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Mingus’ Magnum Opus: ‘Epitaph’ In Concert

Listen to the Hour-Long Radio Special here on NPR Music

From NPR:

July 24, 2008 – As creative chair for jazz at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, bass player Christian McBride gets to program four concerts a year. The moment he got the job, he put Charles Mingus’ monumental, 2 1/2-hour jazz symphony “Epitaph” at the top of his list.

“When you hear Mingus’ music, that’s about as advanced as you can get,” McBride says. “But it’s always rooted — it’s always coming out of that real indigenous black tradition. I’m talking about, like, work songs and gospel, you know, all the way up through Ellington, all the way up through the strife of the ’60s. All of that is in his music.”

Jazz historian and composer Gunther Schuller conducted the entire concert in front of a 31-piece jazz orchestra. He says that Charles Mingus was a man of many moods — and that he sees them in the very fabric of Mingus’ masterpiece.

“I knew him quite well,” Schuller says. “He could be as gentle as a baby, and he could also be so full of tantrums and explosive and angry, and all of this range of feelings is in this piece. It’s all there: It’s like a musical picture of Mingus’ personality — from the most beautiful gentle ballads, lyric pieces, to these extremely chaotic, disorganized, wild pieces.”

By the time “Epitaph” premiered in 1962, Mingus was already well-known as a composer, bandleader, and virtuoso bass player, a musician who had worked with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington, among others. But how Mingus came to write the piece remains something of a mystery.

Gunther Schuller says Mingus probably composed most of the piece over a three-year period in the late ’50s. He scored it for a 31-piece double jazz orchestra, and got an all-star group to play it. But the first performance was a travesty.

“There’s this famous, legendary disastrous concert and recording session in Town Hall [in New York], where I happened to be present,” Schuller says. “And it was one of the most chaotic and frustrating and disastrous concerts that anybody has ever heard, because the music was so difficult and so strange. He hadn’t had a chance to rehearse it properly and the copyists were, indeed, even still copying some of the music –- it wasn’t even fully ready. And so the musicians couldn’t handle it, and so eventually the concert was aborted when the union stage crew said, ‘Wait a minute, it’s midnight, we’ve gotta stop this.'”

Distraught, Mingus never visited the score again in his lifetime. But 10 years after his death in 1979, the score — four feet high and 4,235 measures long — was discovered in a closet in his apartment. Composer and arranger Andrew Homzy reconstructed it, and Schuller conducted the premiere in 1989. According to Schuller, the work was titled “Epitaph,” because a few movements in the score had that word in block letters.

Astonishingly, when the enormous score for “Epitaph” was found, it was missing one thing -– a finale. So Schuller says that he and the band improvised one, using Mingus as a guide.

“I decided, in putting this piece together, that we should do what he did so many times in his own appearances at clubs with his groups –- that is to say, he dictated an ending,” he says. “And he would cue everybody: What they should do and when they play and be hollering and playing on his bass at the same time. And so we did something like that for the entire orchestra.”

Discoveries at Walt Disney Concert Hall is an eclectic mix of concert specials, recorded live at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and hosted by Renee Montagne. From singer-songwriters to classical, world music, and Broadway stars, it’s a celebration of the diversity of our thriving musical culture.


Mingus Haunts the City in February –

Mingus Haunts the City in February – By WILL FRIEDWALD

Note some dates are wrong: Mingus Orchestra free concert is at St. Bart’s Saturday, Feb 18th and Mingus Big Band is at Jazz Standard Fri-Sun, Feb 17-19. Sunday is the Charles Mingus High School Competition at Manhattan School of Music with performance by Mingus Dynasty. Please check our site for all of the details! Hope to see you!

Mingus Orchestra at St. Bartholomew’s Church, Feb 18, 2012 7:30pm FREE

Mingus Orchestra at St. Bart’s Press Release PDF


MINGUS ORCHESTRA “Better Get It In Your Soul” Music of Charles Mingus

St. Bartholomew’s Church 325 Park Avenue (at 50th Street)
Saturday, February 18, 2012 – 7:30pm

To celebrate the 90th anniversary year of the birth of Charles Mingus, Grammy award-winning Mingus musicians will return to St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue to perform a concert in conjunction with the 2012 Mingus High School Competition & Festival – one of the year’s most important events in jazz education. The weekend includes a day of workshops run by seasoned Mingus musicians and music educators as well as a full day on Sunday devoted to the Competition at Manhattan School of Music. The Mingus Orchestra concert at St. Bart’s will feature the premiere of new arrangements by both Gunther Schuller and Boris Kozlov including “Inquisition” and “Purple Heart” and the usual wide range of Mingus compositions from lush and intricate orchestral pieces to swinging blues. Gunther Schuller will conduct his arrangements.

The Mingus Orchestra features Brandon Wright, Wayne Escoffery, Ku-umba Frank Lacy, Philip Harper, Michael Rabinowitz, John Clark, Douglas Yates, David Gilmore, Boris Kozlov, and Donald Edwards. It is produced by Sue Mingus.
 NPR will be broadcasting the 2011 concert from Feb 9 on (Check your local station for dates at times of broadcast. WBGO 88.3 FM AND WBGO.ORG will broadcast Sunday, February 12, at 6pm and Wednesday, February 15, at 6:30pm.)

