Unearthed Strata Records Concert Shows a Rare Side of Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Tom Marcello)

The personality of jazz often lies in the space between the notes. They are the silences that permeate the air before a tasty solo or in the exhalation of a stylish transition. In between bouts of fire, it’s the space where the magic of the cool can truly be found. In that respect, the unearthing of lost sounds of a prolific jazz icon like Charles Mingus (who recorded less and less in his final years as he battled ALS) shows that in the ellipses between albums, the spark of genius and soul can always be found.

“It’s sad that Mingus’ name doesn’t get said in the same breath as Charlie Parker or Miles Davis,” says DJ Amir Abdullah, black music historian, respected crate-digger and founder of 180 Proof Records. “Because in my opinion he’s just as great, as a composer and a musician he was ahead of his time.”

For the past seven years, Abdullah’s cultivated his label 180 Proof with the sole purpose of harvesting and releasing recordings from the long-extinct Detroit jazz label Strata Records. In 2017, he was gifted with the discovery of a jazz head’s dream relic– a live radio broadcast of a Strata Concert Gallery recording of Mingus along with a rare lineup of musicians performing before a small audience in midtown Detroit in February of 1973. The recording from Mingus’ week-long residency at the gallery followed the release of his orchestral masterpiece, Let My Children Hear Music.  For Abdullah, (a New York Native who now conducts the label from his new home in Berlin, Germany) this was like stumbling onto a goldmine. The master recordings were given to him by the widow of Roy Brooks, the drummer who played with Mingus at the 1973 Strata concert. Forty-five years after the show was played, Charles Mingus–Jazz in Detroit/Strata Concert/46 Selden will finally be released on Nov. 2 via 180 Proof Recordings in conjunction with BBE Music.

The first time he heard them, Abdullah was blown away not only by the lengthy renditions of compositions like “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues” and “Dizzy Profile”, but also the relaxed, easy-going feel of Mingus’ playing and demeanor in between songs. These were not qualities typically ascribed to the short-tempered bassist dubbed “The Angry Man of Jazz” whose voice is rarely captured on record.  Abdullah also marveled at the bombastic, short-lived chemistry of the players Mingus performed with, including innovative sax player John Stubblefield.

“He and John Stubblefield only played together a handful of times before the had a beef and Stubblefield left like six months later,” Abdullah says. Later after Mingus’s death, Stubblefield went on to collaborate with Mingus’s widow, Sue Mingus, and became a key figure in the Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Big Band. This recording at Strata is the only known documentation of Mingus and Stubblefield on stage together.

The ensemble was rounded out by drummer Roy Brooks,  trumpeter Joe Gardner (both Detroit natives) and virtuoso pianist Don Pullen.

The excavation of this historic recording was several years in the making. After forming 180 Proof Records in 2011, Abdullah says he first learned of Mingus’ Strata concert in 2012 when he discovered posters from the show while curating an exhibit for the Scion iQ museum. Abdullah’s fascination with Strata records, a small label that only put our six releases before going under in 1975, was its ability to create solid ties to the inner city of Detroit. “What I appreciated most about them was how they used the art they created to support the community,” Abdullah says.

Founded by the late Blue Note Artist Kenny Cox, this Detroit imprint not only cut Jazz records during the early to mid-1970s, they also distributed food, provided educational services for children in the neighborhood and would hold events in the small café called the Strata Gallery where Mingus performed. It was a small, intimate space and for the Mingus recording, Strata made it all ages, prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Though the gallery on 46 Selden St. where the session was recorded was shuttered decades ago, the building is still there. “Those who still go there, it’s like if you know you know,” Abdullah says.

Considering how old they were, Abdullah says the recordings of Mingus and his band were still in good shape. He would often find difficulty with reviving old Strata recordings that were beat-up and unusable–a fact he didn’t realize until after he’d spent the money to parse through and engineer them. “That’s why they call it a labor of love,” Abdullah says.

Thankfully, the performance captured on these tapes is simply breathtaking: five masters of music channeling their greater spirits for an intimate, enraptured audience. Transmitted live by the late producer and broadcaster Robert “Bud” Spangler for WDET-FM radio, the recording gives listeners glimpse a taste of the furious energy and compositional sophistication of this monumental modern creator and his jazz workshop.

“This is an electrifying experience for all of us here in the presence of one of the great innovators and continuing, consistent geniuses in this music,” Spangler said from his microphone while broadcasting from what he described as the closet of the gallery. “Charles Mingus is proving to us again tonight for all of us here at the gallery…his instrument is not only his upright bass but also whatever band it is he might be leading at the time. They are the instrument of this fine composer and arranger. And this five-piece band is sounding a lot more like an orchestra than any five-piece I’ve ever heard in one place.”

In the greater cultural context of the times, concerts like do more than simply allow us to be awed by the music itself, but also by the African American jazz musicians who created it. It’s a sentiment that Abdullah says he wishes our country put as much value on as other places in the world, where collectors excavate prized recordings often take advantage of them as trophies instead of the historic documents of wisdom that could help ensure the survival of jazz and the appreciation of black music across the country.

“I’ve been to Japan a couple times and seen records by artists that I’ve never heard,” Abdullah says. “That’s what I do what I do to help preserve recordings and make sure they are preserved for us and have the ability to valued for future generations.”

Listen an album sampler of Charles Mingus–Jazz in Detroit/Strata Concert/46 Selden on Soundcloud 

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