If you were to see me walking down the street, jump out from behind the bush in which you were hiding, and ask me who the greatest American composer of the 20th century was, I would say “Charles Mingus.” Then I would say “that’s a dumb question — ‘best’ is a silly concept, taste and craft are relative to personal experience and expectations, and also why were you hiding behind that bush.”
Today I happened to be down the rabbit hole of a different amazing composer, Eric Dolphy, when I came across this gem of the two playing Take the A Train together with Mingus’s fantastic band in Norway, which I hadn’t watched in a very long time. The most obviously arresting part of the video happens about midway through, when Dolphy takes a long, partially unaccompanied bass clarinet solo. To me, there is not a moment of that solo which seems unthinking or unintentional. Nothing lingers outside the bounds of a specific, purposeful musical decision. As someone who improvises a lot, I can tell you how difficult that is. Not a single note, not even a single sound here, is lazy.
As I listened and watched I also remembered how great Charles Mingus is as a composer. In this video, his compositional skill isn’t manifested by the tune (which wasn’t written by him) or any particular pitch decisions (as he doesn’t even take a solo), but rather by the way in which he organizes the band, the way he cajoles and exhorts his musicians, and the way he exerts a clear authorial intent over the scenario. Mingus was an incredible composer of people, and that doesn’t always come across when you just hear his music.
Also, how adorable is Jaki Bayard. I mean, his solo is fantastic and his comping is clunky and weird and amazing, but also the man is just adorable.