Quotulatiousness

February 13, 2013

The Jazz Sweatshop (or the Harvard University of Jazz)

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In the New York Review of Books, Christopher Carroll discusses the great Charles Mingus:

Mingus (1922-1979) would have turned ninety last year, and in celebration, Mosaic has released The Jazz Workshop Concerts: 1964-1965, a new box set with rare and previously unreleased performances by some of Mingus’s greatest ensembles. These concerts, recorded near the apex of Mingus’s career, are visceral and often unvarnished. At times, the music here can be forbidding — several tracks run beyond thirty minutes — and though it may not be as uniformly polished as some of his studio albums, at its best this set captures an element of shock and surprise that Mingus’s studio recordings sometimes don’t.

“Mingus music,” as he called it, was so complex and so much an extension of his own personality that it was largely played only by his own group, the Jazz Workshop. Turnover in the Workshop was high, partly because he couldn’t afford to pay his musicians very well, partly because the experience was so grueling (members called it the Jazz Sweatshop), and partly because so many of them, after sharpening their skills with Mingus, went on to lead their own bands (Gary Giddins once called it the Harvard University of Jazz).

Even with Mingus at the helm playing bass (and sometimes piano), Workshop performances often resembled practice sessions more than concerts. He did everything in his power to push his players beyond their limits: while a musician was soloing, he might double the tempo, cut it in half, or drop the accompaniment of the bass, drums, and piano entirely, all without warning. Often, players would buckle under the pressure and songs would grind to a halt, with Mingus screaming recriminations and heaping shame on everyone in sight. But sometimes his musicians would rise to the challenge, and it was the possibility of this transcendence that gave Jazz Workshop performances such an electrifying sense of expectation and adventure.

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