1951 was the year Charles Mingus arrived in New York, where jazz musicians went to make their reputations. He got right to it. Soon he was leading the Jazz Workshop, also known as the “Jazz Sweatshop” to some of his overworked sidemen. With a rotating cast of players, Mingus pioneered a collaborative style of co-creation that would serve as a template for many groups that followed. He sang out the parts to each musician, teaching them the song phrase by phrase in long, grueling rehearsals. He refused to let the musicians work from a score. In many cases, of course, the written music didn’t exist: it had all been worked out on piano, but only Mingus knew the piece completely. A soloist was usually given a set of scales from which to craft his improvisation, but he had to be aware of the shifting rhythms behind him. Performances were simply extensions of rehearsals, as fluid and unpredictable: arrangements were constantly mutating, songs might be rehearsed one way and performed another, all according to the unique and changeable vision of the band leader. As trumpeter Lew Solof put it: “He liked the sound of the struggle.”
Of course, not all musicians enjoyed working under these unpredictable conditions, and the tensions within these Workshop bands became the foundation of many myths that surround Mingus even today: Mingus chasing his trumpet player angrily off the bandstand and out into the street; Mingus smashing the piano at the Five Spot; Mingus stopping his aggravated band once and again, to the dismay of the audience, who might get a lecture on their own uncivilized listening habits should anyone dare object too loudly. He once had the children of his band mates play from behind the stage curtain, mocking the so-called avant-garde and free jazz sounds that were just starting to be heard in New York then.
He was protective of his music, sensitive to any perceived slight, and was always willing to defend himself with violence, if necessary. But he got results, and this is indisputable. Few composers demanded as much from their players, and fewer still were capable of eliciting such brilliant performances from them. His players, even those who had their disagreements with him, mostly credit Mingus with pushing them further than they’d imagined possible. He sometimes refused to let a sideman solo, might deliberately antagonize him, stoke him, insult him, only to finally let him blow, drawing a spark of genius from the frustrated and angry musician. Reedman Yusef Lateef, who played with Mingus in the early 1960s, recalls asking for guidance on a certain solo, and being given, in lieu of a set chords or scales, a line drawing of a coffin.
Many great albums came out of this period, including historic collaborations with drummer Max Roach (with whom he also founded Debut Records, jazz’s first artist-owned label), but Mingus’s first masterpiece was Heemstede Pithecanthropus Erectus, an eerie, haunting album recorded in January 1956, starring an inspired Jackie McLean. The title track tells the story of the rise and decline of man, something easy enough to pick out in the McLean’s tense and freakish horn work. It is an album of brilliantly orchestrated chaos, a true milestone.
You’ve probably heard the title track before, but it’s so beautiful, why not listen to it again?