MINGUS' LOST 'EPITAPH' LIVES AGAIN
By Jeff Kaliss
Thirty years after he wrote it,
Charles Mingus' greatest work is about
to get its West Coast premiere.
"Epitaph", an orchestral opus, in 18
movements, was written in bits and pieces
by the legendary jazz bassist and composer
over a period of many years.
It was put together for a 1962 performance
that ended in disaster, and was lost until 1984
when a music historian found pieces of Mingus' manuscript
five years after his death. Now, conductor Gunther Schuller
will lead a performance of the work Friday
at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.
For years, the manuscript - all 15 pounds and 500 pages of it -
remained in a huge cardboard box in the apartment
of Mingus' widow Sue, unknown to almost everybody, including her.
The manuscript, enormous in size, and concept,
is scored for 31 instruments in 18 fascinating movements.
Mingus was best-known for quirky, tricky jazz tunes, and some,
including "My Jelly Roll Soul", Haitian Fight Song", and
"Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting", were hits among jazz fans in the '60s.
Mingus referred to "Epitaph" as his "symphony",
although its size, compositional sophistication, instrumentation
and sections of improvisation put it in limbo between classical
and jazz traditions. "He never wanted to call his music 'jazz'",
Sue MIngus said. "it was like being called 'Charlie';
it was a limitation. In fact, when people tried to pigeonhole his music
into any category, he wpuld say 'Call it Mingus Music.' "
Mingus shared his contempt for categories with his conductor friend
Schuller. By phone from Boston, Schuller said "Everyone we label
as a great composer, since the beginnings of European music with
Perotin, is someone who went beyond the norms and traditions
of his own time and expanded the language and was a visionary."
Schuller was drawn into the "Epitaph" project after pieces of the score
were discovered by Montreal music scholar Andrew Homzy.
He began categorizing Mingus' legacy in 1984 and was fascinated
to find sections of an orchestral compostion scattered around
the Mingus apartment in Manhatan.
Sue Mingus came to realize that her husband, who died Jan. 5, 1979,
had kept secret from her his effort to record "Epitaph" at
New York's Town Hall in 1962, a couple of years before she met him.
"It was a disaster", she found out. Mingus' label had moved up
the recording date by five weeks, copyists were working to finish the score
even after recording started and union crews began shutting down the hall
before it was finished. The experience left Mingus frustrated and bitter.
"If he could have shown what he was back then, one assumes he would have
had the opportunity to write for larger ensembles", she says.
"There are ideas there that are not even in Schoenberg, Bartok,
Sue Mingus assembled the Mingus Dynasty band in 1979 to continue
performing and recording her husband's music. After the discovery of
"Epitaph", she decided to get it performed.
The Ford Foundation aand the National Endowment for the Arts helped pay
for assembling and copying the score. Schuller "spent six months of my life
on this piece, editing it and proof-reading the parts", dealing with
missing sections, incomplete or vague instructions from the composer
and other challenges.
Mingus apparently assembled "Epitaph" partly from rescored older works,
including the rousing "Better Get It In Your Soul" and the moody
"Pithecanthropus Erectus", and other sections composed anew.
Schuller noted that there are "straight-ahead swingers and bebop pieces"
in the movements labeled "Monk, Bunk and Vice Versa".
"You don't need a conductor for that", he said.
"On the other hand, there are movements like 'Chill of Death'...that definitely
require a conductor, because they are so complex and multilayered.
Then there's a piece like 'Moods in Mambo', which is almost an atonal parody.
There's no improvisation in that piece."
For the long-awaited premiere performance of "Epitaph" at New York's
Alice Tully Hall in 1989, Schuller and Sue Mingus assembled older
Mingus cohorts George Adams (tenor sax), Snooky Young (trumpet)
and Britt Woodman (trombone) and younger progressive players
Micchael Rabinowitz (bassoon sax) and Schuller's son Edwin (bass).
They will all be at Davies.
Schuller recruited Novato multi-reed player Mel Martin
in gathering 11 Bay Area musicians to join the 20 that Schuller
is bringing from the East Coast. "What's required is that
you better be a damned good reader", Schuller said.