Surviving a decade in the music biz is a milestone -- a rare achievement for groups back in the vinyl era, and especially difficult in these days of Internet remixes, 99-cent downloads, and iPods. So let's all raise a toast to Mingus Amungus, the popular local jazz-funk-hip-hop band celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
The band has released two albums and performed an estimated 650 shows in fifteen countries, including Belgium, Cuba, and at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The original incarnation of seven musicians has expanded to eleven current members, while as many as 25 people have crowded onstage at one time. And as the band has grown, it has developed a unique amalgamation of jazz chops, funk licks, Latin tinges, and hip-hop grooves.
The first Mingus Amungus show in 1994 featured 100 percent Charles Mingus numbers. Its most recent show, comprised two-thirds originals. In between, the band has graced countless weddings, clubs, and concert stages, sticking to its progressive big-band dynamic long enough to see the local scene come full circle from live music to minimalist electronic music (which generally doesn't require a large contingent of musicians) back to full-band action again.
Originally, the band merely sought to re-create the feeling Charles Mingus brought to his compositions. "Mingus' music -- not a lot of people can play it with the same energy" as Mingus did, explains Miles Perkins, the group's founder, bandleader, and upright bassist. "Without that energy, it's just not the same music."
After forming a group of musicians for a one-off tribute show at Cafe du Nord -- including sax player Dave Ellis, drummer Al Marshall, and Marty Weiner (who still plays trombone in the band) -- Miles got the idea for the group. "I decided to keep it going," Miles says, and he hasn't stopped since.
The Mingus tribute outfit soon mutated into various permutations and interpolations, all loosely based around a jazz paradigm. Martin Reynolds, aka Ho Flow, became the group's MC, delivering a mix of party and dance urgings with socially aware lyrics. Over time, the group has stretched out considerably, adding and subtracting personnel and defining itself beyond the Mingus fixation in the process. "With maturity, we've embraced our own sound," Miles says.
It's easy to take Mingus Amungus for granted, as the band has gigged locally with such regularity. In fact, it might well represent the literal heart and soul of the East Bay music scene over the past decade -- an odd statement, given that the group has played the city so many times that some people think the band is from there. Not so, says Miles. "We're known as a San Francisco band. Why?" he laughs. In actuality, he adds, "most of the acid jazz bands" -- a phenomenon typically associated with Ess Eff -- "were from the East Bay."
When Mingus Amungus began in the early days of the dot-com boom, the acid jazz craze had reached its feverish peak. Back then, bands spanning the gamut from progressive jazz to organic hip-hop to simmering funk were playing seemingly every night at every supperclub or bar equipped with a dancefloor in SF's South of Market, where dot-com whiz kids would flock after work to sip mojitos and get their mack on. What made that era -- personified by Mingus Amungus, along with musicians such as Groove Shop, Alphabet Soup, the Mo'fessionals, 10 BASS T, the Charlie Hunter Trio, T.J. Kirk, and the Broun Fellinis -- into an authentic scene was its friendly air of cross-pollination.
Right around the time Mingus Amungus started, Martin recalls, another band called Jungle Biskit also began; both groups shared many of the same core members. "That band featured Dave Ellis, Jay Lane, Troy Lampkins, Miles Perkins, and myself," he says. Six degrees of separation? More like one or two. "I've known Miles since third or fourth grade. I've known Dave since we went to Cazadero Music Camp together. Al Marshall and Jay, I've known them since then, too. So you had basically all these people who knew each other as friends first. I think that had a lot to do with us staying together. And over the ten years we've been together, we've grown as friends. Kids have come into the picture, people have gotten married, we've attended each other's weddings." Even to this day, he says, "we hook up and hang out."
Miles and Martin's love of music -- and their lifelong friendship -- might be what sets them apart from all the other local outfits that linked up and created a short-lived buzz, only to disband because of personal or creative differences. During a conversation with the two at Borders in Emeryville, their mutual respect becomes evident, even though they don't always agree.
In an earlier phone conversation, Martin noted that he is sometimes frustrated with the band's direction; he'd prefer more hip-hop and contemporary urban flavor in the mix. Meanwhile, Miles admitted he is sometimes torn between his commitment to upholding Mingus' legacy and his role as a bandleader of a group with widely varying musical influences. Paradoxically, Martin says, "that tension or conflict is what has fueled us."
"There's this dilemma I have with the group," Miles reveals. "Because we've changed so much ... I don't want to say moved away ... the concept of the group has always been to embrace all these different cultures and different kinds of music, and not to bastardize any one. But in doing that, we've taken away from just the music of Mingus itself."
He is quick to clarify that he's not talking about taking away from the spirit of Mingus' music, but meandering far from the impossibly complex, often abstract compositions -- based around traditional blues and gospel riffs -- that made Mingus both a legend and an enigma. And while the jazz purist in Miles may scoff at anything less than a total commitment to the genre's traditions, he also is quick to point out that multiculturalism is a part of his heritage, too.
"Growing up in Berkeley, you were able to embrace many different styles of music," he adds. "Josh [Redman] is the same way," referring to fellow BHS alum and current artistic director of SFJAZZ.
MA's method of merging jazz with hip-hop hasn't always cut the easiest musical path, but neither Miles nor Martin consider Mingus Amungus to be a "studio band." Both are addicted to being onstage -- kids, day jobs, and all. And not only is the band still active, it has survived long enough to witness something of a rebirth of the live band scene in the East Bay, helped along by the addition of several hip venues. As Miles notes, the crowds he plays for these days at the Down Low, Sweet's, and the Oakland Box differ considerably from MA's old Up and Down Club and Elbo Room fans in their ethnic makeup. The acid jazz scene was predominantly white, while East Bay folks tend to be more culturally diverse.
Playing in the East Bay more frequently of late, the band has noticed another thing about its audiences: Mingus Amungus has started to draw folks from both ends of the demographic -- namely, the younger hip-hop and neo-soul kids and the older jazz crowd. Bridging the generation gap (which can and does happen at Mingus Amungus shows) is a worthwhile accomplishment, as both Miles and Martin attest. There's something special, they say, about seeing a youngster appreciate jazz, and it's equally pleasing to see Grandpa or Grandma get down to some hip-hop, perhaps for the first time.
"I hope what's going on in Oakland is really a trend," Miles says. In any event, the Mingus Amungus saga -- and Miles and Martin's friendship -- will continue for the foreseeable future. "There's more to be said," Martin says. "We have yet to do our best work."
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