Arts & Events » Music

Remember the Titan

Richmond jazz players to celebrate legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus while raising money for the ALS Association.


The Mingus Awareness Project (MAP) is a magical, on-again/off-again local tradition. Organized by local drummer and educator Brian Jones, this year’s edition takes place this Sunday, Feb. 5 and will feature three all-star bands playing songs by one of the great jazz composers to raise funds to fight Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the disease that killed him.

Bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus was a vital force in music from the late big band era until his death in 1979. While he wrote some transcendent standards – notably the elegiac “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” – his reputation was forged on albums that allowed longer-form pieces. He may be grouped with giants like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, but his disruptive contradictions of sharp focus and organic looseness are challenging to cover. The ideal way to experience his music is in an encompassing set, like the one slated for MAP.

There are few terminal diseases crueler than ALS, sometimes called Lou Gherig’s disease. The degenerative neurological condition strips people of their motor functionality until they are ultimately unable to breathe. In most cases, thinking is not impacted as they are progressively shut down physically. The disease currently is difficult to diagnose, impossible to treat, and claims roughly 25,000 victims in the U.S. annually.

Chicago musician brothers Jon, Dan, and Erik Godson founded MAP in 2006 with the blessing of Mingus’ widow and in tribute to their own mother, who died of ALS. Their concert in May 2007 was followed by the first Richmond iteration of the concert in October. “Jon was my best friend growing up in Pittsburgh,” says Brian Jones, reached on his weekly commute to his new professorship at South Carolina’s Francis Marion University. “I thought it would be good to do one here. The next day, I ran into [Virginia Commonwealth University Jazz program founder and composer] Doug Richards. He agreed without any hesitation, and the program took off from there. We had quite a collection of musicians, all donating their time.” Jones has also traveled to three of the ten concerts in Chicago.

This Sunday’s event is the 10th iteration of the concert in Central Virginia; most of them having occurred in Richmond but one each in Charlottesville and Williamsburg. This weekend’s program will consist of three half-hour sets from Adam Hopkins’ School Work, Michael Hawkins and the Brotherhood, and the Doug Richards Orchestra.

School Work performing at Art Space. - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • School Work performing at Art Space.

Experimental mindset

Mingus’ experimental side is a perfect match for School Work. The band, led by Baltimore-by-way-of-Brooklyn bassist Adam Hopkins, got its name from a tune from another mid-20th century, cutting-edge jazz composer, Ornette Coleman. Like Jones, Hopkins has a long history of organizing projects with creative musicians. His Out of Your Head (OOYH) record label champions creative music, and he’s been key to recent local appearances by musicians like drummer John Hollenbeck (who’s new OOYH release “George” was previewed in a 2022 Spacebomb house concert) and Michael Formanek’s Drome Trio. Along with Hopkins, the School Work MAP lineup is trumpeter Bob Miller, tenor saxophonist JC Kuhl, alto saxophonist John Lilley, trombonist Reggie Pace, pianist Michael McNeill, vocalist Laura Ann Singh, and drummer Scott Clark.

Michael Hawkins and the Brotherhood performing at Black Iris. - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • Michael Hawkins and the Brotherhood performing at Black Iris.

Preparing for this concert gave bassist Michael Hawkins a fresh appreciation of Mingus’ music.

“Even though he is a household name, a lot of musicians, me included, may have listened to his music constantly but never really studied it,” Hawkins says. “Preparing for this concert was an opportunity to sit down and take the time to understand.”

The composer’s music could range across jazz, blues, and gospel in a single song. Whether the feeling in a piece was poetically melodic or righteously raucous, it was always sharply realized. “[Mingus] was very volatile and, at the same time, he held a very high standard of how music should be played. He demanded originality, that players have their own voice.” He notes that Mingus’ longtime drummer, Danny Richmond, was a tenor player who was turned into a drummer so the bassist/composer could realize his concept.

The Brotherhood quartet, profiled last March in Style Weekly, consists of Hawkins, saxophonist James ‘Saxsmo’ Gates, pianist Dr. Weldon Hill, and drummer Billy Williams Jr.

The finale of the concert will feature the 19-member Doug Richards Orchestra. The key architect and early leader of the VCU Jazz program, Richards has been involved with multiple previous MAP performances.

“Charles Mingus is one of the foremost composers in the history of jazz,” Richards says. “His music is rooted in the major styles of jazz history, from New Orleans through the avant-garde, and is imbued with his indefatigable energy and extraordinary fertile imagination.”

Expect Richards’ arrangements to be both true to the source and challenging enough to require a very high level of musicianship to navigate.

This bill offers a lot of talent to fit into the compact Firehouse Theatre. The best players in the area, which is to say some of the best players anywhere, are donating their time to play extraordinary music for a worthy cause in an intimate venue. It’s hard to envision a better investment in a midwinter Sunday evening.

And all three of the founding Godson brothers are flying in to attend as well.

“I’m looking forward to listening to how everyone views Mingus,” says Hawkins. “And how they play his music. That is what makes this interesting.”

The Mingus Awareness Project ALS Benefit concert takes place on Sunday, Feb. 5 at the Firehouse Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 general admission and $20 for students. Go here to purchase them.