Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery chats to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about playing in one the Wellington Jazz Festivalís main drawcards, the Mingus Big Band.


THERE WILL be a time when figures such as Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis are considered alongside the likes of Shostakovich, Schoenberg and Debussy as the greats of twentieth century musical composition. But while the divides between jazz and classical music persist, this may take some time. However, with projects such as the Mingus Big Band travelling the world showing the world just how great Mingusís compositions are, you hope it wonít take too long. Charles Mingus is one of the giants of the twentieth century, and at the time of his death in 1979, left behind over 300 compositions and some of the greatest albums of the twentieth century (Mingus Ah Um, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Let My Children Hear Music). The Mingus Big Band is the result of Mingusís widow, Sue Mingus, and her quest to ensure Charles Mingusís importance is never forgotten. She assembled a big collection of some of the most talented and well-regarded jazz musicians around today to play his music. The band is heading down to Wellington for the Jazz Festival, and thereís also a bonus that the band will be concentrating on the fifty year anniversary of such landmark albums as Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty and Blues and Roots.

Wayne Escoffery is a hugely regarded tenor saxophonist, and his solo work is starting to get some considerable critical praise. Heís also a member of a number of ensembles. However, he was always interested in Mingusís sound. ďAny jazz fan or jazz student is aware of Charles Mingus and his importance in jazz history. You canít miss it.Ē He says that the Mingus Big Band also had a great reputation. ďBefore I moved to New York, the Mingus Band was known on the scene as one of the bands which hones young talent and that a lot of the best musicians in New York, in addition to a lot of new younger up-and-coming stars, perform in that group. When I moved to New York in 2000, that was one of the first groups that I really wanted to play with. I used to basically just go down and hear the Mingus Band perform at this bar called Fez every Thursday and eventually they asked me to sit in. Sue Mingus heard me and asked me to join the group and thatís how that began.Ē

Escoffery finds performing in the Big Band a quite different prospect to his other work. ďMost small groups that Iím in, Iím the only saxophone player. Iím the main guy. In the Mingus Band, thereís not only another tenor player, there are two other altos, another baritone saxophonist. In addition to that, there are a lot of other instruments in the group. It really forces me, and pushes me and pushes others.Ē He certainly doesnít find it limiting solely performing the music of one artist either. ďNot at all. I have to admit Iím not much of a big band saxophone player. I love Ellington, I love Count Basie, and I love some of the great big bands that have been around. But as far as playing in big bands, itís not really been my thing and not really been my goal. My goal is to be a really great individual sounding artist and to play in a lot of small groups and make it that way. The thing about the Mingus band, itís not your average big band. Itís almost like a large small group. One of the most important things he emphasised was each playerís individuality. When you think about the players he had like Eric Dolphy and Jackie Mclean, these guys have very individual sounds. They didnít have a stock alto sound. They wouldnít even think about putting Jackie Mclean or Eric Dolphy in Count Basieís band. It wouldnít be the sound. But Charles was looking for individuality and thatís one of the great things also about being in the Mingus Band, because it really forces you to have your own individual sound and really inspires individuality.Ē

This was helped by Mingus leaving a lot of space for his individual performers within his compositions. ďA lot of space. Youíll see that when you hear the group. Everyone gets room to shine. Even though we might have a slate that weíre working from, a composition that weíre starting from, all the guys have their own individuality. Each song every night is played in a completely different way and goes different places because thatís what Charles wanted.Ē

However, Escoffery admits that he initially found taking on Mingusís music rather intimidating. ďQuite frankly, itís not the most legible music, letís put it that way. There was no finale when Charles was writing these charts. A lot of the guys have re-written the charts and a lot of the guys who helped arrange donít use computers to write these. They do it by hand. Thereís a lot of crossed out stuff Ė itís not easy to read. And in addition to that, the music is hard. Definitely when I first joined the band I was looking at the music and thinking Ďoh man, how am I going to read this?í Itís definitely intimidating at first. The other thing is we donít rehearse. Charles never rehearsed and Sue kinda keeps that tradition. We rarely rehearse. One of the important things about the band is getting musicians who can sight read to a relatively good degree, but not even sight reading, but being able to listen, to have good ears, to have a good logical musical mind. That means being able to hear what you think is supposed to happen, being able to listen to the other guys in the band and play off what theyíre doing to know where the music is supposed to go. For me, I know there are a lot of musicians who are noted for being great readers but if I give myself a compliment, the one strength that I have is that I am a good listener. I can be a just above average reader, but be a great listener and do really well.Ē All this assists in the spontaneity and rawness that Mingus is particularly renowned for. However, Escoffery admits playing a tenor saxophone in the band wouldnít be as intimidating as playing Mingusí instrument, the bass. ďIím glad I donít play the bass in the band. Definitely some huge shoes to fill. But as youíll see, Boris Kozlov does a tremendous job. He knows more about Mingus than anybody in the band so itís quite fitting that heís the bass player. Iím glad Iím not the bass player, but Iím even more glad that he is the bass player.Ē

