1957, 1958, 1959, 1962, 2007, Music

Epitaph by Charles Mingus, conducted by Gunther Schuller, Live at Walt Disney Concert Hall, May 16, 2007

What the hell do we do with Epitaph?

Epitaph is a “jazz symphony” Mingus assembled in the late ’50s and attempted (and failed) to perform in 1962. I say ‘assembled’ because it contains multiple other Mingus compositions that he recorded individually multiple times – and performed numerous times – and because it contains music inspired by and quoting other composers’ music. And one of the reasons he failed to successfully perform it in 1962 is because the piece is monumental (that’s usually the word used to describe it): 4,235 measures long, which sounds like an awful lot. (I’ve also read somewhere that the score is four feet high when stacked on top of itself.)

Though some have described it as a jazz symphony, it’s not really a symphony – though it may be as close as a symphony as jazz has come – as it doesn’t follow the structure of a symphony, but it’s also way too long. (It’s more like the length of a 3-5 act opera.) Like much of Mingus’ work, it does also force us to wonder if it’s even jazz. Though there is ostensibly a little improvisation at the end of it, most of the music is completely written out – Mingus was a notorious dictator – so maybe this was the successful Third Stream people were hoping for back in the 1960s?

Is it musically successful? Hell if I know. It’s sure daring. It combines ideas from big band swing (and later Ellington-style big band) with Dixieland and Afro Cuban jazz, and Romantic and Modernist music and other things. It presents all of this in a series of movements that range from very Mingusian to music I’d never guess was written by him. It has to be the most ambitious thing ever written by a jazz composer. I know of nothing that comes close.

But I honestly don’t know if it’s something you need to hear. I’d be much more inclined to recommend The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which feels to me

  1. much more like a (successful) ‘jazz symphony’ and
  2. much more coherent, rather than just a bunch of Mingus compositions strung together.

What I’m saying is this feels more like a song cycle than it does a coherent piece of long-form music.

That’s not a bad thing. If you like Mingus, you’ll like this. (If you like Ellington, you might like this, too.) But I’m not sure it’s a lost masterpiece. It’s something, for sure. It’s immense, it’s ambitious, it’s provocative, it’s, at times, fantastic. But it also feels a little like his reach exceeded his grasp.


You can listen to a radio broadcast of it free from NPR here.

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