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Living the legend

Mingus Amungus – one of few bands to outlive the Bay Area's acid jazz heyday – are poised to keep riffing on the Mingus legend 'til they're 80.

By Sylvia W. Chan

IN THIS PROFESSION , there is the music you write about because you're supposed to – the hip shit flitting on the in-crowd's lips, that beat breaking from the underground. This is the music you consider, contextualize, and track for trends and mores, trying to figure out how and why the hell it's right here, right now. It doesn't even matter whether it's good or bad, really, whether it rocks your world or sucks serious ass. You write about it, and quickly at that, because if you don't write about it, it'll almost certainly disappear, to be replaced by the next thing you're supposed to write about. And the next thing after that.

Once in a blue moon, however, there is music you write about because you want to, music that's become a part of your world, imbued you with its presence, made you rush to meet it every time it's around. This is music you have a crush on, the stuff that makes you starry-eyed, tongue-tied. It's music that comforts yet excites, that calms and drives you to frenzy at the same time, that ebbs and flows with the rhythms of your life. You want to write about it because it's changed you, found you when you needed to be found, seeped under your skin. You need to tell it how you feel, make sure you let it know you've been listening all this time, and that no matter what, it won't – can't – ever be replaced.

In other words, there are stories about music, and then there are love letters.

This is a love letter.

I fell in tight with the Mingus Amungus crew back in 1997, back in the final days of the Bay Area's acid jazz-live music heyday, when bands like Alphabet Soup, Los Angelitos, and the Mo'fessionals might still be found gigging around town at spots like Cafe du Nord, the Up and Down Club, and the Elbo Room on any given night of the week. Writers like me have spent more than enough time and energy lamenting that scene's fall – blaming dot-coms and gentrification and cursing the tide of yuppie techno-geeks who took over so many of the Bay's stages in the ensuing years. The late '90s was the tail end of an exciting phase in the local scene, a time when jazz purists, hip-hop headz, and funkateers laid differences aside and told genre nazis to fuck themselves, a time when – as What It Is, another great Bay Area-based band from those years, said in the title of an album – groove was king.

But time's time, and people who want it to stand still usually wind up with skid marks on their ass. Los Angelitos and the Mo's aren't with us anymore, and though some of the bands that ruled during those years – like Soup, for example – still work around town, the gigs are sporadic, and the venues that continue to host large live groups like them are few and far between.

Mingus Amungus was born at Cafe du Nord in 1993 – May 6, 1993, to be precise – when the folks at Blue Vision, a local production company run by promoters Deborah Brand and Jon Yanofsky, hosted a Solo Series at the club. The series, in its second year at that point, spotlighted the music of a different composer every night that year (the year before, it was based on various instruments – trumpet, saxophone, guitar, etc.), and Brand and Yanofsky chose composers who reflected the diversity of the local scene – Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, James Brown, and Charles Mingus. For the Mingus night the two asked Miles Perkins, a bass player who had come out of the prestigious Berkeley High School jazz program, to put something together. Perkins had only recently returned to music; after graduating from Berkeley High, where he played alongside folks like Joshua Redman, Charlie Hunter, and Dave Ellis, Perkins had decided to trade in his axe for the books, heading off to study philosophy at UCLA. When he returned to the East Bay in 1991, diploma in hand, he began working at George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic as a publicist, a job he holds to this day.

He couldn't stay away from music, however, and quickly reestablished himself on the scene, playing with a host of local acts, including Jazz on the Line, a group that also featured Jason Olaine, a former Yoshi's booker and the current head of A&R at Verve Records. Olaine, who first saw Perkins play at the 1986 Monterey Jazz Festival with the Berkeley High jazz band, describes the bass player as the consummate jazzman. "Even [in high school] he had this cool, I'm-the-epitome-of-a-cool-hipster thing going on," Olaine says, laughing.

When I interview him at his home in Oakland's Dimond District on a gorgeous Fourth of July morning, Perkins, 33, admits he wasn't terribly well acquainted with Mingus's work before the Solo Series. "I mean, I was familiar with it," he explains as his wife, Tricia, tries to get their adorable two-year-old daughter, Ruby, dressed for the day's festivities. "Just not totally steeped in it. He was one of my mom's favorites, so I think I heard him around the house a lot growing up, but at that point I was more of a Ron Carter kind of guy. So when [Brand and Yanofsky] asked me to do this, I just put together a band and didn't give much thought to the instrumentation or anything." Perkins managed to get a veritable who's-who ensemble of local hotshots to come do the gig, including saxophonist Ellis, trumpeter Jon Birdsong, trombonist Marty Wehner, Scotty Roberts on percussion, and Al Marshall on drums.

