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Mingus Ah Um: An Open Letter to the 20th Century

1959 was, by any measure, a watershed year for jazz music. Some all-time great recordings were released during this year, including Kind Of Blue (Miles Davis), Giant Steps (John Coltrane), The Shape of Jazz To Come (Ornette Coleman), Time Out (Dave Brubeck) and, of course, Mingus Ah Um. Although Charles Mingus’s masterpiece received the full remastering treatment for its fortieth anniversary, it is entirely appropriate to revisit (and reassess) the sessions for Columbia Records that resulted in both Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. This was Mingus’s first opportunity to record for a major label, and it goes without saying that he made the most of his opportunity. Mingus Ah Um: Legacy Edition could (should?) be named The Mingus Columbia Sessions, since the entire Mingus Dynasty album is included in this (quite reasonably priced) special edition.


Mingus Ah Um is rightly regarded as a seminal jazz recording, and it signals the full flowering of Mingus’s development as a bassist and composer. Even by jazz musician standards, he had paid substantial dues in his extended apprenticeship years, struggling to find a sympathetic label and always worried about money. Of course he also endured the non-musical outrages of the time, being an outspoken and brilliant black man in a country that considered him at best a second-rate citizen. Mingus bristled at the ignorance and intolerance that sometimes suffocated him, and his work can be viewed as an ongoing dialogue between himself and the world. All the passions that informed his underdog triumphs are inextricable from the music he made: as much as any other artist from the last century, his life was his music.


cover art

Charles Mingus

Mingus Ah Um

50th Anniversary (Legacy Edition)

(Sony/Legacy; US: 26 May 2009; UK: 26 May 2009)

Mingus worshipped Duke Ellington and emulated the great bandleader’s aesthetic, to a fault a times, begging the question of whether he could ever entirely escape the long shadow cast by his hero. All through the ‘50s he refined his chops and expanded on an increasingly exhaustive musical palette, but remained unable to attract a meaningful audience. Slowly but steadily his confidence grew, and the resulting material demonstrated the cultivation of a style that was as distinctive as it was encompassing. Mingus devoured the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as Ellington (and Charlie Parker and contemporaries like Monk and Gillespie).  Once he began to assemble the pieces of his developmental puzzle, the results—although a long time in gestation—seemed to come in an astonishing burst.


His first major breakthrough was Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), and while he was satisfied with the recording, even he could not have fully anticipated the ways in which the floodgates were about to open. What Mingus accomplished in 1957 still staggers the mind: in addition to Mingus Three and East Coasting, Mingus recorded a trio of albums that incorporated crucial components of his maturation. Most musicians would be ecstatic to list A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry, Tijuana Moods and The Clown on their career resumes; the fact that Mingus delivered all of them in a single year puts his superhuman productivity in proper context. In addition to the eclectic styles and concepts found on these aforementioned albums, Mingus was getting more comfortable achieving an ideal balance of composition and improvisation. He was beginning to write material with certain musicians in mind, so that when it came time to record, he could convey the sounds he was looking for without necessarily handing the sheet music over; he would play it on piano or sing the notes out loud. The confidence this practice required (in his music, in the musicians he selected) was the final ingredient that made his arsenal complete. Henceforth, he was able to harness the best of both worlds, employing a strategy that enabled his detailed arrangements to retain a vitality that an over-rehearsed studio band could never approximate.


The landmark Blues and Roots, recorded just before Mingus Ah Um but released afterward, showcased Mingus’s desire to embrace the blues alongside traditional cultural and musical elements, specifically gospel and church music. Blues and Roots is effective but a tad raw (in a mostly good way); it’s polished but dirty and in hindsight seems like a test run for what turned out to be his tour de force. By the time Mingus entered the studios to work with the legendary producer Teo Macero (a man celebrated for his ability to wrangle superlative material from irascible musicians, as his subsequent, extended relationship with Miles Davis affirms), he understood that this affiliation with an established record label was the opportunity he had long dreamt about. Mingus, like Miles, not only had an uncanny, often unerring eye for talent, he was able to inspire, and sometimes cajole, stellar performances from the men he assembled. The stakes, therefore, could not be more unambiguous: Mingus Ah Um features one of the preeminent composers of his era at the pinnacle of his game with (arguably) the best band he ever worked with.


