Charles Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Greg Ward

Much of this issue concentrates on a relatively standardized orchestration of the big band and the way that has been handled musically by the composers that write for it: four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, and rhythm section. This is the tradition taught in schools and remains the format in which most composers of big-band music work. The tradition of big-band music (or large ensemble, if that’s a preferable term) is much broader than these specifications, however, and some of the most creative and cutting-edge music in jazz history has occurred in the gray area between a small group (trio, quartet, quintet) and what’s described above.

In thinking of the wealth of experimentation that occurs within the less-codified boundaries of this not-so-large ensemble tradition, one name will consistently pop up: Charles Mingus. While his work is clearly and openly influenced by the composition of Duke Ellington, Mingus stayed away from the standardized orchestration of the big band for the most part, working from Ellington’s concept of writing for the personalities of his soloists, but either paring his ensemble down from 18 people to somewhere closer to 9 as he does on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or expanding the whole thing out to orchestral size for his mammoth Epitaph composition.

To limit the way we think of Charles Mingus to his appreciation of Ellington would do a great disservice to a broad and iconoclast musical voice. It would be as unthinkable as calling him “just a bass player.” His work on the instrument transcends the influence of those before him, such as Oscar Pettiford, just as a composition like “Fables of Faubus” cannot be explained away merely as an extension of Ellington, Monk, and other composers that came before.

It is in trying to articulate this sort of appreciation that Sound American wanted to talk to the Chicago-based alto saxophonist Greg Ward. There are few musicians in American today that are doing more with the music of Charles Mingus: not just studying and reproducing, but understanding what makes his music absolutely unique. Ward has recently been involved in reinterpreting Mingus’s classic music for dance, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. While paying musical homage to the original by collaborating with dancers (something Mingus conceived but was never able to present), Ward take Mingus’s classic album and makes it his own. There is something in his loving de- and re-construction of Mingus’s music that reminds one of Mingus doing the same to Ellington; a different form of flattery through imitation.

SA editor, Nate Wooley, caught up with Ward in his hotel room the day after a stunning afternoon concert in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The informal conversation flowed freely, but intensely, and covered Ward’s early years as a saxophonist, his turn to composition for large ensemble and, of course, the music of Charles Mingus.

SAI usually like to start out just by talking about how you got interested in music, and what the pathway was from picking up a saxophone in your youth or to where you find yourself now.

GWMy father and my uncle were both gospel musicians playing organ. You know, African-American gospel church. So I grew up just being around that tradition, and at the age of three, was put into the family band with my cousins, having to sing all these different gospel songs and arrangements, which was terrifying to me because I hated to sing. I was very shy, but they made me do it.

Eventually I got interested in music via my grandmother showing me videos of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. You know the Benny Goodman Story? It was a Hollywood film they made about Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton, and seeing all these guys in the film, playing this music that sounded incredible to me. That got me excited to play music and so at the first opportunity to learn an instrument in band, or not band, first it was orchestra—orchestra was offered at fourth grade—I started violin.

In fifth grade, I started saxophone. I wanted to play drums, but we didn’t have enough money to get me drums. The next instrument [I wanted to play] was trumpet, and we didn’t have enough money to get a trumpet, and my father played alto sax, so we had his alto sax in the house. So it’s like, “Here you go.”

I was fortunate to grow up in a small town, Peoria, Illinois, where there was a prodigy saxophone player named Doug Stone who’s one of these guys who played professionally at age 12, you know. He was a couple years older than me, but just to see a kid playing like that, I was like, “Oh, I want to do that.” So, I found out who his teacher was, a guy named Larry Connors. I started taking lessons with him, and then you know, just kind of took off with it.

So, I started playing professionally at 14—having my own bands and working with all the older musicians in Peoria and taking trips to Chicago, hanging out with Von Freeman, you know, from the age of 15, and going to all the clubs and jam sessions up there. My friend Maurice Brown picked me up at the airport and just we’d be out all night playing music.

SAAt age 15?

GWYeah. It was super fun. It just kind of flowered from there.

SASo when did you start working with large ensembles? You said that you had your own bands, even at that early age. Were you thinking large scale then?

GWThat started later. I had all these friends in the Chicago Symphony, and they kept telling me that if I wanted to be a composer, I should really take it seriously. So they connected me with this guy Cliff Colnot who was a master conductor, arranger, orchestrator, you know, just brilliant; one of the heavyweights of music in Chicago. And they told me that if he takes you on as a student, he doesn’t charge you, but he’s kind of a jerk: kind of ridiculous, like an old kung fu master.