Call it kismet or just chalk it up to Charles Mingus being one badass motherfucker, but something about the configuration struck a cosmic nerve. "In the middle of the hit," Perkins says, "it was apparent that it was just happening." Wehner, the only other member from that original configuration who's still in the band, agrees: "That night definitely launched this project. It was one of the best nights to come out of the Solo Series. With the intensity and enthusiasm of all the players involved, we said, 'Hey, we should definitely try to do something here.' " And while the band began by covering the music of Mingus, Perkins quickly expanded the concept, adding rappers and dancers to the band's mix. He says he didn't realize all the synchronicities that were happening between the direction in which he was pushing M.A. and the ways in which Mingus himself had formulated his big band. "The dance was a natural thing," he says, "because Tricia [whom he was dating at the time] was going to S.F. State and majoring in dance, so I was involved with the dance community, and that just seemed like a natural thing to me. And I just grew up listening to hip-hop, so that seemed natural as well."

In this configuration the group soon developed a devout following, playing a weekly at du Nord and various gigs around town, before settling into their home base at the Elbo Room, where they've played the first Friday of every month for the past eight years and probably will continue to do so for a while. "I once told them they can do this until they're 80," says Dennis Ring, manager and part owner of the club. When I laugh, he interrupts, saying, "I'm serious. This act that they do could just go on until they're elders. It's such a wonderful thing."

As for the band's name, Perkins says it occurred to him during the Solo Series gig. "It just came into my head when we were playing," he explains with a grin. "If I ever had one of those lightbulb moments, that was it."

When I first heard about the band in 1995 or so (I later dated one of the band members for several years), there was more than a bit of grumbling going on about Perkins's lightbulb in certain factions of the scene. And though the grumblers will remain unnamed, I must admit that I myself joined the fray for a brief moment, bitching about how M.A. were living off of Mingus's legacy, exploiting a dead jazz great for the sake of cultural spectacle. All this was, of course, due to the fact, that I (and probably the other grumblers, for that matter) had never actually seen the band play and had arrived at my conclusions through a snot-nosed sense of self-importance, the kind that comes from reading too many books about music and not experiencing nearly enough of it live.

Perkins is well aware of those criticisms, and he admits that at times he is a bit conflicted about the band's moniker. "It's kind of weird sometimes that you're doing something that's based on somebody else's material," he says. "But then again, if you look at a lot of the people in our audience, for example, at the Elbo Room, they don't know who the hell Mingus is, and they come up to me and tell me that we turned them on to Mingus's music. So I guess my question to the people who criticize us would be, do you really think we're riding someone's coattails? Because I think if anyone wants to get in a swing session or a cutting session with us, I think we're going to do well, and I don't think anyone can question that."

He also cites the fact that people from the Mingus family have been extremely supportive of the band, and when I contact Sue Mingus – Charles's widow, manager of the Mingus Big Band, and the main keeper of the bass great's legacy – to ask what she thinks of Mingus Amungus, she responds emphatically. "They're terrific," she says on the phone from New York. "Miles sent me a video a while ago, and I thought they were wonderful, so I called him to tell him immediately. I just think they're wonderful. They're definitely carrying on Charles's legacy." M.A. and the Mingus Big Band have even shared the stage on two occasions, once at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and once at the Istanbul Jazz Festival in Turkey. Both bands will also be performing at this year's Monterey Jazz Festival, part of the festival's tribute to Mingus in the year of his 80th birthday.

Since the band's inception, M.A. have gone through a series of personnel changes, and the current lineup boasts a family of folks who could only have come together in the Bay Area. You've got the Berkeley High thing still in effect, with Perkins and fellow BHS alums trumpeter Gavin Distasi, saxophonist Joshi Marshall, and rapper Martin Reynolds (a.k.a. Ho-Flow) representing for B-town, and the S.F. vibe comes through with drummer Steve Rossi, a third-generation Italian American from North Beach, and trombonist Wehner, a Lowell High School grad who began going down to the Mission Cultural Center when he was 14 to jam with salsa bands. Rounding out the current crew is Oaktown rapper Chris Riggins, who started hanging with M.A. when he was 16 and eventually became part of the band; dancers Caroline and Elizabeth Lund, who joined the ensemble about two years back; and the latest addition, pianist Kevin Stewart, a burning player who's the younger brother of saxophonist Robert Stewart. At 39, Wehner's the group's oldest member, while Stewart's the youngest at 21, and over the years the band have also acquired some honorary members: Perkins's daughter Ruby and Reynolds's two children (with former Mo's vocalist Caitlin Cornwell), Ani and Mahari.

