Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um – Classic Music Review
I find it extremely frustrating that Charles Mingus is known as “The Angry Man of Jazz.”
Yes, Mingus had a temper. He served a suspended sentence for punching out trombonist Jimmy Knepper. He destroyed a $20,000 bass during a live performance. After Jim Paul Eilers (owner of the Showplace in Greenwich Village) told him that his long-term residence was coming to an end, he ripped out the strings of the club’s piano with his bare hands.
He chastised and yelled at band members in front of audiences and sometimes forced them to leave the stage. Future arranger Sy Johnson experienced the Mingus touch when filling in on piano for a club gig:
He turns and says to me, “Pedal tones, pedal tones, play pedal tones.” This thing changes keys every four bars. What kind of pedal tones does he want? I’m trying to find some pattern that works, and he’s getting madder at me. “Pedal tones, pedal tones.” Finally he throws the bass down. He comes rushing around behind Dannie (Richmond) and thrusts his nose into my nose. I see these maniacal eyes an inch away, and he’s just glaring and making these funny breathing noises, he’s enraged, and my life is flashing before my eyes. He’s got his fists clenched. And suddenly he goes CRASH on the bass end of the piano, four times. Then he went running behind Dannie again and picked up the bass and started playing furiously. I was humiliated. The club was half-full. I’m thinking, I don’t need this shit. He was abusing everybody, of course, but it was usually from a distance; this was in my space. So I’m sitting there silently mouthing Fuck You and Dannie’s saying, “Go ahead, man, play; he didn’t mean nothing, he does that all the time.” Finally I had it, so I made a fist and whacked the bottom end of the piano and Mingus looked up and his face broke into this wide smile, and he turned to the audience and said, “THE WHITE BOY CAN PLAY.”
Gene Santoro. Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus (Kindle Locations 2289-2295). Kindle Edition.
While there is little doubt that Mingus had a serious anger management control problem (and because he was a big dude, his anger could be very frightening), the label is inherently unfair for three reasons. First, it colors the perception of his music with a negative tint. Second, it makes it seem like anger was the core emotion behind his music. While some of his music does have that flavor, Mingus had an insatiable curiosity about music (both jazz and classical) that resulted in a body of work that enabled him to express a wide range of emotions in his compositions. Finally, the label fails to describe why he got angry. Most of his temper tantrums were a reaction to disrespect—frustration that the guys he was playing with weren’t taking the music as seriously as he did and that the audience wasn’t giving his music the attention he felt it deserved. He punched out Knepper because they were working on a composition for an upcoming concert and Knepper didn’t want to take on more work. He wrecked that $20,000 bass in response to audience heckling. Mingus had the expectation that his music deserved the same kind of respect that classical audiences give to symphony orchestras and soloists. When a nightclub audience created a distraction by clinking the ice in their cocktails, he stopped the performance and let the audience have it: “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit.”
You could say that music was important to Mingus and that he cared deeply about it, but those descriptions fail to convey the intensity of his feelings about music. To Charles Mingus, music was everything:
It’s not a paradox to say that Mingus was most fully himself in his music. It was his lamp unto the world. He saw himself as the Romantic larger-than-life hero of an always in-process living theater, and so his life and his art became deeply entwined. His lamp burns so intensely because, being Mingus, he never separated what he did and thought and said and wanted and needed—his life—from what he made—his art. He used everything he saw or heard, felt or even misunderstood stood as ingredients in a constant creative process. He transformed it all into something that moves people still, thanks to his uncanny gift of tongues in a language called music. This is the lasting human touch his art bequeathes. No matter if it comes out caress or belly laugh or fist in your face; that’s part of how each piece of his music tells us, “Charles Mingus made me.”
Gene Santoro. Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus (Kindle Locations 59-65). Kindle Edition.
True, but it is also true that Mingus was very aware and deeply appreciative of those who made him. Mingus Ah Um has been likened to a grand tour of jazz through the decades, driven by the composer’s firm belief in the developmental continuity of jazz and his insistence on recognizing those who came before. Brittnay Proctor wrote about this compositional foundation in a superb essay on Sounding Out!:
. . . you realize these tracks are his oeuvre to the ‘eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing.’ The tracks are less about mimicry and reproducing the exact sound of Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, or Duke Ellington, but are rooted in Mingus’s ethics of care. With these works, he demonstrates how black jazz men enabled him to invent and play his own idiom of jazz. But most importantly, Mingus uses these compositions to argue that Young, Morton, and Ellington should not be treated as disposable or as an obstruction to “harder” or more radical avant-garde jazz sounds and forms. For Mingus, without Duke, Jelly Roll, or Lester, there is no Mingus, or jazz for that matter.