So I asked him for lessons. He had me bring what I had and, at that time, he totally broke me down. And so, that wasn’t good. But, not long after that I got a commission for a large ensemble composition: big band plus strings and turntable for this festival that was happening in Chicago called the Looptopia Festival. And, I remember going to see Cliff and saying, “Hey, I got this opportunity to write for string orchestra, big band, DJ, and I want to know what books should I read.” He just told me there are no books. There was nothing I could do except just start: “Just write, and come back.” I was like, “Okay, I wish you would have told me that before I paid $20 to park down here.” [laughs]

The best part of that whole process of failing at this thing in the beginning was trying to figure how to spread out my musical ideas over this larger group of musicians. So, I would write Cliff these simple e-mails, and he’d send me back some information that would just completely change the way I heard music. You know, like, just completely blow my mind.

The piece of music I ended up calling it Adrenaline came out pretty well, and it sparked something in me to want to continue writing for different groups of musicians and mediums. I liked it, you know, what happens when you put all these different things together.

SAI saw you play yesterday in a quartet, which is much smaller and less compositionally involved. Do you think that the work you do in the large ensemble stuff feeds into the way that you play, and the way you think about playing? Or do you really keep those things kind of separate?

GWI really think it’s the same. It’s about how things fit together, right? They can be very dense, or very sparse, or the [orchestration of the] ensemble could be very, very sparse, and the music could be very dense. There are all these different ways you can adjust those variables. And, coming from the composer’s standpoint really helps me get inside of somebody else’s music or even get inside my own music with a different set of musicians.

That’s kind of the goal that I would like to have when I’m playing with large ensembles. If it’s possible, I like everybody to understand and interpret all the music. I want us to internalize all the music to the point where we know where we’re going, and all the orchestration that’s preconceived is there, but some beautiful things can happen.

SAWhat was your first experience with Mingus’s music, and how did that affect you  leading into the project you did with Black Saint and the Sinner Lady?

GWI was a huge Charlie Parker fan growing up, and I just kept hearing about those five musicians, you know, about Bird, and Diz[zy Gillespie], Bud Powell, Mingus, and Max Roach. I just thought that this guy Mingus, you know, he’s in there somewhere. But, to me, as a young musician, just getting into it, Charlie Mingus didn’t pop off to me. Then you start to hear the hits, like all the stuff from Ah Um and you just kind of turn your head like, “What is that?” At that point, it was probably the closest thing to what I could consider avant-garde. I was just coming out of like listening to Confirmation and maybe trying to get into [John] Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

But, with Mingus, here was something that sounded so different. It was eye-opening, and probably I didn’t give it enough attention back then just because I tend to be so honed in on certain things; it’s very hard, even today for me to add new information. But, just hearing a group of his, like the Jazz Workshop, move around and swirl in these arrangements that didn’t necessarily have to stick to these very common forms for the time period when he was writing was kind of eye-opening about what jazz could be; what composition can be.

You know, as a young listener my thinking would be, “Wow, how were they doing this [one idea], and then [claps hands] making this hit. And then going you know, double time swing, back to the dirge you know, it’s like wow.” All these things blew me away as a younger player.

But, moving toward this Mingus project that we did, I had never heard that record until [Chicago drummer and promoter] Mike Reed hipped me to it. I didn’t know what to expect. I just thought that was a wild name: Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. And then right from note one, your head is turning on you. And maybe that’s the thing about Mingus, that everything, from the downbeat, is gonna make you open your eyes; make you turn your head; make you sit on the edge of your seat. I mean, at least for me.

As you listen through the record, there’s just so much information coming in and out: colors or a few rhythms that peek out as main themes or cornerstones of the composition. So, when they asked me if I’d like to do something with that music, and before I decided on what it was going to be, either an arrangement or something of my own, I wanted to make sure that I analyzed the work. I really dug in. I wanted to like how he was putting this together. So I wrote down all the themes to see how they are coming back around because, to me, it’s not a very melodic driven kind of work. He passes that [melodic] information around the ensemble, and it got me excited just to see what could be done with a mini-big band.

SADid you feel that you really needed to put some of yourself into your version or did you want to try and specifically recreate the music from that album?

