DJD conjure up the wild spirit of Charles Mingus for the High Performance Rodeo

By Eric Volmers - Calgary Herald
4 min read | January 9, 2019
At one point during his tempestuous career, bassist and composer Charles Mingus apparently became so enraged with a fellow musician that he started chasing him around the stage with a fire axe.

It’s one of the more alarming, and illuminating, stories attached to the dense layers of lore surrounding the late great jazzman.

This scene is replayed, albeit in a somewhat abstract manner, in Better Get Hit In Your Soul, a Decidedly Jazz Danceworks production that debuts Jan. 10 as part of the High Performance Rodeo. Kimberly Cooper, artistic director and choreographer, first presented the piece back in 2013 after becoming obsessed with Mingus’s music, drawing heavily from both his vast canon of work but also his colourful 1971 autobiography Beneath the Underdog.

“At the very beginning of his book, there’s a passage where he talks about how he feels like he is three people,” says Cooper, in an interview during a rehearsal break at the DJD Dance Centre. “He’s the angry man, he’s the over-loving gentle person and then he’s the one in the middle who watches. We actually speak that text and have a piece that represents that.”

Once dubbed the “angriest man in jazz,” Mingus certainly had an often strange, if tragically short, life, having died at the age of 56 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1979. Like many celebrated jazz players and composers, he was obsessively driven, writing 300 scores and recording more than 100 albums in his lifetime. He was once married to two women at the same time (he had a total of five wives) and claimed to have worked as a pimp. He was bullied as a child, may have been bipolar and suffered from a broad spectrum of racism since he was half African-American and half Chinese.

He is also widely considered a genius, both as a musician and a writer. Given his towering body of work, there was a lot to choose from when Cooper initially put the show together more than five years ago.

“Jazz critics and jazz musicians love Mingus and they talk about Mingus, but I honestly believe he’s the most underrated jazz composer in history,” says bassist Rubim de Toledo, who returns to Better Get Hit In Your Soul as music director. “People talk about Duke Ellington and other people, but (Mingus’s) work is unlike anything I’ve ever heard in the whole discography in jazz history.”

The production is set to both live music played by de Toledo, drummer Jon McCaslin and trombonist Carsten Rubeling and to iconic recordings by Mingus and his many ensembles. Fans will recognize pieces such as the Haitian Fight Song, selections from The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and even the Children’s Hour of Dream, which is taken from Mingus’ ambitious Epitaph composition that wasn’t completely discovered until after the musician’s death.

As with most jazz bassists and composers, de Toledo’s own work has been greatly influenced by Mingus. But he admits that playing selections live from his formidable body of work is daunting, particularly since it’s mixed with recordings by Mingus himself.

“The challenge is being able to rise to the level, which you can’t, of what Mingus was,” he says. “How can you? He’s a master and now we’re trying to emulate that? Those are classic tunes so it’s classic repertoire so we’re used to doing that. But it’s definitely intimidating”

In 2013, the production was performed in the Big Secret Theatre, a much smaller space than the three-year-old DJD Dance Centre on 12th Avenue. So while much of the music and choreography remains similar to the original, Cooper was also able to expand certain numbers and adopt a bigger scale. The once seven-dancer piece is now performed by nine dancers from DJD’s professional company, four of whom performed it in 2013.

The first act focuses on what Cooper calls Mingus’s “maleness” and his often tumultuous relationship with women. Among other scenes, it features a spirited swing-dance sequence where “the women look like women, the men look like men,” she says.

But many other scenes are far more abstract, even if they did spring indirectly from Mingus’s autobiography.

“It’s images that evolved into something that only I would really know,” Cooper says.  “But I think it still gives you layers of mood and nuance and mystery and the music is so cinematic that it takes you on a journey.”

For dancers as well as musicians, navigating the scope and intricacies of Mingus’s work is no easy task, requiring a slightly different set of skills than normal.

“(The dancers) have to listen really hard,” she says. “Because so much of the score existed already, it’s not like the band can change it. It’s a recording. They have to get used to: ‘No, you’re dancing to that horn that is in the middle of this muddy, beautiful mess. That is you. You have to find that and make your body do that sound.’ So there was a lot of listening.”

In the end, Cooper hopes that Better Get Hit In Your Soul captures her subject’s wild, unpredictable, mercurial soul and finds a balance between the good and the bad while presenting his life, music and genius.

“He was an angry, violent guy,” Cooper says. “So how do you have that but then still have moments of great beauty? The very last thing you hear in the show is this incredible piano solo. A lot of people don’t know that he is a brilliant pianist as well. It’s called Myself When I’m Real. It’s a moment of stillness and simplicity and beauty to just stop and listen to him. There are a couple of moments like that in the show.”