Blue Notes

Eyeballin': Charles Mingus' Epitaph

Charles Mingus had been dead and buried for more than a decade by the time his jazz concerto, Epitaph, had its public debut on June 3, 1989 in New York City. But then again, the bassist/composer never thought any audience would ever hear it.

After Mingus's death, more than 20 individual pieces and 500 pages of score -- written over more than a 20-year-period -- were discovered. Many were smudged and barely legible, but they formed the parts of Mingus's never-finished magnum opus. After a painstaking effort spearheaded by collector Andrew Homzy, Mingus's widow Sue, and conductor Gunther Schuller to piece together, edit, reconstruct and even fill in some parts, Schuller led a 30-piece orchestra to present the work, the longest and largest written for a jazz orchestra.

But while many pieces in this two-plus hour concert do show traditional jazz sounds -- the energetic opener "Main Score: Part One"; the sentimental big band ballad "The Soul," a raucous take on the Mingus standard "Better Get Hit In Your Soul" and the inspired stomp "Wolverine Blues" (based on the Jelly Roll Morton composition of the same name) -- Mingus also always had his head and hand in the classical and church world. That's reflected in pieces like "The Children's Hour of Dream," "Freedom" and "Self Portrait: The Chill of Death."

Bringing Mingus's vision to life under the direction of the smiling and green-jacketed (well, it was 1989) Schuller are classical players along with veterans of the Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington bands, Mingus sax favorite George Adams, and a certain, fresh-faced 27-year-old trumpet player named Wynton Marsalis. And though all understandably stare intently at their sheet music -- given its unfamiliarity -- they come off as if they'd been playing the at-times cacophonic and jagged (a Mingus trademark) piece for a while.

The camera angles for the taping were extremely well-thought-out and planned, giving the viewer a chance to see plenty of solos. And while the show is available on CD and was broadcast on UK television in 1990, this marks its DVD debut. Epitaph should not be mistaken for a jazz concert or even a Mingus Big Band show. Instead, it's an involved, important work of music -- a fitting finale for a complicated musical genius.

Eagle Eye, 131 mins., $14.98

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero