Clip: Mingus Amungus
- Fun band led by one of my high school classmates.
A Decade Amungus
Once a simple tribute act, Mingus Amungus is now an institution.
BY ERIC K. ARNOLD
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
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
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
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
"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."