The St. Bartholomew Concert and the Competition are free to the public but contributions will be welcomed at the concert or online at

“The Orchestra upholds the boisterous Mingus legacy while delving even deeper into his repertory.”   The New York Times

“The lean, sharp ten-piece band features such uncommon instrumentation as a bassoon and a French horn, but this isn’t staid chamber jazz. When the spirit of the late, great one hits them, they steam.”    The New Yorker

“Had American symphony orchestras not discriminated against African-American musicians throughout much of the 20th century, Charles Mingus might have led an entirely different career. Mingus was as much a student of Beethoven and Debussy as of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, and his classical aspirations found their outlet in dozens of compositions written for a sort of jazz-band-plus that included non-jazz instruments like bassoon, oboe, and French horn. It is to this often-overlooked portion of Charles’ legacy that the Mingus Orchestra is devoted.”  – Andy Schwartz

“I think it is time our children were raised to think they can play bassoon, oboe, French horn, English horn, full percussion, violin, cello. If we so-called jazz musicians who are composers, spontaneous composers, started including these instruments in our music, it would open everything up.”  –  Charles Mingus, Let My Children Hear Music liner notes

This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts

2012 Charles Mingus High School Competition Finalists

PDF: 2012HSpressrelease

January 5, 2012 – New York, NY

Sue Mingus and Let My Children Hear Music/The Charles Mingus Institute and Justin DiCioccio and the Manhattan School of Music announce finalists (see attached) and an exciting lineup for the Charles Mingus High School Competition and Festival weekend.  This year’s nationwide Competition will include events produced with Manhattan School of Music, as well as other events produced by Let My Children Hear Music including a public concert of Mingus music conducted by Gunther Schuller.  The Mingus Big Band will perform all weekend at Jazz Standard, and on Sunday night, Outstanding Soloists from the Competition will have the opportunity to sit in.

Saturday begins with a full day of clinics and workshops at the Manhattan School of Music (122nd Street & Broadway) including master classes for instruments and sections, lectures, films, and clinics that explore aspects of Mingus music, followed by a student Mingus jam. Prominent educators and musicians have listened to tapes and will participate in the clinics and adjudicate the Competition on Sunday, also at MSM, which will feature the top 12 big bands and combos from around the country.

Please note various locations for the other events taking place.  All events are open to the public. More details to be announced at


The finalists (in alphabetical order by school) are:

-Lexington High School Jazz Ensemble, Lexington, MA. Band Director: Ken Gable
-Jazz Ensemble I, Medfield High School, Medfield, MA. Band Director: Douglas Olsen
-The Rivers Big Band, Rivers School,  Weston, MA. Band Director: Philippe Crettien

BIG BAND CATEGORY-Specialized Schools and Programs
-Jazz House Big Band, Jazz House Kids, Montclair, NJ. Band Director: Julius Tolentino
-York College Blue Notes, New York, NY. Band Director: Tom Zlabinger

-Lexington High School Jazz Combo, Lexington, MA. Band Director: Ken Gable
-Newark Academy Combo, Newark Academy, Livingston, NJ. Band Director: Julius Tolentino
-Rio Americano Combo, Rio Americano High School, Sacramento, CA. Band Director: Max Kiesner and Josh Murray

COMBO CATEGORY-Specialized Schools and Program (There was a tie for the 3rd spot so 4 combos will compete.)
-Batterman Ensemble, Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Milwaukee, WI. Band Director: Mark Davis
-Jazz Ensemble 3, Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, Hartford, CT.  Band Director: Kris Allen
-Jazz House Small Group, Jazz House Kids, Montclair, NJ. Band Director: Radam Schwartz and Julius Tolentino
-LaGuardia High School Jazz Sextet, LaGuardia High School Jazz Sextet, New York, NY.  Band Director: Kevin Blancq


FRIDAY, FEB 17-SUNDAY, FEB 19  MINGUS BIG BAND at Jazz Standard 116 E. 27th btw Park & Lex Sets at 7:30pm/9:30pm. Fri & Sat third set at 11:30pm. Fri/Sat: $30/$15 students, Sunday $25/$12.50 students.


-FULL DAY OF CLINICS, MASTER CLASSES, AND JAMS at Manhattan School of Music 122nd Street & Broadway Free and open to the public.

-MINGUS ORCHESTRA conducted by Gunther Schuller. Details coming.


-Mingus High School COMPETITION at Manhattan School of Music. 122nd Street & Broadway. MSM Mingus group and Mingus Dynasty performs. Free and open to the public.

-MINGUS BIG BAND at Jazz Standard. Sets 7:30 & 9:30 with Outstanding Soloists from the Competition sitting in. $25/$12.50 students

MONDAY, FEB 20 MINGUS band at Jazz Standard 116 E. 27th btw Park & Lex.
Sets at 7:30/9:30. $25/$12.50 students

“You are guaranteed a great and profound experience when you perform music by this giant of jazz composition.”
—Gunther Schuller, conductor/ Pulitzer Prize-winning composer/educator

“The deep study of this music has affected our lives. It’s changed us as people and players.”
—Jeffery Leonard, Lexington High School band director