and Dannie Richmond on drums are all impeccable, even though after a few false starts on “Once Upon A Time, There Was A Holding Corporation Called Old America” Mingus dismisses Dotson, Owens, Watkins and Johnson “to the back room to figure this thing out.” It’s not malicious—some of the compositions were so raw at the time of this concert its surprising there weren’t more false starts then there were. Although some may not appreciate the rough edginess of the songs Mingus workshops, these unpolished gems give listeners the opportunity to explore with Mingus as the compositions ascend from drafts to a final product that has Mingus shouting in joyful acknowledgement of completion. It’s a searing experience.

As a quartet, Mingus, Hillyer, McPherson and Richmond do a shattering version of “Ode To Bird and Dizzy”, and the full octet shines on “They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux”, “The Arts of Tatum and Freddy Webster”, “Muskrat Ramble”, and “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too”. The album ends with “Don’t Let It Happen Here”, a Mingus poem which is a vanguard in response to current political turmoil.

Charles Mingus was years ahead of his time, constantly pushing the boundaries of jazz to its furthest extremes. Nearly thirty years after his death, musicians are still untangling Mingus’ complex compositions, adding their own bents to his musical vision. The re-released document of the 1965 UCLA workshop further enhances Mingus’ vision and will keep new composers busy for a long time trying to capture his magic in their own work.

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