By 1964, Charles Mingus was one of the most bootlegged musicians in jazz. At his live shows, he was known to confront audience members who had microphones and recording equipment.
The bootleggers had good reason: Through tours with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton, and dozens of critically acclaimed solo and collaborative albums on labels like Fantasy, Atlantic and his own Jazz Workshop, Mingus established himself as a preeminent creator at the forefront of New York’s avant-garde scene. Fans in the United States and beyond couldn’t get enough Mingus.
In April of ‘64, Mingus hit the road for a European tour that would be a critical moment for the bassist: He traversed the continent with one of the best bands in jazz, an all-star collective that featured Johnny Coles on trumpet, Dannie Richmond on drums, Jaki Byard on piano, Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone and Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet.
Before Mingus took his act to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, he worked out the material in New York City during a civil rights benefit at the Town Hall theater on West 43rd Street. That became a landmark gig in its own right: Shortly before the band was due to leave for Europe, Dolphy said he’d stay there after the tour, thus ending his run with the group. The group debuted two vastly different tunes, “So Long Eric,” a contemplative piece with a bluesy swing, and “Meditations on Integration,” a shapeshifting composition with surging bass and shrieking horns. The latter arose from a newspaper article Dolphy read about living conditions in the South.
He “explained to me that there was something similar to the concentration camps once in Germany now down South,” Mingus once said. “And the only difference between the electric barbed wire is that they don’t have gas chambers and hot stoves to cook us in yet.” In turn, the song chronicled escape, “how to get some wire cutters before someone else gets some guns to us.”
The tour wasn’t morose, even if Mingus, whose fiery temper led to him being dubbed “The Angry Man of Jazz,” briefly struggled to keep his emotions in check during the opening night rehearsal in Stockholm, Sweden. “Eric, I’mma miss your ass over here,” Mingus said while rosining his bow in the April 13, 1964 clip. “How long do you think you’ll stay?”
“I don’t know,” Dolphy replied, “not long…maybe a year.” He died suddenly just two months later, from undiagnosed diabetes in Berlin at the age of 36.
A certain finality pervaded the music in these European shows: Not only did Dolphy’s pending departure mark the end of Mingus’ best small band, the bassist slowed his output in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, releasing just two albums between 1965 and ‘66 (he released eight in 1964 alone). The European tour found the band at its creative peak, the last run of a short-lived group leaving it all on the stage.
That might explain the sheer virtuosity of the music. In particular, the April 12th Oslo gig featured spirited trumpet work from Coles, whose time on the tour ended five days later in Paris, after he collapsed on the bandstand due to a perforated gastric ulcer. “So Long Eric” centered a riveting drum-and-bass duel that elicited divergent moods; Richmond’s loud cracks were matched by Mingus’ low, vibrant chords. That gave way to the song’s true star, Dolphy, whose subsequent solo quickened the tune from stately swing to free jazz.
Today, against the backdrop of a global pandemic and racial divisiveness in the United States, ‘Meditations on Integration’ elicits the same rage, even if the targets have changed.
The band’s energy carried into the following week when, during a live performance in Belgium, “Meditations on Integration” rang like an alarm, with volcanic drum fills, synchronized horn bursts and stomping rhythms that conveyed social upheaval. Today, against the backdrop of a global pandemic and racial divisiveness in the United States, the song elicits the same rage, even if the targets have changed.
Almost 60 years later, Mingus’ European tour is still a landmark moment in jazz history, and the music captured over that month represents some of the best he’d ever performed. The bassist picked up steam once again in the ‘70s, releasing 10 albums between 1970 and ‘75, but they didn’t have quite the same resonance as his earlier work. That was partially due to the transition of jazz overall. By then, musicians like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock were blending funk and psych-rock into their sound, and earlier styles of jazz receded. Mingus in ‘64 toed the line between past and present, and the European tour showcased his flair for performing traditional strains of jazz while anticipating the future. For a brief moment, this Mingus sextet was easily one of the greatest bands going — not just in jazz, but in all of Black music.