Four by Mingus

By Brian L. Knight

The late 1950-early 1960s were a prolific time for bassist/composer/pianist/poet/actor Charles Mingus. In the decade following his move from California to New York City in the early 1950s, Mingus produced some of his most exciting work for both Atlantic and Columbia Records. In 1957 and 1961, he recorded The Clown and Oh Yeah for Atlantic Records. Sandwiched between these two Atlantic releases were Columbia’s Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Ah Um. All four of these albums were Mingus’ crowning achievements for they displayed amazing compositional merit and diverse playing styles such as blues, gospel, be-bop and early glimpses of the avant-garde. In celebration of the beatnik composer, Columbia/Legacy re-released the original tapes from the 1959 sessions and Atlantic/Rhino have re-released The Clown and Oh Yeah. Both labels’ sets feature the full-length versions of the originally abridged tunes and never released alternates and outtakes.

For these albums, Mingus drew his players from an active pool of Booker Ervin (tenor sax), John Handy (alto sax), Jimmy Knepper (trombone), Horace Parlan (piano) and Dannie Richmond (drums). Players such as Shafi Hadi (alto sax), Curtis Porter (saxophone), Wade Legge (piano), Willie Dennis (trombone), Richard Williams (trumpet), Roland Hanna (piano), Don Ellis (trumpet), Teddy Charles (vibes), Jerome Richardson (baritone sax) and Benny Golson (tenor sax) also appeared for the various sessions. The Clown featured Mingus with a quintet and for the majority of Mingus Dynasty, Mingus employed a tentet. Mingus Ah Um featured seven players and Oh Yeah was a sextet. Oh Yeah stands out for it signified the first time that Mingus played strictly the piano throughout the sessions.

In a manner similar to Sun Ra, Mingus prefer to use younger, inexperienced musicians. Mingus demanded discipline in his ensembles and refused to work with any egos or "hot dogs". Like Sun Ra, Mingus was not afraid to publicly humiliate his musicians as a form of punishment. Both Sun Ra and Mingus would either make a musician play on stage alone or either takes their solos away as a form of discipline. In addition, Mingus and Sun Ra were not scared to tell the public that the individual was being punished.

An exception to this rule of employing younger musicians was Mingus’ use of the talented mult-instrumentalist Roland Kirk on Oh Yeah. Kirk’s amazing solos can be found all over Oh Yeah through a wide variety of instruments such as the saxophone, flute strich, manzello and siren. Roland Kirk was much more than the novelty act of blind man playing three instruments at once and this album is the testament to that fact. The Clown was the first album to feature Dannie Richmond who would continue playing with Mingus right up til his death. Richmond carried on the tradition of Mingus’ music after his death with the Mingus Big Band, which played all the works of Mingus with the same fervent energy.

Charles Mingus loved using these medium sized ensembles in which he was able to create a be-bop/blues sound with a traditionally larger cast than what was dominating the era. Mingus was tired off the prevailing bebop sound when all the instruments played in unison and solos were passed along melodic lines. He felt that every musician was an essential component to the overall sound and that no two instruments should share a note. It was this musical philosophy that gives Mingus the status as being an early influence on the avant-garde jazz sound.

The persevering track from these albums was Mingus’ original composition "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" which appears on Mingus Ah Um. This tune, which was a tribute to the chapeau of the recently deceased Lester Young, was a standard 12-Bar blues that Mingus elaborates extensively upon. Over the years, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" has been performed by rock guitarist Jeff Beck, Windham Hill guitarist Alex DeGrassi, bassist extraordinaire Stanley Clarke, free-jazzer Anthony Braxton and new comers Dead Cat Bounce. The most notable version was folk singer/guitarist Joni Mitchell’s, which was included on her 1979 album Mingus. This album was a collaboration between Mingus and Mitchell in which the folk singer put words to the complicated music of Mingus. Great jazz luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and Peter Erskine accompanied Mitchell for this unique recording session. Unfortunately Mingus, whose words are cast throughout the album, died before he was able to enjoy the final product.

Two other great examples of Mingus’ original output were "Fables of Faubus" which was about the Arkansas governor Orval Faubus who tried to segregate Little Rock’s schools in 1959. Taking an ardent political stance was a Mingus characteristic. In subsequent albums, Mingus would display his political passion with titles such as "Once Upon A Time There Was A Holding Corporation Called America", "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" and "Prayer for Passive Resistance". On Oh Yeah, the political stance (with a slight religious angle) continued with "Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb On Me". On the same album, Mingus continues with his religious ways with the tune "Ecclusiastics."

Another tune, "Better Git It In Your Soul", reflects Mingus’ diversity of his music as it possesses elements of American gospel through shouting and hand clapping as well as elements of blues and bebop. The hand clapping and hollering, which captured early American blues styles, was also used on Mingus Oh Yeah’s "Hog Callin’ Blues". The basic musical theme of "Better Git It In Your Soul" would appear in other songs such as "Slop" (from Mingus Dynasty) and The Clown’s "Haitian Fight Song". The latter was dedicated to Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian slave who led the revolt against the Spanish in 1791. It was one of Mingus’ attributes to recycle musical themes like this. The tune "Alice’s Wonderland" (from a later session) combines elements of both "Diane"(from Mingus Dynasty) and "Self Portrait in Three Colors" (Mingus Ah Um).