The word “workshop” appears frequently in any Mingus bio and has many meanings: the publishing company he founded (Jazz Workshop, Inc.); a Jazz Composer’s Workshop that Mingus organized in New York during the 50s, involving luminaries such as Monk, Max Roach, Horace Silver and Art Blakey; and Jazz Composer’s Workshop, the title of a Mingus album released in 1956. The most important and relevant meaning is the equation Workshop = “band.” “Band” is in quotes because the Workshop was more of a concept than a relatively stable group of musicians—a concept that arose from his frustration with the Jazz Composer’s Workshop. Diane Dorr-Dorynek (who helped Mingus set up Jazz Workshop, Inc.) wrote in the insert to Mingus Ah Um that “Mingus believes now that it got too far away from jazz — spontaneity — since almost all of the music was written. He remembers one rehearsal at which Teddy (Charles) had left several bars open for blowing and everyone jumped on him with ‘Man, are you lazy? Write it out!'” Biographer Gene Santoro summarized Mingus’ revelation:
Mingus had had it with notating his music. Musicians couldn’t play it right. They complained how hard or unnatural it was. He remembered all the pieces he’d faked his way through, relying on his ear. What could be more natural than to mimic what you heard? And when you did, you inevitably changed what you remembered, to suit yourself. They could learn to express themselves in his music better if they learned who they were for themselves. He’d sing or play them their parts. No music.
Gene Santoro. Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus (Kindle Locations 1560-1563). Kindle Edition.
In the words of Jimmy Knepper (prior to the punch out), “He never had music for the band. And we never rehearsed before recording.” When saxophonist John Handy (who was new to the Workshop and the Mingus methodology) asked him for the chords to “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus just laughed at him. This may seem like a sink-or-swim kind of thing, but it wasn’t total chaos. Mingus explained his approach thusly in the insert notes: “My present working methods use very little written material. I ‘write’ compositions on mental score paper, then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the ‘framework’ on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used. Each man’s particular style is taken into consideration. They are given different rows of notes to use against each chord but they choose their own notes and play them in their own style, from scales as well as chords, except where a particular mood is indicated. In this way I can keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos.”
Mingus once said he’d never heard his music performed the way it sounded in his head, but how could it when he allowed the musicians so much individual freedom? His compositional genius is grounded in that balance of structure and improvisation—structure to give a particular piece a sense of form, improv to capture some of the infinite possibilities within that form. As for the musicians, succeeding in the environment of the Workshop was by necessity a process of “learning who they were for themselves,” and “learning to mimic what they heard” instead of reading from a sheet.
The Mingus approach worked wonders on Mingus Ah Um.
Mingus Ah Um opens with “Better Git It in Your Soul,” a deceptively straightforward piece that has been labeled “a blues number” (a stretch), a “waltz” (not really) and “post-bop” (nah) by critics obsessed with classification. Technically it’s a jazz piece in 6/8 time in the key of F major played at a tempo somewhere between 170 and 180 bpm with a baseline of I-IV-V with 7th, 9th and sustained variants and a transitionary G minor.
All very well, but the feel of the piece is pure revival.
As noted in the Mingus mini-bio on charlesmingus.com, “his earliest influences came from the church—group and choir singing . . . ” Mingus was born in 1922, just in time for the birth of African-American gospel music, “a sacred music genre that emerged in the 1920s out of a confluence of sacred hymns, spirituals, shouts, jubilee quartet songs, and black devotional songs with noticeable blues and jazz rhythmic and harmonic influences” (Oxford Bibliographies). Throughout the piece, you hear Charles Mingus shouting in response to the music and encouraging the band members as he keeps up a steady driving rhythm on his bass—“Oh, yeah!” “Hallelujah!” “Oh yes, Lord, I know!” At times his voice supplements the rhythm; sometimes he sounds like he’s speaking in tongues, filled with rapturous joy.
So much for “The Angry Man of Jazz.”