When asked why he believes Mingus Amungus have survived for as long as they have, Wehner credits Perkins's skills as a bandleader but also says that more than anything, it's the fact that they're a family. "We've always had a spiritual, meditative quality to our backstage atmosphere. Everybody really hangs, and we talk, and we've always known what's going on in everybody's lives." Before every show the band members say a prayer. "It reignites our spirit of togetherness as a family every time," Wehner says. "We'll all take a big breath together and say a prayer to the spirits above and the spirits among us." And though this might sound hokey to you coldhearted souls, take it from me: it's real. The members of M.A. have ties that go way beyond the bandstand – Perkins invites the entire band over to his parents' home every year for the family's annual gumbo-sushi blowout (Perkins's father, who's African American, makes the gumbo, and his stepmom, who's Japanese American, does the sushi), and at the group's gig at Yoshi's last Wednesday, practically every band member had their entire family in the house. They even paid homage to someone who couldn't be there, with a gorgeous composition penned by Marshall and Perkins titled "Fred," a tribute to Marshall's father, bass player Fred Marshall, who passed away last November and served as a friend and mentor to many in the band.

Perkins acknowledges that like any family, M.A.'s members squabble, but he stresses that in the end, more than anything, he feels responsible as a bandleader to the guys in the group. "When we're onstage, it's all about communication, the connection between us. Like sometimes we'll play a show where everyone in the audience loved it, and we'll be really bummed out afterwards because we didn't feel like we were communicating how we should have been. So yeah, I feel really responsible to these guys."

He also emphasizes how each member brings something unique to the bandstand. Rossi, Perkins says, is a fantastic soloist, and his drumming constantly creates "a larger platform for the beat." Distasi's trumpet playing brings together the group's big band sound, making it possible for six people to sound like an orchestra. Stewart is extremely well versed in both jazz and hip-hop and has been growing as a player at each and every gig. Riggins has mad lyrical skills and "super hustle," a business drive that's a huge asset to the band. Reynolds is extremely intuitive with the audience and raps about the same kinds of issues Mingus was expressing in his music. Perkins talks about how Wehner is his "copilot" – the guy who documents everything, works out harmonies and horn lines – "the cat that's been there the longest, you know, an MVP," and finally about how Marshall "can light a fire" and "brings the blues into the band."

"I like to have Joshi stand next to me onstage, because no matter what, he's going to pull me through," Perkins says. "Because he just has this incredible fire. He brings some of the deepest feeling to the band, for sure."

But you've gotta wonder: just how far can Mingus Amungus go? Both Perkins and Wehner acknowledge that this is a band that needs to be experienced live to be fully appreciated. And though they've released two fine full-lengths – Mingus Amungus: Live in Cuba (recorded on the band's tour to Cuba in 1997) and Isms (a studio album released last year), Wehner admits, "Our live shows are definitely better than our records." Still, he adds that he knows they've got "a lot of stuff yet to come" and that record number three "just might be a charm." The band have played to enthusiastic audiences in New York and Los Angeles, performed numerous times at prestigious venues like the Playboy Jazz Festival, the S.F. Jazz Festival, and the Stanford Jazz Workshop, and toured extensively in Europe, where they have a devout following, particularly in Belgium. Olaine believes M.A.'s success depends largely on getting the right people to come to their shows. "I don't think Mingus Amungus is the kind of band that either needs or wants a major record deal. What they do is so interdisciplinary that it's not something a major record label would necessarily get or know what to do with if they were lucky enough to have it. They can become a truly recognized, global band – they just need to be seen by the right promoters, because anybody who sees their shows walks away enjoying themselves immensely. Which is another reason they've been around so long."

In the past five years I've seen Mingus Amungus play more times than I can remember. I know the words to their tunes, the changes and hooks, the moments when the dancers emerge from the darkness and come out to thrill the crowd. I've seen the crowds change around them, a new generation of 21-year-olds coming to and falling in love with their shows, while folks into their 50s, 60s, and even 70s still turn up even at the Elbo Room for the first set. Hell, I've been to so many Elbo gigs, Jason (the coolest bartender in S.F.) is even prone to buying me a drink now and again. And I can honestly say, no matter how many times I see this band, I never get tired of them, I am constantly amazed by their energy, their fire, their passion, and I know that I will continue to be as they develop and grow throughout the years.

As Rossi says to me on the phone, "Coming across such a talented group of musicians, especially these days, is rare."

So this is my love letter, a humble tribute to a band that's become part of my family. I look forward to what's ahead. Mingus Amungus perform first Fridays, Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, S.F. $7. (415) 553-7788; Aug. 10, North Beach Jazz Festival, Washington Square Park, Union and Columbus Streets, S.F. Free. For more information call (415) 771-2061 or go to www.nbjazzfest.org; Aug. 21, Monterey Jazz Festival. For more information call (925) 275-9255 or go to www.montereyjazzfestival.org. For more information about the band go to www.mingusamungus.com.