"He was one of the half-dozen greatest composers in jazz. In terms of sitting down and writing works in extended formats, he ranks right up there with Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, John Lewis, Gil Evans, Bill Holman. He was absolutely original . . . an innovator."
Composer-conductor Gunther Schuller, 65, is talking about the late bassist-composer Charles Mingus, who died in 1979.
It's the opinion of Schuller--who met Mingus in the early '50s and was a friend and colleague throughout the composer's career--that nothing Mingus wrote can compare with "Epitaph," the two-hour-plus work that receives its Los Angeles premiere Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl.
The work, which contains a few known Mingus tunes such as "Better Get It in Your Soul" and "Peggy's Blue Skylight," is written in 19 sections, which aren't necessarily connected one to the next. Still, says Schuller, "it's a richly textured fabric" that recalls the works of not only Ellington but early 20th-Century composers.
"It's little known that Mingus studied the contemporary classical composers, particularly Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok," says Schuller, who will conduct the opus at the Bowl. "One section of 'Epitaph,' called 'Child's Hour of Dream,' is really close to Stravinsky, partly because there's no improvisation at all."
Other sections, such as "The Chill of Death," find what Schuller describes as "multilayered simultaneous improvisations that exist for various durations, from very short to quite long." These are interwoven with the composed passages to produce a "crazy quilt" of sound.
The piece was discovered in the mid-'80s by Mingus scholar Andrew Homzy, who was cataloguing music in the apartment of the composer's widow, Sue. He called Schuller, who immediately said, "We must perform it."
The work--which was premiered in the summer of 1989 at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall--required about five months of editing by Schuller. "There were portions that stopped dead, some things were illegible, there were typos. It was bloody hard work, and unpaid," he says with a laugh. "But I must stress I did the editing with utmost and absolute respect for his work. I wasn't going to tinker with it."
Schuller, who has conducted all nine subsequent performances of "Epitaph" and is preparing to take the ensemble on a European tour in a few months, says the piece changes each time it's played. "It develops and grows each time we play it," he says. "Plus, I would guess that 40% or more is improvised, so that makes it automatically variable, which is one of the wonderful things about jazz."
Rim Shots: Shirley Horn will replace Carmen McRae on Sept. 11 in a Hollywood Bowl concert that also features Dave Brubeck and the Friends of Stan Getz. McRae had to bow out because of a throat ailment, a spokesman said.