Given the sheer amount of material to choose from, the band doesnít often know what itís going to perform until twenty or thirty minutes before a show. The band frequently has weekly residences in New York bars, and Escoffery says ďbecause we donít rehearse, it feels fresh every-time. And because thereís so much music, itís not like we can do a tour and get bored of the music, because weíre not playing the same songs every night. You might find a small group, or even another big band, who has definitely a smaller amount of repertoire, theyíre going to be repeating their compositions. We donít have that problem at all.Ē He says however for their New Zealand performance ďitís going to be a lot easier because we are going to focus on 1959 which are those three important recordings.Ē Escoffery is particularly excited as Mingus Ah Um is one of his favourite recordings.

Mingus was such a controversial figure in his time Ė for his political views, his on-stage antics, and his turbulent (to say the least) personal life Ė that itís easy to forget the music with all that. Escoffery says ďthereís no getting away from what Mingus was as a person or an artist. Like it or not, take it or leave it, thatís in the music. Itís there. Sue does a great job in really bringing to life that same spirit that Charles had.Ē However, it also means Mingus hasnít been entirely given the credit that heís due, and I ask if itís hard to exaggerate his influence. ďYouíd be surprised. Some people know how important Mingus is and realise that his composition and repertoire is just as vast and as important as Duke Ellington or any other important American composer. But then there are other musicians who might just miss him. A lot of people for whatever reason just end up missing Mingus. Thatís why Sue Mingus does what she does. She wants everybody to know and rightfully so how important Charlesí music is, and how important he was and still is as an artist.Ē

Part of the reticence to acknowledge his importance might come down to his uncompromising political views. ďHe did not hold his tongue. And I respect that and I admire that. I try to do that same thing. I donít go out of my way but I definitely donít try and hold my tongue about certain things, even though I might try and do that, Iím still more cautious than he was. Charles from what I understand, and from the stories Iíve heard, he didnít care what everybody thought about what he wanted to say. He said what he wanted to say, and many times Ė it was during the civil rights era in this country Ė he spoke about everything he wanted to, and he wrote songs about them, and he would play them repeatedly. I respect him so much for doing that. I even heard he was on an FBI watch-list at one point. I would not be surprised at all thatís the big reason why he didnít get as many accolades as he did deserve. And you know what, he probably knew that, and he probably didnít care because it was more important to him to speak his mind and speak out that time.Ē But Mingus is not alone in this respect Ė Coltrane and Davis for example, still havenít been given their dues by the so-called musical establishment. ďOf course, they made their mark in the civil rights era. That was not the time they were looking to give black people their due. Thatís one obvious reason for that. I may be overstepping here, but you can take Miles Davis or John Coltrane Ė they were political, and making statements about civil rights was very important to them also - but Iíd argue there was no musician who was more outspoken than Mingus in these issues. I donít think anyone can really argue with that.Ē

Escoffery has played in a number of bands which celebrate particular artists, such as Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. ďItís not necessarily my personal mission to make sure all of these great American artists get their due. I write my own original compositions and I want to get my due too, but I do think itís very important. Without those musicians, I wouldnít be able to do anything that I do right now. Iíve been fortunate to study with some of those people like Jackie Mclean, who left us, and Ron Carter whoís still alive, the list goes on. I know how important theyíve been to me personally so I know how important they are in the large scheme of things in jazz history.Ē But he does think thereís something special about the Mingus Big Band.

ďOne of the great things about this band, you might take another, I hate to use this word, legacy band, or dynasty band, or whatever you call them and take another one of those bands and hear their music, and what those musicians usually try to do, they try to play exactly like that deceased artist. In my opinion, all those bands end up sounding dated and for lack of a better word, dead sounding. But because of the nature of Mingusí music, and because the whole point of his music was for each artist to express his individuality and for each artist to change and be different, it doesnít sound like that. Itís totally new and fresh.Ē