Saturday, May 9, 2009


Dear Mr. Mingus,

Thursday evening the Mingus Dynasty performed at Orchestra Hall in Detroit Michigan. I’m writing you to let you know how things turned out. I had a good time. My neck is still sore from bobbing. The septet, which included trombonist Frank Lacy, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, drummer Donald Edwards, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, pianist David Kikoski, and bassist Boris Kozlov played compositions you wrote in 1959, a prolific year for you.

For the most part, they stayed to the original way you composed the music. Of course, they tinkled with some of the composition. They adjusted some chord structure here and there, and slowed down the tempo on several of your signature pieces. You’re a brilliant composer and you weren’t afraid to speak your mind through your compositions.

Honestly, Mr. Mingus, I felt bad for the septet. I audience at Orchestra Hall wasn’t into the performance at all. Most of the people that attend the jazz series there have conservative ears. Your brand of jazz was too hip, which may explain the lousy turnout. A handful of folks appeared to be interested, but most seemed lost.

I figured the audience would perk up a bit when bassist Boris Kozlov called your gospel-inspired number “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, which was the opening track on your landmark album “Blues & Roots”. At the part of the composition where the musicians stopped playing, clapped and encouraged audience participation the crowd was flat and could not keep up with the tempo. The audience seemed to be made of concrete, and the holy spirit of your composition couldn’t penetrate them.

Mr. Mingus, tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake and alto saxophonist Vincent Herring stole the show. I wondered if any Blake critics have compared to tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin who was the saxophonist on “Blues & Roots”. You would've recruited Blake. Like Ervin, Blake had a fat tone. Herring channeled the spirit of two of your ex-employees alto saxophonists Jackie McLean and John Handy.

I’ve been an admirer of your since I read the book co-authored by Janet Coleman and Al Young titled “Mingus Mingus Two Memoirs”. They wrote about their encounters with you. I knew about your reputation, but I only owned a few of your albums. I got a kick out of the solo piano album you made in 1963 titled “Mingus Plays Piano”. The other album was “Mingus Ah Um”. The Mingus Dynasty played several selections from that album “Fables of Faubus”, “Jelly Roll” and “Open Letter to Duke”. Your odes to Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington were by top two compositions the octet performed Thursday.

You capture their personalities. It seemed as though you knew Ellington and Morton (Even saxophonist Lester Young) better than they knew themselves. You had a reputation of a brute and bully.

I heard about how you’d berate a crowd it they talked while your band performed. Mr. Mingus, I would’ve done the same thing. I also heard you punched out your employees when they didn’t play a part just as you had composed it. That bothered me. I concluded you’re a big bully. Did any of those employees ever fight back? You hand a gentle streak too.

Miles Davis told a funny story about you in his autobiography. Miles said drummer Max Roach had purchase a new Cadillac and he loan it to you. You damaged it. You smashed the car into a tree to avoid running over a squirrel. I got a kick from that story, and
I wondered if Roach berated you, punched you out, or insisted you pay for the damages. Miles didn’t say. Nothing could sully the fact you’re a great American composer. Did you feel you’d received all the accolades you deserved? You were just as good as Duke Ellington and the Gershwins.

Mr. Mingus, as I listened to the Mingus Dynasty Thursday night I wish I was at the Atlantic Studio in New York in 1959 when “Blues & Roots” was born. I would a hawked my soul to have witnessed you swinging with Booker Ervin Jackie McLean, Jimmy Knepper and Mal Waldron the name some of the jazz luminaries who blessed that album. I wasn’t lucky enough to have been a young adult in 1959. The constellation is when you passed away you left a wealth of great music, and the musicians in the Mingus Dynasty have dedicated themselves to preserving your genius.


Charles L. Latimer

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