GWWell, there was an extra variable to that. They paired me with a choreographer, because [Black Saint and the Sinner Lady] was originally intended to be a ballet. Mingus wanted to present his work that way, but it was never done. And there are other variables, as well. You have a deadline, because it’s a commissioned piece and not really for a regular working band, you know, so you have to write some music that people are going to be able to put together rather quickly. You have dancers. They’re gonna need to be able to block this thing, and also put it together rather quickly. So we made our blueprint, the choreographer and I, which was great, because we had the opportunity to go back and forth quite a bit about what we were going to do.

And, I felt really great about it how it came together, although I’m always curious about what it would be like if we lived in a time like Mingus’s when bands could really be bands, and you could get deeper into it. The way you compose wouldn’t necessarily have to be as detailed or set. Here’s an example. When we started doing the CD release stuff with just the band, away from the dancers, we took this piece into clubs, and we had seven CD release shows of three sets each. And like maybe by, like, show five and six, I remember that the band was operating so that the things [the musicians would do] were becoming like extended suites and the characters of the musicians were really coming out of the music. And so I was just like, “Man, that’s a glimmer of what something could be.” You know, if we had those opportunities.

When I was doing the research about the piece, I started to see how much weight it carried in the jazz catalog. It’s one of the greatest orchestration achievements in history and one of Mingus’s greatest triumphs. I was like, “Oh man.” This is tough, because you’re gonna come up against some people who are like, “Don’t mess with this.” So I thought that if I did this, I really had to do it well. So, that was the number-one question for me: How do I interpret Mingus’s music, put some of myself in there, and kind of wrap it up so that these people who love this work, they feel it? How do I really make an interpretation and make it fit together with the band and the dancers? That’s the problem I had to solve.

And how he solved that problem is as fascinating as an act of pure authorship. Taking the germ of an idea from another and making it your own is a rewarding process and one that has a firm root in big-band composition, where the arranger, or someone that makes a new version of someone else’s composition, is as lauded as the composer of original material.

Greg Ward has been kind enough to provide some of his notes regarding how he interpreted the melodies in Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and made them his own. We’re proud to present them here with great thanks.

Greg Ward's Notes on "The Mingus Influence" in Touch My Beloved's Thoughts

The opening track on my recording, "Daybreak", is an amalgamation of the overall feeling of Mingus’ suite, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Some of those elements are the 6/8 groove, dissonant voicings of the harmony in the horn section, and the dirge feeling created by the lower instruments including the bass trombone, bass, and the lower register of the piano.

Listen To Daybreak

"Singular Serenade", is inspired by Mingus’ piano interludes throughout Black Saint. Check out 13:27-14:01 for an example. I imagine that most of this interlude is improvised.

Listen to Singular Serenade

"The Menacing Lean", is inspired by the flamenco elements that are throughout Mingus’ composition, including the opening groove on the snare drum, the free-form duets between the nylon-string guitar and alto sax, and, more clearly, the intensifying musical excerpt that happens between 16:28-17:54. The main theme of my composition is based on a very small fragment of Mingus’ composition, which I developed into a larger work. Check out the trombone part at 22:01-22:08.

Listen to The Menacing Lean

"With All Your Sorrow, Sing a Song of Jubilance", is inspired by another one of Mingus’ piano interludes at 26:00-27:17. The feel changes in my piece during the trombone solo are my attempt to create the elastic acceleration and deceleration that is throughout Black Saint. For example, 32:45-34:16.

Listen to With All Your Sorrow, Sing A Song of Jubilance

The sixth track, "Grit", is my interpretation of Mingus composing a piece in a Duke Ellington-style.

Listen to Grit

"Round 3", is inspired by two elements from Mingus. First, at 7:57-8:00, the lower instruments are playing a triplet figure a major 7th a part from each other. Second, the alto saxophone melody at 8:02-8:05.

Listen to Round 3

The ninth track, "Gather Round, The Revolution is at Hand", is inspired by a variation of the last theme I mentioned in Round 3, at 8:02-8:05. Also, I explored a few variations on Mingus’ dirge that’s throughout Black Saint. For example, in my composition, 1:22-1:54 and 9:06-end. For the finale of this work, I quote the alto sax line from the beginning of Mingus’ composition and develop the textures around the line in my own way. For example, 9:20-10:25. From 9:06 until the end, I tried to create the feeling something running out of control, which ends in a free-for-all at 11:50.

Listen to Gather Round, The Revolution Is At Hand

Charles Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady