Charles Mingus

TrackAlbum
Pithecanthropus ErectusPithecanthropus Erectus
Scenes In The CityA Modern Jazz Symposium
of Music and Poetry
Boogie Stop ShuffleMingus Ah Um
Gunslinging BirdMingus Dynasty
Hog Callin' BluesOh Yeah
Solo DancerThe Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
II B.S.Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus
Adagio Ma Non TroppoLet My Children Hear Music
CanonMingus Moves
Cumbia & Jazz FusionCumbia & Jazz Fusion

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Charles Mingus once said that his music is evidence of his soul’s will to live. That’s only something a true musical genius could say without sounding ridiculously pretentious or just plain silly. Charles Mingus was not either of those, Mingus was the real thing. Mingus brought the goods every time, every single time.

Mingus was taught the double bass by Red Callender, and then by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s Herman Reinshagen. His immersion in classical music along with training in Jazz, Blues and Gospel made his music distinctive. It bristled with energy, full of tempo changes that had rarely been heard before he came along and he trusted his musicians to assert themselves in a sort of collective approach to improvisation.

Had he just been a player he’d have cemented his place in jazz. As a composer he went to the upper echelon of jazz. Mingus was one of the few bass players who thought to marry the time keeping aspect of the bass to the bebop mentality of the 1940s. Harmonic sophistication and sheer power rarely go hand in hand in jazz, with Mingus they did. He was special. He was unique.

Very early on in his career he formed a Composers Workshop with Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He did so, I suspect, as he saw so much potential in where his music could go. He left an amazing discography. Very few jazz musician’s catalogs can be mentioned in the same breath.

Mingus stared recording in the mid-40s, and some of his earliest work features the complexity of Charles Mingus without perhaps the art. By the mid-50s it was fairly obvious something special was starting to happen in his music. Then, after a 1955 recording with my all-time favorite jazz musician Max Roach, he was poised to release a string of great albums, and a couple of out and out masterpieces.

“The Penguin Guide To Jazz”, a must have for hardcore jazz fans, called Pithecanthropus Erectus one of the great modern jazz albums. “Absolutely crucial to the development of free collective improvisation.” Mingus called the title song a ten-minute tone poem depicting the rise and fall of man due to his own greed in attempting to stand on false security. I knew I was listening to something special when the horns starting bursting in with short, then longer, sequels of anger at the thee minute mark. And then, there is this pause around the nine minute mark, pure silence, yet it’s part of the composition. Silence as music. And then at the ten minute mark the chaos begins. And then winds down into nothingness. I’d say it was here he stopped being a jazz musician and started being something very special.

1957 saw an insane burst of creativity with five albums. There were so many compositions from this year I could pick, but for me – at least today – I’m enjoying Scenes In The City from A Modern Jazz Symposium Of Music and Poetry. Mingus had been playing with narration in his songs for a bit at this point. Jean Shepherd’s narration to The Clown was amazing, but the music wasn’t as good compared to other tunes. In Scenes In The City, actor Melvin Stewart narrated the song, talking about why he loved jazz, as written by Lonne Elder and Langston Hughes. The marriage of spoken word and music works so well here. There is a section where Stewart talks about his favorite musicians and the music moves along with him describing each one. It’s wonderful, not hokey like it could have easily been, but gratifying and beautiful.

Mingus Ah Um from 1959 is a brilliant album, and while I don’t like throwing around the word it is a masterpiece and work of genius. There are four or five compositions on this album that probably make different people’s top ten Mingus songs, and justifiably so. And as much as I love Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and Fables of Faubus Id have to say Boogie Stop Shuffle is my favorite. It’s an exercise in bass playing. A twelve bar blues piece with a boogie bass that passes back and forth between stop time and shuffle. For non musicians, a boogie is a repetitive swing rhythm. Stop time means interrupting or stopping in normal times and punctuating the piece with attacks on the first beat of every measure, often with just silence. It creates the allusion that tempo has changed even though it hasn’t. To move back and forth between that and swing with a bass taking the lead is just mind blowing amazing to a guy who on his best days barely held his own in a bar band doing Stones covers on his four string.

Gunslinging Bird from Mingus Dynasty sounds angry to me. Like a big city at night angry, full of so much noise and grit you really don’t want to know about. It’s driving and it draws you in, while being unnerving at the same time. Originally titled “If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole lot Of Dead Copycats.” It’s fantastic, and the kind of jazz composition that makes pop fans run away in fear and say they can’t stand jazz. That makes it even better.

I love 1962’s Hog Callin’ Blues from the Oh Yeah album as much for the composition as it represents such a unique little moment in Mingus’ career. On this album he switches to piano and sings on half of the songs. Can you imagine a big name jazz star today doing an album where he plays a completely different instrument. Mingus wasn’t just a bass player, he was the greatest musician of the twentieth century who chose the bass as his primary instrument. In a way the album, and specifically this song, in which he had Doug Watkins play bass for his compositions prove that.