Mingus was as generous in celebrating the musicians who inspired him as he was ardent in discovering them. One of the most special aspects of Mingus Ah Um is the way it functions as a sort of encyclopedia of the best jazz music recorded to that point. Special tributes are offered up to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, and, of course, Duke Ellington. For this work, which was profoundly personal to him for obvious reasons, he embellished his quintet with new faces and old friends. Of the many bands Mingus led, the one that made history in Europe during 1964 (featuring Eric Dolphy) is tough to top, but in terms of sheer versatility and expertise, the individuals handpicked for this session represent an unparalleled collective. Shafi Hadi (alto sax) and Jimmie Knepper (trombone) had already made memorable contributions throughout ’57, and they adapted deftly to the larger ensemble. Booker Ervin (tenor sax) would go on to make many remarkable albums of his own, but it’s likely that his best work is contained on this outing—a circumstance not atypical for so many of the excellent musicians who played with Mingus over the years. Special mention must be made for drummer Dannie Richmond. Mingus is quoted in the album’s original liner notes as claiming he “would rather have no drummer at all if Dannie weren’t available.” Suffice it to say, coming from the notoriously exacting—and occasionally self-destructive—standards Mingus set, this sentiment speaks volumes. Richmond was impressive from the moment he worked with Mingus, and while he shines on the ’57 recordings, he truly comes into his own on this set. Beyond impeccable timekeeping, his lock-step accompaniment with Mingus is almost inexplicable; both men were quick to acknowledge that they seemed destined to work together.


Okay, so for those not already in the know, what does Mingus Ah Um sound like? Plain and simple, it sounds like the 20th Century: it is a self-portrait of a man who helped define the direction of post-bop jazz, commenting on the country that created him. Charles Mingus was, above all things, a fighter.  Since nothing came easily to him, his struggles—as a musician, as a man—acted as the kiln in which his character was forged. This is how Mingus, mercurial and larger than life, manages to encapsulate so many aspects of the American story: he battled to find his artistic voice, then he strived—often stymied by rejection or indifference—to have that voice heard. Eventually, inevitably, he managed to create material that was too brilliant to be ignored.


“Better Git It In Your Soul”, introduced by Mingus’s muscular bass lines, brims with confidence and purpose right out of the gate. This is possibly the first time the blues have been incorporated so seamlessly with gospel and folk: from the congregation-like conversations between the horns to Knepper’s authoritative outbursts to the syncopated hand-claps to Richmond’s propulsive backbeat, this is celebration in music. Mingus literally cannot contain himself, repeatedly crying “Hallelujah” and “Lord I Know!” throughout the piece. This song sets a forceful tone, and over the course of 50 years it has never lost its capacity to delight or surprise.


Mingus moves from the ecstatic to the restrained on the album’s first tribute, an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.


Mingus turns back again to early roots with “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, an ideal vehicle that displays his ability to commemorate the past with a contemporary imprint. Booker Ervin and John Handy each turn in delightfully buoyant solos while Mingus and Richmond lock in with Horace Parlan (piano). Next up is the composition intended for use in John Cassevete’s first feature, Shadows. When it did not find its way into the film, Mingus retitled it “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”. It can never be overstated how sophisticated and dexterous Mingus’s compositional skills were at this juncture: this short piece can easily be imagined as a string quartet, or as the foundation for a big band’s deconstruction. As it plays on the album, it remains a delicately understated tone poem. Knepper’s trombone restates the plaintive theme as the saxophones subtly comment on and around it, while Richmond’s brushwork gives the entire piece its peaceful, almost elegiac air.


For the next tribute, “Open Letter to Duke”, Mingus revisits three pieces from his (overlooked) album A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry: “Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”, all of which are worked into a showcase for the entire band. Horace Parlan carries the momentum as Mingus and Richmond lay back, providing an uptempo pulse for the others to expand upon. Once again, all the horns are utilized in a manner that affords ample opportunity for individual commentary while maintaining the collective integrity of the piece. This piece is followed by another installment of Mingus’s series of odes to Charlie Parker. Unlike “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” (from The Clown), “Bird Calls” is at once a figurative nod to Parker’s bebop stylings as well as a literal (via the horns) approximation of an aviary: each saxophone states the theme in unison, then the soloists are given free rein to improvise. It turns into an amiable cutting session with each voice outdoing the previous one, adding up to six minutes of exuberant abandon.


For a “tribute” of a different sort, Mingus takes aim at Orville Faubus, the Arkansas governor who forcibly resisted integration in Little Rock, prompting President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. “Fables of Faubus”, beyond being a masterpiece, epitomizes the power and purpose the best music is capable of achieving: it is a rollicking cherry bomb that combines righteous indignation with contemptuous mockery. Knepper’s exaggerated trombone blasts invoke a carnivalesque atmosphere, and Mingus eagerly steps in as ringleader, his bass-slapping equal parts violent and sardonic, while everyone joins in the merriment: they are having fun at Faubus’s expense, celebrating this well-warranted smackdown. The tune romps along, Richmond urging the band into double time throughout, while the horns function as sarcastic crows, looking down and chirping their amusement. Accounts vary as to whether the shouted lyrics (heard on subsequent live versions) were already written and omitted, or if they simply developed while Mingus performed in concert. Let it be opined that the “lyrics”, while enjoyable enough, are overly literal and not particularly original; the band is able to “say” everything that needs to be said in this take, and that remains the enduring achievement of this recording. Only Mingus could take such a distressingly serious topic and deflate the backward status quo that put a clown like Faubus in public office in the first place. This song stands alongside “Haitian Fight Song” and “Meditations (of Integration)” as Mingus’s abiding social statements.


