By Joel Francis
The unlikely pairing of Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus at a London film studio should have been a collision of worlds on par with the big bang.
In the early sixties, Brubeck was rewriting the jazz songbook with his legendary quartet that featured Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello and bass player Eugene Wright. Signed to Columbia Records, home to both Miles Davis and Doris Day, their “cool jazz” was both critically acclaimed and extremely accessible. In other words, it was jazz both hardcore fans and housewives could appreciate.
Charles Mingus, on the other hand, was the dark prince from the underbelly of the genre. His dense, avant-garde approach carried discordant melodies and boasted nearly impenetrable titles like “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.” He was on the threshold of a three-album deal with Impulse Records, the jazz label John Coltrane helped transform into the bastion of cutting-edge, experimental music.
Although Mingus and Brubeck’s music was world apart, the bassman and pianist first crossed paths in the post-War San Francisco jazz scene. The two met again in 1962 at Pinewood Studios in London.
The unfathomable union of Brubeck and Mingus occurred under the most commercial circumstances. Brubeck had been hired to write the score for “All Night Long,” a modern telling of “Othello” starring Richard Attenborough. In the liner notes to the 1991 Brubeck box set “Time Changes,” he describes their encounter.
“My contract for the film specified I would not play with Charlie Mingus, because I knew how demanding Charlie could be and I just wanted to avoid it. It was out of respect,” Brubeck said.
“And fear,” he added.
Mingus, who had also been hired to score certain scenes, kept bugging the director to play with Brubeck. Finally, Brubeck relented – with three stipulations: no rehearsal, no synching and no overdubbing. Everything had to be live and off-the-cuff.
With those rules in place, the pair decided upon a Mingus composition. “Non-Sectarian Blues” begins with Mingus thumping borrowed bass, walking the beat as Brubeck joins in on the piano. Mingus can be heard grunting and shouting encouragement to Brubeck as the pair play off each other with staccato piano riffs and pulsing, aggressive baselines. The result is so natural and engaging it’s hard to believe these men came from such seemingly disparate camps.
Although the song was recorded in1962, the performance remained unheard outside theaters until the Brubeck collection “Summit Sessions” was released in 1971.
“When it was over, Charlie picked me up off the floor and gave me a bear hug,” Brubeck said. “It was wonderful.”