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  My Big Four Jazz Players:
Miles, Monk, Mingus, and Trane
  by Dustin Garlitz  

November 2004:

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 S. Burroughs 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.