“Pussy Cat Dues” is another stroll down memory lane, with Handy’s clarinet invoking early Ellington and an earlier America. Knepper’s trombone floats above the procession like clouds escaping a steam grate, and Parlan’s ultra-laid back solo invokes saloons, moonshine and cigar smoke. Fittingly, Mingus ends the album by going back to the very beginning, paying respects to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, the ragtime genius who is generally considered the first authentic jazz composer. A refined version of “My Jelly Roll Soul” (from Blues and Roots), “Jelly Roll” is an ebullient homage, complete with slapped bass, trombone flourishes, and more inspired soloing from Ervin and Handy. Appropriately, Horace Parlan moves to the forefront on this track, and his solo is a wink and a nod to the great old days while remaining rooted in the here and now. Mingus’s playful plucking and countdown at the song’s conclusion reiterates the spirit of celebration and good cheer that permeates the album.


For those who slept on the 40th anniversary edition of Mingus Ah Um, this new version is indispensable. Like the previous reissue, the pieces feature remastered sound and the original versions (edited due to LP time constraints) are all lovingly restored: the songs truly sound the way they were meant to be heard. In addition to the cleaner sound and reinserted solos, there are a handful of alternate takes (“Bird Calls”, “Jelly Roll” and “Better Git It In Your Soul”), as well as bonus material. Of these, both “Pedal Point Blues” and “GG Train” are consistent in feel and spirit with the proper album, but neither match the levels of brilliance contained on the original nine tracks. The third “bonus” track, a cover of the 1920s classic “Girl of My Dreams” (a song used to mesmerizing effect as a leitmotif in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart), could easily have found a place on the album, as it represents yet another reimagining of a tune from jazz’s earliest days (and would have constituted the only cover). Mingus’s arrangement turns this old chestnut into a miniature epic, packing an incredible amount of music into four minutes: he and Richmond are so locked in that they sound like the same person with four arms, and the rest of the band is scorching; it is an absolute jackpot.


A few months after Mingus Ah Um hit the streets (September ’59), Mingus entered the studio with many of the same musicians and recorded the tracks later released as Mingus Dynasty. This material, taken by itself, is typically solid and occasionally ingenious work, but it can’t help but suffer by comparison with its predecessor. Nevertheless, it contains some of Mingus’s more satisfying compositions, including “Song With Orange”, “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, and “Put Me In That Dungeon”. There are elements that recall Blues and Roots (especially the astutely titled “Slop”, which sounds like a messier, less successful version of “Better Git It In Your Soul”) and, obviously, the previous album, but Mingus opens things up a bit with the inclusion of vibes (courtesy of Teddy Charles), giving several of the songs a slightly more formal, old-school feel. Yet another Charlie Parker tribute appears, the very satisfactory “Gunslinging Bird” (which was originally entitled “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”). The Ellington influence is in full effect—perhaps too much for comfort, considering the quantum leap made on the last recording—with covers of “Mood Indigo” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. One senses an emphasis on composition with less opportunity for the improvised flashes of heat that spiced up Mingus Ah Um. On the other hand, Mingus Dynasty can also be viewed as a very successful step toward Mingus’s next landmark opus (and the undeniable apex of his compositional prowess), The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady.


A few closing thoughts concerning this indelible record, half a century later. There are arguably better albums (Kind of Blue and Giant Steps are well-loved and oft-invoked touchstones whenever these discussions arise), or albums with more emotional import (A Love Supreme or Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village), but it would be next to impossible to find a more suitable candidate that summarizes virtually everything jazz music is about than Mingus Ah Um. This is material that can truly be savored, every individual moment, each note, all the ideas as close to perfection as is humanly possible. Those of us whose lives are enriched by music should remain eternally grateful for the miracle that was Charles Mingus.


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Sean Murphy loves music, books, and movies and can't imagine a world without sub-titles. He was born in northern Virginia and has never found a compelling reason to leave. He studied English at George Mason University and has an MA in Literature. One of his thesis papers dealt with the utopian impulse in '70s rock (which, depending upon one's perspective, at least partially explains why he opted not to purse that PhD in Cultural Studies). During his time at PopMatters he has written extensively about music, movies and books, and his column "The Amazing Pudding" appears every other month. His memoir Please Talk about Me When I'm Gone is now available via paperback and Kindle at Amazon. Visit him online at http://seanmurphy.net/.


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Charles Mingus - Self-Portrait in Three Colors
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