Misha Mengelberg (5 June 1935 – 3 March 2017) was a Dutch jazz pianist and composer. A prominent figure in post-WWII European Jazz, Mengelberg is known for his forays into free improvisation, for bringing humor into his music, and as a leading interpreter of songs by fellow pianists Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols.
Mengelberg was born in Kiev, Ukrainian SSR, the son of the Dutch conductor Karel Mengelberg (born Karel Willem Joseph Mengelberg; 18 July 1902, Utrecht – 11 July 1984, Amsterdam) and grand-nephew of conductor Willem Mengelberg. Karel Mengelberg was a Dutch composer and conductor, who worked in Berlin, Barcelona, Kiev and Amsterdam. A notable work of his was ‘Catalunya Renaixent’, written for the Banda Municipal of Barcelona in 1934.
Misha’s family moved back to the Netherlands in the late 1930s and he began learning the piano at age five. Mengelberg briefly studied architecture before entering the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where he studied music from 1958-64. While there he won the first prize at a jazz festival in Loosdrecht and became associated with Fluxus. His early influences included Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and John Cage, whom he heard lecture at Darmstadt.
Mengelberg won the Gaudeamus International Composers Award in 1961. Among his first recordings was among Eric Dolphy’s last, Last Date (1964). Also on that record was the drummer Han Bennink, and the two of them, together with saxophonist Piet Noordijk, formed a quartet which had a number of different bassists, and which played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966. In 1967 he co-founded the Instant Composers Pool, an organisation which promoted avant garde Dutch jazz performances and recordings, with Bennink and Willem Breuker. He was co-founder of STEIM in Amsterdam in 1969.
Mengelberg played with a large variety of musicians. He often performed in a duo with fellow Dutchman Bennink, with other collaborators including Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton and (on the flip side of a live recording with Dolphy) his pet parrot. He was also one of the earliest exponents of the work of the once-neglected pianist Herbie Nichols.
He also wrote music for others to perform (generally leaving some room for improvisation) and oversaw a number of music theatre productions, which usually included a large element of absurdist humour. A 2006 DVD release, Afijn (ICP/Data), is a primer on Mengelberg’s life and work, containing an 80-minute documentary and additional concert footage.
Mengelberg died in Amsterdam on 3 March 2017, aged 81.