In particular, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty are full of tributes to Mingus’ influences and contemporaries. Besides the nod to Lester young in "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", Mingus pays tribute to his old bandleader, Charlie Parker, with "Bird Calls"(Mingus Ah Um), "Reincarnation of a Lovebird"(The Clown) and "Gunslinging Bird"(Mingus Dynasty). "Gunslinging Bird" also displayed Mingus’ inherent sense of humor, as the original name of the tune was "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats". His humorous approach can also be found on Oh Yeah with "Eat That Chicken" which in honor to the great Fats Waller. In both cases, there is obvious humor associated with the song titles, but even more so; the songs are light compositions that are not bogged down with dense and dark themes. Mingus also paid tribute to Duke Ellington with the original "Open Letter To Duke"(Mingus Ah Um) as well as a cover of the classic "Mood Indigo"(Mingus Dynasty) and a version of Mercer Ellington’s (Duke’s son) "Things Ain’t What It Used To Be"(Mingus Dynasty). "Jelly Roll" was a boogie-woogie tribute to the great Jelly Roll Morton on Mingus Ah Um.

Although considered a jazz wizard, Mingus did not think that his music was bound to any one definition. In addition to transcending many instrumental styles, Mingus maintained diversity through use of vocals. As aforementioned, he incorporated field hollers in many of his tunes. In addition, he sung straightforward tunes. In addition to his premier as solely a piano player, Mingus shows his vocal talent on Oh Yeah with the raspy blues of "Devil Woman" and the gospel-blues number "Ecclusiastics". On "Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am"(I wonder if David Bowie credits Mingus with the use of the phrase on his tune Suffragette City), Mingus’ shouts of enthusiasm, approval and encouragement throughout the tune. A few tracks later Mingus combines voodoo like chants with an avant-garde cacophonous instrumental backdrop for "Passions of a Man". The title track to The Clown features the guest improvised lyrics of Beth Shepherd. The presence of Shepherd was an indication of Mingus’ association with the New York beatniks. Like a character out of a Jack Kerouac novel, Mingus lived in a loft in Soho, drank carrot juice, loved fine wines and hung out with all the New York City poets. Shepherd’s improvised lyrics to "The Clown", which were in the same vein of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, was an example of beat poetry when poets would recite their works with background music.

Charles Mingus’ involvement with music crossed many lines. In 1943, he created the Jazz Composers Workshop, which he continued with til his death (The Clown was an "official" Jazz Workshop release). On many instances, a Mingus concert was nothing more than an open rehearsal in which musical ideas were publicly worked through and the audience were allowed to provide input. This loose musical organization focussed on the relationship between improvisation and composition. Mingus felt that the two were interrelated and were to be pursued simultaneously. Musicians needed to compose music on the stage but at the same time, a formalized structure was necessary to create music. He also felt that music needed moments of composition strewn amidst improvisation in order to provide the listener moments of stability and familiarity.

Charles Mingus was also involved with creating music for theater. Two of the tunes from Mingus Ah Um were slated for John Cassavetes’ directorial debut movie Shadows. The movie, which was one of earliest movies to depict a bi-racial relationship, featured the Mingus compositions "Strollin’" and "Self Portrait in 3 Colors". "Strollin" made it to the soundtrack while the latter had to be deleted due to Cassavetes miniscule budget of $40,000. The tune was eventually incorporated into his song "Diane" which was dedicated to longtime friend Dianne Dorr-Dorynek. Cassavetes’ approach to Shadows was similar to Mingus’ approach to music – a fine blend of script/composition and improvisation.

In the liner notes for Mingus Ah Um, Diane Dorr-Dorynek discussed the relationship between Cassavetes’ directing technique and Mingus’ compositional approach: "The script formed the skeleton around which the actors might change or ad lib lines according to their response to the situation at the moment, so that each performance was slightly different. A jazz musician works in this way, using a given musical skeleton and creating out of it, building a musical whole related to a particular moment by listening to and interacting with his fellow musicians. Jazz musicians working with actors could conceivably provide audiences with some of the most moving and alive theater they have ever experienced."

In addition to Shadows, Mingus also wrote music for three works by playwright Leo Pogostin, the ballet "Frankie and Johnny" and the CBS television play "A Song with an Orange in It". "Put Me In That Dungeon" and "Slop", which can be found on Mingus Dynasty, were composed for "Frankie and Johnny" while "Song with Orange" cane be heard on the television play. Mingus would also act in a psychedelic avant-garde movie, The Indiangivers, during the Summer of 1967. To give an idea of what was going on during this filming, two words only need to be mentioned: "Timothy Leary."

Mingus was never known for keeping his thoughts to himself and he was very vocal about his views and passions. In a letter to Down Beat Magazine in 1955, Mingus retorted Miles Davis’ statements about Mingus and his music. Miles Davis had participated in one of Down Beat’s Blindfold Tests in which he listened to tracks of new music and provided comments. Apparently, Davis' comments sparked some controversy and prompted Mingus to answer to Miles’ statements. During the process, Mingus also disclosed a little about himself: "Just because I'm playing jazz I don't forget about me. I play or write me the way I feel through jazz, or whatever. Music is, or was, a language of the emotions. If someone has been escaping reality, I don't expect him to dig my music, and I would begin to worry about my writing if such a person began to really like it. My music is alive and it's about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It's angry yet it's real because it knows it's angry."

Anger was another attribute associated with Charles Mingus. In addition to his ability to display music through his music, Mingus was also known for his off-stage temper (He was the only person ever to get fired from Duke Ellington’ band). One moment, he was well mannered and humorous, but at the next moment, he would ignite with fury. Just as Mingus covered all levels of the passionate scale, his music was a reflection of his personality. When listening to the music on these Rhino/Atlantic and Columbia/Legacy re-issues; Mingus’ music will guide you through many moods and feelings, with none of them lacking the evidence of Mingus’ passion.