The post-war period precipitated radical changes in how jazz was performed. The popular swing big bands began to wither and bebop started to emerge like wild weeds from the cracks of New York City pavements. The West Coast scene started to sprout a musical terrain as diverse as the landscape of California. The advent of a pluralistic sound encompassed the disparate music from Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon to Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, and Art Pepper to Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. And Charles Mingus.
The music on WEST COAST is not mature Mingus, but Ellington influenced pieces with increasing strains of experimental or avant-garde music. Ellington may not have heard much of Mingus, but Mingus surely knew Ellington.
WEST COAST is a fascinating and remarkable collection of rare singles of Mingus with a variety of well-known and unknown California musicians between 1945 and 1949. These singles were originally produced on reclaimed shellac, not vinyl, so even collectors didn't collect these rare discs. (And who, at that time, knew the importance of Mingus anyway.) Small, independent record companies that faded in and out of existence produced these seminal recordings and released them in limited batches. Consequently, these singles have been talked about over the years, but this is the first time they are collected on a single CD compilation. Uptown Records has done a magnificent job resurrecting these early pieces in which one hears the transformation of Mingus.
In his emulation of the 'Duke', Mingus took on the name 'Baron.' Not only that, the initial pieces on WEST COAST that sound like Ellington's Blanton-Webster Band knock-offs, especially in the takes of 'Baby (Honey), Take a Chance With Me.' Ted Gioia wrote that if Mingus had been as student in a conservatory class on 'Ellington Compositional Methods,' he would have excelled. Indeed, the early pieces sound very familiar, but as Mingus' confidence in his own writing skills grows, they definitely show hints of the Baron to come.
Although Mingus may have been quoted from Ellington on 'Shuffle Bass Boogie,' this is the first piece where, as the liner notes suggest, the bass is the conductor of the performance. 'Shuffle Bass Boogie' show Mingus more firmly in control of his band. And with that, there is evidence that Mingus was starting to develop his own identity.
The orchestration of 'Weird Nightmare' sounds like Ellington, but the ominous lyrics are Mingus'. He writes: "Can't sleep at night/ turn twist in fright/ with the fear that I live it all again/ in my dreams you there to haunt me/ you say you don't want me." The tone is reminiscent of Mingus' writing in his autobiography, BENEATH THE UNDERDOG. Mingus then uses the haunting melody later for 'Pipe Dreams' and dispenses with the lyrics. He allows the enigmatic and obscure pianist Lady Will Carr to sparkle on this abbreviated piano concerto.
On the first version of 'Story of Love,' Mingus uses trumpet and trombone sections and beneath it applies a Latin rhythm to a chaotic, cluttered effect. The second version is cleaner and more refined, but still retaining its chaotic nature. This piece prefigures masterpieces that he wrote ten years later.
Mingus introduces 'He's Gone' by featuring a flute and clarinet duet, which is then answered by a cello, and then a baritone saxophone. The singer, Herb Gayle, then starts to sing. He sounds normal, but the music is anything but. Mingus' strange tune reveals a cold and dark mood.
Traces of Ellington fade completely with 'Boppin' in Boston.' There are two bass solos and are two choruses of scat vocals that might be Mingus himself.
The experimentalism drifts further afield with 'Inspiration.' This four-minute piece is played more in a classical style of composers Gustav Mahler and Alexander Scriabin and less in the method of Ellington.
While WEST COAST may not initially appeal to one expecting to hear the innovative and unique Mingus of the fifties and sixties, it is fascinating to hear Mingus trying different ways to establish his own voice. In some ways, WEST COAST is a good metaphor for the post war era: seemingly normal but beneath the surface is lurking something new and different, eccentric and trailblazing.