I suppose I could cheat a little here and include the entire 1962 The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady as a song. It is a single continuous composition, somewhat a ballet, divided into four tracks and six movements. Solo Dancer is my favorite though. You can feel the sultry summer heat of New York in the piece – it’s noir, The world needs to be black and white when you listen to this, you need to be walking down a mean street, and you need to be carrying a rod. Plus he had his therapist write some of the liner notes. The album ranks with Ah Um as one of his two masterpieces.

II B.S. from Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus is really a variation of Haitian Fight Song that he recorded seven years before. But at five minutes instead of twelve this “remake” seems more ferocious. The bass intro by Mingus is just about power and the drive of the next four and a half minutes supersedes anything in the original. A friend of mine whose is a huge Les Claypool fan says he hears the seeds of Primus in this song and thinks Mingus was the first punk rocker. I don’t know about that, but this is an intense piece.

It’s been repeated enough that it is seemingly accepted as fact that emotional and health issues made Mingus’ output in the seventies pale in comparison to his work from the fifties and sixties.

Adagio Ma Non Troppo from 1972’s Let My Children Hear Music is proof that isn’t even close to being true. A song, actually an album, truly showcasing Mingus the composer, the piece is played by a large jazz orchestra. Mingus worked with several arrangers and conductors for the album. The relationship he formed musically with Sy Johnson produced some amazing works. Mingus described it at the time as the best album he had ever made. It wasn’t, but the movement from Small Band Leader and Composer to a Composer for an Orchestra was seamless and somehow as it should have been.

Canon from 1973’s Mingus Moves has a warmth you usually don’t associate with Mingus. Probably due to the addition of pianist Don Pullen and tenor sax man George Adams to Mingus’ group on the album. It’s an odd one for me to like, as I always loved Mingus’ angry driving work. This is more of a spiritual meditation which I’ve heard compared to Coltrane. I’m not sure about that but it is clearly a bit of a change-up in late career.

Another late piece I really enjoy is Cumbia & Jazz Fusion from the album of the same name in 1977. The longest composition on my list at over twenty eight minutes, it was written for the Italian film Todo Modo but stands alone in its own right. Much like Adagio Ma Non Troppo it is performed by a large group, although not a full orchestra but a fifteen piece jazz group. Mingus by this point was truly the composer he probably was meant to be. I don’t for a minute mean to suggest that I’d want to forego all those amazing small group albums from the fifties and sixties but the man thought bigger than four or five instruments and five to ten minute compositions

After his death, the piece known as Epitaph was found, although he had recorded a small portion of it in 1962. The composition is 4,235 measures long and requires over two hours and a 30 piece orchestra to perform. And while I have a live version of it, I would have loved to have heard him lead the work when he was prepared to unveil it.

Charles Mingus, composer. Any other description short changes the man’s legacy.

The official Charles Mingus site

Charles Mingus biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #202

7 Comments

  1. John Chamberlain
    Feb 19, 2014

    Much enjoyed this selection. By chance I took out a Mingus CD from the library last week. Blues and Roots. The original tapes which were discovered produced some alternate takes which appear on this album.

  2. Peter Viney
    Feb 19, 2014

    I hadn’t knowingly heard any Mingus until Joni Mitchell put out the “Mingus” album in 1979. It was probably a poor career move, in that it confounded fans and critics alike, as she put words and vocals to Charles Mingus, and wrote a couple in the style. The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines was the most accessible. Eddie Gomez and Stanley Clarke had the unenviable task of playing bass on Charles Mingus compositions. Joni has always had incredible bass playing on her records, so writes with bass in mind, but “Mingus” was a shock to anyone expecting more of Chelsea Morning. Anyway, the one I went and bought first was the same as John: Blues & Roots. Then Black Saint & The Sinner Lady. Phew! Yes, Solo Dancer!

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Feb 19, 2014

      Coincidence or not, after 7-8 consecutive gold records in the US Mingus was the first Joni album since her debut to not reach gold. And she never had another one after that.

  3. Bert Wright
    Feb 19, 2014

    I was delighted see your Mingus selection featured one of my favourite jazz albums Mingus Ah Um and in particular, Boogie Stop Shuffle a piece very close to my heart. Years ago when incarcerated in an insurance office, me and two mad pals used to drive the girls nuts with our three-part rendition of this tune (we were all mad Mingus fans). Two of us would sing the boogie-woogie part and the other would drop in the saxophone wails. I’m playing it now and boy does it take me back. Ah Um is an all-time classic and Mingus was indeed a genius. You know the story of him punching Jimmy Knepper’s lights out during a session? Guess it showed he cared!

  4. Keith Shackleton
    Feb 19, 2014

    This is great stuff, Calvin, thanks for writing it. I only have Mingus Ah Um amongst a very small jazz collection, so I’ll be catching up using your list.

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Feb 19, 2014

      You can’t go wrong with black saint and the sinner lady as your 2cd Mingus album.

  5. Keith Shackleton
    Feb 22, 2014

    Roland Kirk on Hog Callin’ Blues! Awesome.

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