“Better Git It in Your Soul” opens with Mingus bending those big fat strings with his powerful fingers and emphasizing the blue notes, soon to be joined by Horace Parlan playing abbreviated piano runs, Knepper’s equally brief riffs on trombone and Dannie Richmond’s subtle brushes on the cymbals. This rather disarming intro paves the way for the horns to join in and introduce the memorable melody of the main theme. After establishing the theme, each of the soloists gets one or two shots under the spotlight, supported by intense rhythmic support from horns and piano that reminds me of the sound of buzzing bees working their teeny little asses off (Santoro called the rhythms a “syncopated avalanche,” and that works, too). Two solos stand out—John Handy’s marvelous alto sax solo that begins with abbreviated lines over contra-rhythmic handclapping from the boys in the band before he shifts into flight mode with the full band urging him on; and Dannie Richmond’s tour de force drum solo, where he mixes assertiveness with some nice work on the high and medium toms while keeping perfect time with the blazing rhythm. “Better Git in Your Soul” ends with a final nod to gospel, with the band easing up on the IV chord before collapsing in spent ecstasy on the root—a fabulous ending to a fabulous opening track.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a tribute to the then recently-departed Lester Young, one of the greatest and most influential tenor saxophonists in jazz history. Mingus was playing at the Half Note with the Workshop when it was announced that Young had passed and the group appropriately shifted to a slow blues number in response. Through additional live performances and some compositional tinkering by Mingus, that in-the-moment reaction to the tragic news morphed into “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” one of Mingus’ most famous compositions.
With its glacial tempo and elongated notes in the main theme, the piece carries the tone of a funeral march, somewhat like the second movement of Beethoven’s Third (“Eroica“) but with a more explicit rhythm—the rhythm of the pallbearers carrying the casket. The chording for the song deepens the funereal mood, but as noted above, John Handy had been struggling with the question, “How do I play a solo when I don’t know the fucking chords?” Jimmy Knepper graciously stepped in and gave him a few pointers:
So John Handy didn’t know the chords for “Pork Pie Hat”; he didn’t know about the flatted 10ths, I call ’em, beautiful chords. The song sounds like it’s in a minor key, but it’s not. But the effect of those chords was that you couldn’t play a scale; you had to play blue notes. So John just played the blues, pretty much.
Gene Santoro. Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus (Kindle Locations 2149-2151). Kindle Edition.
Flatted 10th chords are somewhat rare, but the execution is simple: the third note in the chord is flatted and emphasized over the root, then repeated in the higher octave to intensify the dissonance. Nearly all the chords in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” feature dissonance in the form of blue notes, so credit Handy for finally connecting with Occam’s Razor and delivering a first-rate tenor sax solo that reflects Lester Young’s smooth, bluesy style. The song has been respectfully covered by many artists, some with lyrics, most without, but it’s unlikely that the emotional impact of the Mingus original will ever be surpassed.
Now that we’ve paid our respects, it’s time to boogie at a roaring speed of 230-240 bpm. “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is a minor blues (with a few variations) mingling shuffle and stop time cued by Mingus on the bass. Despite its less daring structure, the song gives off an aura of excitement, suspense and uncertainty, and would have made for a thrilling opener to a French New Wave crime film. I love the way the two tenor saxes (Booker Ervin and Shafi Hadi) bend the blue notes over Willie Dennis’ trombone at the end of a segment—sometimes it comes across as laughter (but not the laughter of a vocalized trumpet); other times it sounds like the musical equivalent of vertigo; sometimes it sounds like they’ve entered a warp in the space-time continuum. Mingus drives the song with his typically strong bass runs, but I would have liked his part to have more volume in the mix.
“Self-Portrait in Three Colors” takes us way, way down to 61 bpm for the sinuous stylings of the Ervin-Hadi-Dennis horn trio, backed by gentle rhythmic support from Parlan, Mingus and Richmond. The feel of the piece is closing time at the bar with the bartender wiping glasses to the light chatter of a couple of regulars savoring their farewell shots while a probably unmarried couple play kissy-face in one of the booths with cigarettes burning in the ashtray. The panning on this track is marvelous—the saxes play the melody in unison for the first minute or so, one in the upper left, the other in the upper right of the soundscape; when Willie Dennis arrives to provide a lower-register counterpoint melody, his trombone is placed in the lower right of the spectrum while the saxes continue to play the main melody in unison. In the third segment, the right-hand sax slides to the center, delivering the main melody with minor variations while the left-hand sax stays in place to add a second counterpoint melody that contrasts nicely with the trombone. The piece ends like a gymnast sticking it, with all three horns playing the closing phrase in unison. “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” hasn’t earned the attention of some of the more famous tracks, but it certainly demonstrates that Mingus could pull off subtlety when his creative spirit took him there.
The ellipses in the earlier quote “his earliest influences came from the church—group and choir singing . . . ” served as a temporary substitute for “and from hearing Duke Ellington over the radio when [he] was eight years old.” Santoro says he was twelve, but whatever—the salient point is that Mingus idolized the Duke, and as a young man deeply curious about music composition, he couldn’t have selected a better role model than Ellington.
