EPITAPH. The end, the summing up, the conclusion. The last few words to describe a lifetime. But "last few words" is not a phrase that can begin to describe Charles Mingus' enormous composition, "Epitaph."
"I wrote it," he once said, "for my tombstone." More than 4,000 measures of music running at nearly three hours in performance? Some tombstone.
In fact, "Epitaph," which will receive its Los Angeles premiere May 16, performed by a 31-piece ensemble at Disney Hall, is a work of life, not memory. It lives today as it never did during Mingus' 56 years (he died in 1979 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease).
With 19 movements embracing everything from elemental blues to bebop, from soul and ballads to the most extreme avant-garde music, both jazz and classical, "Epitaph" is unique, one of the most expansive works ever written by a composer with roots in the jazz world.
"Look," says Gunther Schuller, the veteran composer, conductor and jazz historian who is conducting the piece, "I know thousands of pieces of music. And there are things in 'Epitaph' that I've never seen anywhere else -- jazz or classical. Not in Stravinsky, not in Ives, not in Ligeti. Not anywhere. Where did this man get his inspiration from? And with no precedent for it? Even Ellington, in all the suites and his advanced music, never went this far. There's only one answer: genius."
"Epitaph" surfaced at a now-legendary concert at New York City's Town Hall in 1962. The event, with Mingus conducting, was something of a disaster. Segments of the work -- "Main Score Part I," "Epitaph Part II" -- as well as pieces that eventually made their way into the more complete "Epitaph" were scheduled. But with far too little time to prepare the music, virtually no rehearsals and passages in which copyists were still preparing music as other selections were played, the performance verged on mass confusion.
If it came together any further after the concert, however, it wasn't apparent to friends and associates.
"Once the disaster of Town Hall happened," recalls Schuller, who was spending time with Mingus virtually every day, "Charlie never talked about it, and so far as any of us knew, he did nothing about it, just apparently put it away and out of his life."
But not completely.
Although selections from "Epitaph's" vast assemblage of themes and melodies were recorded over the years as independent works, the complete composition remained unknown until after Mingus' death. Its rediscovery occurred in strikingly random fashion.
"A couple of years after Charles died," says his widow, Sue Mingus, "a musicologist from Concordia University, Andrew Homzy, showed up at my doorstep asking to look through Mingus' music. He was working with a school band and wanted to see if there were any arrangements.
"I hadn't been involved in that aspect of Charles' musical life at all, but I said, 'Well, there's a big wooden box that I still have in my living room, and there's music in there.' So he found all these loose sheets of music and came back over a period of two or three years to catalog it all."
During that process, pieces of music kept turning up that appeared to be complete in themselves but that were marked with large measure numbers -- 2,050, 3,267, etc. Some were familiar Mingus compositions such as "Peggy's Blue Dress" and "Tonight at Noon."
"We suddenly realized that we were looking at something Charles had envisioned as a whole tapestry of music," Mingus says, speaking from her office in New York. "And when the word 'Epitaph' began to turn up randomly on some of the pieces, it was pretty clear what the title was."
Measure by measure
KNOWING the title was a help but not a solution. And it would take a great deal of work to finally solve the mystery. The measure numbers turned out to be the keys, the Rosetta Stone to decipher the vast conception of a complex musical mind.
"Nobody was more surprised than I was," says Mingus. "Charles only talked about what turned out to be 'Epitaph' if I was complaining about something of my own. If I said, 'Oh, I submitted something to the New York Times and they rejected it,' and moaned around the household in martyred tones, Charles would say, 'Well, I've written a whole symphony that was never performed. How do you think it feels to be a composer and have a whole symphony that's never been heard?' But I never saw it, and never really knew anything about it."
She called Schuller as soon as the treasure trove was discovered.
"I remember exactly the moment she called," says Schuller. "She called because she knew how close I was with Charles, and she said, 'Gunther, we've discovered this big, big collection of music here. It's Charles' manuscript, a lot of it's smudged, there are holes in the pages. And there are no parts.' And then she added, 'What are we going to do with it?'