Decidedly Jazz Danceworks Unravels Dark and Turbulent Complexity of Charles Mingus  

Tuesday 08th, January 2019 / 11:32
By B. Simm

Photo by Noel Begin

CALGARY – We often hear about the wild men of rock ‘n’ roll, and it wouldn’t be hard to easily list a half dozen off on the spot. But when asked who were the wild men of jazz, most of us would need a few moments to ponder and quickly do a Google search. But there are many wild men in jazz — Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, those are just some of the big names. There’s a whole subterranean sea of lesser known horn blowers and beat maniacs that wrecked havoc. Charles Mingus also fits in that category, although he had a special place of distinction — he wasn’t wild as much as he was tormented, and consequently know as “The Angry Man of Jazz.” 

Kimberly Cooper, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks artistic director, retells the story of the infamous “axe chase” where Mingus lost his cool and literally hunted down a fellow musician with a bare blade looking for blood.  

“He (Mingus) was playing in Duke Ellington’s band and got into a fight with trombonist Juan Tizol who pulled a knife. Mingus disappeared for a moment, but then came back with a fire axe, chased Juan around with it and apparently split his chair in two with the axe.”  

That not only makes for a good story, but also a great visual presentation when DJD brings back their tribute to the music, mind and madness of Charles Mingus with Better Get Hit In Your Soul.  

Cooper says not only do they make reference to that bit of insanity, but also taps into the romantic tension of Mingus and his “many wives” where he was once married to two women at the same time and was also their pimp! How exactly that plays out on stage?  

“Well,” says Cooper, “we have this piece where two women just dance together and you get the feeling they are very, very much in control of the audience with their sensuality.”  

Aside from the angry, wild man that consumed Mingus, Cooper speaks to his musical genius and why she incorporated his work into a DJD production.  

“He just made so much music. Although he died from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)  at 56, but in that time he made hundreds of recordings with this wild range. Some of his music is almost third stream, between classical and jazz. Duke Ellington had a huge influence on him which I think you can hear, and some of it is more simple and closer to blues and gospel. The tune ‘Better Get Hit’ for instance, has more of a folk-dance kind of feel. So in the 30 years that he was making music, it was all such a huge accomplishment.” 

Mingus’ autobiography, Beneath The Underdog, with its mix of “colourful characters” and rich, turbulent history, is largely what propelled Cooper to created this thriving dance performance. It’s an interesting venture that by developing a story about this man and his music not only does a performance unfold on stage, but it also takes the audience along on a journey that explores Mingus life and inner workings. Cooper says that there’s a monologue from the book in one part of the show that reveals three different sides to him — the neutral guy, the angry man, and the gentleman, a target for others to hurl their abuse at.  

“There’s some spoken word and some hollering like you’re in a night club there, a narrative to give you some clues. And there’s instrument hanging from the ceiling, with the idea these instruments are ideas swirling in his head…”  

She adds, “I just hope the audience becomes curious about all of it. The first act closes with “The Saint and the Sinner Lady,” considered one of the most important albums of the last century.  It’s thick and dense, complex and cinematic that changes drastically every three minutes — you keep getting pulled somewhere else over the course of 17 minutes. There’s something in that tune that when you see movement to it, hopefully it’s more accessible.” 


Better Get Hit Runs from Jan. 10-20 at the DJD Dance Centre as part of High Performance Rodeo.

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