There was a downside to that idolization: his “loyalty” to the Duke led him to immediately dismiss those who wanted to take jazz in different directions. When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were shaking up the world of jazz in early 40s New York, Mingus was in Los Angeles still working on his chops. With the musician’s strike of 1942-1944 severely limiting recordings and the radio networks still hooked on big band swing, bebop was little more than a rumor as far as the west coast was concerned. When Bird and Dizzy finally made it to Hollywood, Charles Mingus was not impressed:
For eight weeks, Dizzy Gillespie headed an all-star, racially integrated bebop lineup featuring Bird that intended to plant bebop’s flag in California. They wanted to wow the non-New Yorkers with the new sound’s intellectual firepower power and emotional rollercoaster ride, but Mingus found it chaotic and unlovely. He told everyone that Buddy Collette was a better player than Bird. He was more lyrical, and his tone recalled Ellington’s favorite alto saxist, Johnny Hodges.
Gene Santoro. Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus (Kindle Locations 904-907). Kindle Edition.
It wasn’t until six years later when his second wife Celia convinced him to listen to Bird that he finally got it. “He now recognized Parker’s thrilling virtuosity. He was starting to separate Bird from his imitators, and he was connecting bebop’s language with Tatum and Stravinsky and even, via Debussy and Ravel, to Duke Ellington.” (Santoro). We can forgive Mingus for his boyish fealty to the Duke as he was in his early twenties when he first heard bebop and still trying to define himself and his music. What I find interesting is that the teacher was much more flexible than the student—Ellington remained a major figure in jazz for decades because he refused to limit himself to a specific style or sub-genre and remained open to new forms of musical expression.
What’s fascinating about “Open Letter to Duke” is that it’s a reverse-developmental narrative. The first section of the suite is pure bebop, with Booker Ervin and Shafi Hadi blowing their horns with suitable chromaticism while Mingus shows us that his fingers are as nimble as they are strong with cascading runs on the big instrument. Dannie Richmond plays a key role in the arrangement, driving the frantic beat of the first section and cueing the upcoming rhythmic change with a sweet drum solo. After a few closing measures of bebop, Mingus signals a rhythmic shift with slow single notes on the bass while the saxes take a dissonant path down the scale, leaving it up to Dannie to officially introduce the second section with restrained thunder on the toms and cymbals. The second segment is definitely more Ellingtonian, and though the Workshop is a bit short of personnel to accurately duplicate the Ellington big band sound, they do a pretty good job with the layered horns, adding Willie Dennis’ trombone to the mix to create the sense of drama you hear in many of the Duke’s compositions. The third segment involves a shift to Latin rhythms, which may seem out of place if you’re only familiar with the Duke’s big hits, but Brittany Proctor marked this passage as proof of Ellington’s embrace of musical evolution: “A piano solo that leads into woodwinds, marks flight and movement, while Mingus’s bass play resembles Ellington’s use of Afro-Latinx rhythm’s later in his career; an ‘ethnic’ turn (‘Spanish tinge’) in Ellington’s big band sound and an allusion to the diasporic connection between black music in the U.S. and the Caribbean.” She goes on to note that “the sum of the track is greater than its parts,” and I agree—the piece demonstrates that Mingus not only admired the Duke but that he fully grasped the depth of the man’s compositional talents.
While the connection to Charlie Parker was refuted by Mingus himself, contemporary critics mistakenly referred to “Bird Calls” as a tribute song and it appears that a few people out there still believe it . . . probably the same people who believe Trump won the election. What Mingus was trying to create in “Bird Calls” was the sound of . . . birds. The birds in the opening segment are kind of creepy, though, reminding me of the terror scenes in the Hitchcock film. I think the horns do a better job mimicking the gentler sound of birds tweeting in the nest at the very end of the track, but I have to confess this is not one of my favorite Mingus efforts.
By contrast, “Fables of Faubus,” a mocking “tribute” to the racist asshole governor of Arkansas who used the Arkansas National Guard to stop African Americans from attending Little Rock Central High School in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education, is definitely a favorite. I do have mixed feelings about whether the folks at Columbia did the right thing in forcing Mingus to remove the lyrics, sung and shouted by Mingus with Dannie Richmond playing second fiddle in the call-and-response format:
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie.
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools.
Then he’s a fool! Boo!
Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists! (sic)
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)
Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond.
Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate.
