If I had a cat, I would call it Charlie Mingus. I don’t, but luckily there is an important American jazz composer, bassist, bandleader and pianist of the same name whose music is used to educate and inspire by jazz group The Blues and Roots Ensemble. Their name comes from Mingus’s 1959 album Blues and Roots. A man passionate about showing his roots and a band passionate about showing their jazz roots.
Their appearance at the EFG London Jazz 2018 was eight months in the planning. Not only do they do fine performances of Mingus’s work but also educate in schools, workshops and community. Mingus in 1943 conceived the idea of a jazz workshop based on classical workshops where musicians exchanged ideas and performed new compositions. (Steven A Cerra, 2015, Jazz Profiles)
One of the songs they performed explored his complex personality which Mingus described as having three personalities which fight against each other. ‘Self Portrait in Three Colours’ (Mingus Ah Um, 1959) started in key, added a voice and then another until the harmony got blurred. This mass of confusion was how he saw himself.
No one could have experienced this more intimately than his two wives, Celia Zaentz and Sue Graham. Celia married him in 1951 and started the jazz label Debut Records with him in 1952 . The music did not stop even in the bedroom as she describes in a documentary how they used to lay in bed as he plucked her like a double bass! (James Maycock, 1997, Independent). The ballad ‘Celia’ was written for her which was then reworked for Sue in the 1970’s, who had the legacy to the Mingus estate and made sure that his music lived on. The Blues and Roots Ensemble played ‘Sue’s Changes’ which ended with an energetic improvised section.
Ed Babar, London based jazz and orchestral double bass player is the founder and director of The Blues and Roots Ensemble. He described how Mingus dedicated his music to people or places and was about storytelling. Other members include Flavio Li Vigni, drums, Pete Letanka, pianist, David Lalljee, trombone, Maude Wolstenholme, French horn , Victor Hecharria, trumpet and George Millard, woodwind. They then played Mingus’s dedication to one of his heros, Thelonious Monk, called ‘Jump Monk’ (Mingus at the Bohemia, 1955) which was a profile of another complex personality.
They also played a classic Mingus composition, ‘Haitian Fight Song’ (The Clown, 1957) which had repetitive lines coming in at different entries with horns and a blues section to solo over. My favourite had to be ‘Fables of Faubus’(Mingus Ah Um, 1959), a protest and mockery of Arkansas governor, Faubus, who decided to segregate a school in Little Rock in 1957. In the original, Mingus and his band give voice to the protest with lyrics such as:
Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
Two, four, six, eight
They brainwash and teach you hate!
With low, snaking bass clarinet and cheeky horn section, The Blues and Roots Ensemble carried on that protest and blew it right up them!