Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and John
Coltrane are four modern masters that bring my jazz cerebrum to the
pinnacle of musical pleasure.
Thelonious Monk was a pianist who was
born during the early part of the 20th century in North
Carolina. You can hear the stride-piano of Harlem great James P.
Johnson in all of Monk’s compositions and solos. He is considered by
music critics to be one of the most eccentric composers in all of jazz
history. His writing talent started to come out in the mid-1940s, when he
penned ‘Round Midnight only to subsequently sell it to Cootie
Williams. His ‘Blue Note’ albums contained almost all original songs
(minus Willow Weep for Me and Nice Work if You Can Get It).
At the time, Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion had the chance to
record the more mainstream Bud Powell in place of Monk, yet when Lion
heard the latter’s off the wall compositions he knew he had to go with
him. The results are two groundbreaking albums beautifully recorded,
designed and promoted/distributed.
Charles Mingus is also one of the 20th
century’s greatest composers. He grew up in New Mexico and started
working as a young musician in Los Angeles. There was an interesting
jazz scene in L.A. which was much more laid back than New York at the
time. One must understand how important an influence Duke Ellington was
on Mingus and his writings. Mingus measured success in terms of
meeting the accomplishments of Ellington. The bassist wrote some
really wonderful arrangements for big bands. He employed some of the
most talented musicians during his stints on Columbia and Impulse!
Records. He used reedman Charlie Mariano and pianist Jaki Byard (both
of which my Grandfather studied with during the 1950s at Berklee
College of Music).
Mingus also recorded a lot with multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy and
Texan tenor sax player Booker Ervin. Some of his best albums on
Impulse! include Mingus Mingus Mingus and The Black Saint and
the Sinner Lady. Mingus Ah Um on Columbia is also
remarkable. The compositions and arrangements on these three albums
changed my way of thinking just as much as Hegel influenced me as a
young philosophy student. Contemporary artist Ravi Coltrane has listed
a Mingus album as one of his favorite recording sessions of all time. Bassists Tom Abbs (founder of the ‘Jump Arts’ organization) and Ben
Allison (founder of the Jazz Composer’s Collective) look to Mingus as
inspiration and measures of their own success. So do the more
established William Parker and Christian McBride.
Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois during 1926 and played in St.
Louis as a teenager. At 17 he was given the chance to study at
Julliard in New York City (his father was a prominent local dentist who
was able to fund this very expensive expenditure). However, he received most of his musical education from
playing with Bird on 52nd Street. He is said to have been
very nervous during his first recording with Charlie Parker at age 19
(playing the song Ko Ko-- a melody that is based off the I’ve
Got Rhythm chord progression). Soon, though, he felt very
comfortable with the co-founder of bebop, and as a sideman recorded some
very memorable sessions for the Dial label. It wasn’t until 1949 that
he really found out how underappreciated jazz musicians were in the
U.S. This was when he participated in the first international jazz
festival in Paris. During his time in France, he fell in love with a
European model and sat at cafes in the Left Bank with the existentialist
philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. At the
end of three consecutive decades he recorded amazing albums: Birth of
the Cool in 1949, Kind of Blue in 1959, and Bitches Brew
1969. He is the only recording artist to redefine himself every ten
years during the course of his career. I guess what William
wrote in Naked Lunch was true: “Once you stop changing you start
dying”. I look at the albums he made at the end of each decade as
trendsetters for the style of the next ten years. Miles would go
further than just changing style every ten years for three consecutive
decades; in the 1970s he was one of the first artists to play jazz fusion
with rock artists and then shifted paradigms in the 1980s with hip-hop
and funk. He was a true renaissance man.
John Coltrane was a gentle
revolutionary who recorded successful albums for three different record
labels over the span of his career as a bandleader. There isn’t a
greater influence in the jazz of today than Coltrane. This is a valid
statement because hard-boppers sound so much different from free-jazz
players, and Coltrane covered both during the course of his career. Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka used Coltrane as an example of the black aesthetic during
the release of popular culture’s My Favorite Things. Reggie
Workman was influential in the African-American solidarity found within
Coltrane’s renditions of folk songs such as Greensleeves (check
out his Afro Brass recordings on Impulse! for similar
inspiration). In 1966 he recorded his take on Disney’s Chim Chim
Cheere, doing a ‘5th dimensional’ alteration only rivaled in jazz
history by Sun Ra's take on the Walt Disney songbook. His album Interstellar Space paved the way
for the plethora of sax/drums duos that have been in existence during
recent years (this album was very influential in the live recording of
the Dewey Redman/Ed Blackwell Black and Red album, as well as in
the more recent David Murray/Milford Graves pairing in Real Deal and the
ex-husband/wife duo of Assif Tsahar/Susie Ibarra on Home Cookin'). On soprano sax
you can hear how important Sidney Bichet’s sound was to Coltrane, as
well as the influence of world music (Asian and Indian reeds).
Previously I was caught up in the underground jazz world in New York
City at the same time as I was educated by the traditional camp, and I
fortunately have lived to tell you that no musician other than Coltrane can be
sited as a founder of both schools.
There are some similarities between
these four musicians. Both Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus struggled
with mental illness during their whole life. Miles Davis and John
Coltrane both gave up terrible drug habits during the course of their
careers. There are musicians in jazz history who have struggled with
both of these problems: both Charlie Parker and Bud Powell were caught
up in drugs and suffered from mental illness. The latter’s drug habit
was responsible for the loss of Thelonious Monk’s cabaret license (he was
at one of his drug deals gone bad and wouldn’t rat out his fellow
pianist to the police) and his mental illness was responsible for the
shock treatment he received at the Bellevue mental institution (Monk’s
family wouldn’t allow him to go through the same inhumane treatment).
Other overlappings in the four musicians’ careers are who they worked
with. Miles and Trane played in the same band together, Mingus and
Monk both played with Charlie Parker, as did Miles. Monk played with
Coltrane, Miles had a tempestuous recording relationship with Monk (once
the trumpeter told Monk to “lay out”- or stop playing - on one session,
then when Monk saw how Miles was mistreating Coltrane, he told the tenor
player that he could leave Davis and play with him at any time. Mingus
and Monk were primarily composers while Miles and Trane mostly go down
in jazz history as master improvisers. There are many more similarities
amongst these four pioneers.
Hopefully more jazz fans will agree
that Miles, Mingus, Monk, and Trane are the ‘power four’ when it comes to
modern jazz music.