The first thing we have to remember is that this was 1959 and the civil rights movement was still in its infancy. In Columbia’s defense, there’s no way in hell they could have allowed Mingus to insult the universally admired sitting president and revered war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. I’m not sure what his beef was with “Rockefeller” unless he’s referring to Winthrop (who accepted a position in the Faubus administration but had nothing to do with civil rights) and not Nelson (who implemented several pro-civil rights initiatives in his first term as governor). If you eliminate that verse, there isn’t anything here that would be censored in our time (and the first verse is certainly relevant today), but in 1959 there were few white people in positions of power willing to risk their careers in support of anti-racism. That was simply an ugly reality Mingus had to deal with his entire life as a mixed-race man of color, and I deeply admire his decision to go around the system and release the version with lyrics on an independent label in 1960.
My mixed feelings about lyrical inclusion are entirely musical in nature—I love the instrumental version with its “clunky Vaudeville intro and an oily B section” (Santoro). The dominant theme sounds like it could easily fit into a soundtrack where the bumbling goof enters the scene—Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther or Otis the town drunk on The Andy Griffith Show—or Orval Faubus at the schoolhouse door. John Handy and Booker Ervin complement each other’s lines beautifully on tenor sax while Jimmy Knepper’s trombone slides accentuate the image of buffoonery. Mingus gets a nice, lengthy and suitably loud bass solo on this piece that feels like it was a deeply satisfying moment for him. Though Mingus certainly felt a sense of outrage in response to Faubus’ racist grandstanding, he put those feelings aside and took the more effective path of ridiculing the idiot.
Again, so much for The Angry Man of Jazz.
“Pussy Cat Dues” is also cinematic, with its bluesy feel making it an excellent choice for a light noir film with some snappy humor and several scenes that begin with, “Let me fix you a drink.” As the longest piece on the album, it gives pretty much everyone in the Workshop a chance to shine but my favorite passages include the fresh and sexy sound of John Handy on clarinet and the segment right after a Mingus bass solo where the bandleader engages in dialogue with the saxophones. In addition to its cinematic qualities, the song ends with a New Orleans-style flourish, making it the perfect segue to “Jelly Roll.”
The closing track is a tribute to one of the earliest and most influential jazz composers and the man whose piano stylings opened the door to stride and boogie-woogie, Jelly Roll Morton. Mingus came up with a very clever way to link Jelly Roll’s ragtime/early jazz contributions to the post-bop environment of the then-present day: “Mingus used horn voicings that, in their post-bop atonality, sounded like twelve-tone Ellington, yet evoked the antique sweet-and-sour and-sour Crescent City ensembles. He had each soloist do an old-style solo followed lowed by a modern one” (Santoro). While that sounds like a terrible idea on the surface, Mingus and the boys pulled it off. You hear the connection between old and new most noticeably in John Handy’s alto sax solo, where Handy’s stylistic change is supported by a rhythmic change, both executed with grace and precision. The tempo of the piece is noticeably unhurried, reflecting the slower piano style Morton adopted because he couldn’t compete with his peers when it came to speed. In this context, the tempo allows the listener to savor the virtuoso performances from Mingus and the Workshop while making it easier to appreciate the continuity of jazz development. Technical aspects aside, “Jelly Roll” is a fun and insightful peek into jazz history, and it sure sounds like Mingus and his mates are having a helluva good time.
One more time—so much for The Angry Man of Jazz.
One final note on the recording—to make the music sound closer to the music in his head and strengthen its compositional integrity, Mingus spent a lot of time in post-production. “Mingus took the album tapes and spliced solos in and cut them, juxtaposing and moving sections. Onstage, jazz was in the moment. A record was played over and over, for all time. It had to be the right representation of his music.” (Santoro). All I can say is Mingus was one hell of a splicer—I haven’t been able to find any evidence of clumsy editing.
I’ve read some comments here and there about how unusual it was for a bass player to compose music. Such perception is downright silly for two reasons: one, bass is a foundational instrument in jazz (as well as its derivative genres); and two, Mingus had more than sufficient knowledge and experience at the piano to enable him to sketch out his compositional ideas. His last wife Sue told NPR, “He spent hours at the piano. It was where he found the center of his being.”
The quote doesn’t end there. Sue went on to concisely and insightfully enlighten the listening audience about the essence of the man, unwittingly correcting the Angry Man myth:
He was a very sensitive artist in a society that did not accept who he was, either as an artist or a musician or as a man with the skin color that wasn’t approved. And he fought back.
Mingus may not have always chosen the most effective way to express his justifiable anger, but given the depth, breadth and sheer excellence you can find in the Mingus catalog, we can all be very grateful that he fought back.