A Cat Will Look for His Box: Charles Mingus’ Jazz in Detroit

Jordan Ryan Pedersen explores the new live box set from the jazz legend.
By    November 14, 2018

Art by Tom Marcello

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Charles Mingus taught his cat how to shit in a toilet.

Mingus abhorred a vacuum of composition: asked about the pioneering free-jazz giant Ornette Coleman the bassist and bandleader said, “I don’t throw rocks and stones, I don’t throw my paint.” Mingus biographer Gene Santoro said that, in his compositions, he tried “to notate, down to the breath control, exactly what each note in those themes would be for every instrumentalist.” Fickle feline whims would not do.

The gig captured on Jazz in Detroit/Strata Concert Gallery/46 Selden happened in February 1973, just a few months after the release of Let My Children Hear Music. 180 Proof Records founder DJ Amir Abdullah just recently discovered the five two-track master tapes containing the sessions – originally broadcast live on Detroit public radio. They’ve never been heard outside of Detroit terrestrial radio.

Unlike the immaculately composed, Ellington by-way-of Wagner maximalism of Let My Children Hear MusicDetroit finds a lesser-known Mingus’ quintet playing cuts from throughout his career more or less straightforwardly. Not content to simply play the hits, Mingus avails himself of yet another opportunity to reimagine his catalog. He crafts a winning anachronism on this version of 1956’s “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” suffusing it at one point with the sweaty gospel of “Better Get It in Your Soul” from three years later.

Throughout the album, Mingus seems to foreground the difficulty of stitching disparate parts together. Around the tenth minute of “Erectus,” the song almost seems to fall apart. The piano clatters away, the drums run amok, Mingus himself flails vainly high up on the neck of his bass. But pianist Don Pullen manages to slip in some cogent melody line, and the pieces realign.

Back to the cat: keep in mind that Mingus didn’t have to have a pet. If the famously mercurial bassist really wanted peace above all else, he simply could’ve gone the no-pet route. But Mingus wanted the struggle. He wanted to draw order from chaos. He wanted to let his band fly off in different directions and then rein them in. He wanted to take an animal descended from the African wildcat, and teach it how to shit in a toilet. Jazz in Detroit is a surprise lesson from the master.


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