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National Bass Day? Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers Were Born on April 22

April 22 was a very good day for jazz bassists (and those of us who love jazz): Two of the greatest — Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers – celebrated their birthdays on that day.

Mingus, who was formally trained on the double bass and composition, would have turned 97. This is most of the first paragraph of a terrific profile written in 1999 by Philip Jones (I took out some citations):

Charles Mingus is one of the most original and influential jazz composers of the twentieth century. He created the second-largest volume of jazz work after Duke Ellington and is the first African-American composer to have his work acquired by the Library of Congress. Mingus is known for his unusual style of composing and playing, which attempted to reconcile jazz improvisation with orchestration, in order for the final composition to conform most closely to his vision. Also, Mingus liberated the bass from its mundane role of keeping time, turning it into a fully versatile instrument as capable of stating the theme as the horns. While forging a new role for his instrument, he also forged a new style of jazz, one that acknowledged the influence of bebop but did not cater solely to that genre. Instead, Mingus’ music incorporated a wide range of styles, from Ellington’s big band sound, to gospel music, to early New Orleans jazz bands. At the same time, he imbued modern sentiments and an avant-garde feeling into his music.

In 2013, Adam Shatz wrote another great piece at The Nation — Mingus certainly inspired some good writing — that came about as close as possible to describing how a musician sounds from the written word. Shatz manages to express what Mingus was about suggest how the man thought.

Two paragraphs are particularly noteworthy. The first – the lead graph – isn’t about music at all, but it describes the man. It’s interesting how a good writer can explain one thing by describing another:

Image: Tom Marcello

When Sy Johnson, a jazz pianist and arranger, used to visit Charles Mingus at his apartment in the East Village in the 1960s, there was always a pot of soup on the stove, and Mingus—a gourmand who once interrupted a concert to eat a steak dinner on the bandstand—was constantly tasting it. “He would say—‘Needs another carrot.’” He would chop another carrot and taste it again, only to decide it needed an onion. The pot might simmer for a month before Mingus was satisfied with the seasoning. As Johnson tells John Goodman in Mingus Speaks, a book of interviews with Mingus and friends conducted in the early 1970s, Mingus’s music was a lot like his soup: a “huge cauldron of sounds” that was “always in a state of becoming something.”

The second excerpt is directly about the music—though at its heart still is about Mingus:

Mingus was always true to his ever-changing moods: he wanted to create music that, in his words, was “as varied as my feelings are, or the world is.” For sheer range of expression, his work has few equals in postwar American music: furious and tender, joyous and melancholy, grave and mischievous, ecstatic and introspective. It moves from the rapture of the church to the euphoria of the ballroom, from accusation to seduction, from a whisper to a growl, often by way of startling jump cuts and sudden changes in tempo. Vocal metaphors are irresistible when discussing Mingus. As Whitney Balliett remarked, music for him was “another way of talking.”

Above is “Devil’s Blues,” recorded lived at Montreux in 1975. Besides Mingus, the players are George Adams on tenor saxophone and vocals, Don Pullen on piano, Jack Walrath on trumpet and Dannie Richmond on drums.

Paul Chambers, a Mingus contemporary, was born 84 years ago this Monday in Pittsburgh.

This excerpt from an unfortunately un-bylined piece posted by The New York Jazz Workshop shows the complexity of a the musician’s background without being completely inaccessible to those not already familiar with Chambers or the jazz scene. This paragraph serves as a nice overview of how important Chambers is and why:

Chambers was the rock of a dynamic rhythm section in the [Miles] Davis organization with Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones that was the epitome of tightness and swing. Chambers’ warm, supple, lithe bass are at the center of the classic Davis staples Workin’, Cookin’, Relaxin’ and Steamin’ recorded over the bulk of a marathon October 1956 session that the trumpeter used to fulfill his Prestige contract.   It was  the March 2, 1959 session that partly produced Kind of Blue that vaulted Chambers to a different level.  The mysterious, impressionistic intro of “So What” with  Bill Evans’ piano in tandem with Chambers’ bass set off its timeless melody that  perhaps was one of the first to feature the bass in the lead. He was certainly at the forefront of first call hard bop musicians.  He lead his own  Blue Note dates and was the bassist of choice for John Coltrane’s Prestige sessions, the saxophonist’s iconic Blue Train (Blue 1957) Hank Mobley‘s Roll Call, Workout, and definitive Soul Station (all recorded for Blue Note in 1960) among countless others.

Paul_ChambersThe profile, which apparently was written last year, described Chambers’ influence. He had, according to the writer, “staggering facility” as a pizzicato (string plucking) and had “arco” (bow) techniques that were just as advanced. Ron Carter, himself a legendary bass player, said that Chambers – whose advances he built upon – was one of the first to play notes that weren’t “the root.” This meant that Chambers’ allowed himself to stray from the core responsibility of the bassist, which is to keep the rhythm.

The note on the Chambers’ birthday was found at “Today in Jazz Music.” The entry for April 22 could just as easily been called “This Week in Jazz Bass Players,” since the other note was that bassist John Kirby Sextet recorded “Twentieth Century Closet” in 1940.

Below is “Walkin’ ” performed live in 1960. The notes in the YouTube say that it was performed is Dusseldorf. The quintet was run by Miles Davis, who sat out on this evening. Besides Chambers, the players are John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

“The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” is an acclaimed album from Charles Mingus. Here it is at Amazon and at iTunes. Choosing an album is a bit harder in the case of Paul Chambers, since his greatest work was backing giants. It’s impossible to go wrong with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Here it is at Amazon and at iTunes. Instead of choosing one of the two to feature, here is a great book on the genre by Ted Goia. Click on the image or here for “The History of Jazz.”

Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.