Mingus magnificus Ah Um

A unique and brave musician

“This is the uniqueness of this man: he jolts with the unexpected and the new. He has something to say and he will use every resource to interpret his messages.” – Dr Edmund Pollock, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist. (From the liner notes to the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady , 1963)

I wonder how many other jazz musicians would have invited their therapists to write liner notes for their albums? Charles Mingus was a unique and brave jazz musician, and the tribute to his qualities by his therapist is both fitting and insightful.

Few jazz musicians could have achieved what Mingus did in terms of taking jazz into a totally new space while maintaining strong, clear roots in the history (and stories) of both the music itself and the people who played it.

Two Charles Mingus albums reach their 50th anniversary this year, both recorded by Teo Macero at the 30th Street Studios of Columbia Records, the same studios which produced Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out in the same year. Macero was clearly a busy man! And a very perceptive, sensitive one also, to have recognised and promoted such diverse talents, each of whom could make significant contributions to the richness of jazz, the power of its sound, and its huge emotional content and appeal.

In this regard the two Mingus albums stand as significant and beautiful manifestations: they are rooted in the history and story, yet are individual responses to that history and story, as Dr Pollock wrote, “Mr Mingus has never given up. From every experience such as a conviction for assault or an an inmate of a Bellevue (a New York psychiatric institution) locked ward, Mr Mingus has learned something and has stated it will not happen again to him.”

Listening to Mingus is to experience a person with an intense, almost terrifying, self-awareness and a furious determination to share, through his music, the pain, the anger, the joy and elation of this condition we call being human.

To quote Dr Pollock again, this time writing of the three tracks of side B of the original vinyl LP release of Black Saint , though the words could equally be applied to almost any music Mingus wrote or played: “…repeating and integrating harmony and disharmony, peace and disquiet, and love and hate… one is left with a feeling of hope and even a promise of future joy.”

Mingus was a restless searcher for media, styles, forms of music that would be adequate to convey his urgent emotions about and understanding of life. So he listened with “big ears” to the jazz “old-timers” and the new players bringing their own insights and styles to the music, to the old classical composers and the avant garde , always searching for sounds that would express himself, help him to say what he felt he had to say.

As Dr Pollock wrote, with considerable understatement: “Inarticulate in words, he is gifted in musical expression which he constantly uses to articulate what he perceives, knows and feels.”

Mingus Ah Um

The first of the two 1959 albums is often regarded as Mingus’s greatest: Mingus Ah Um.

The personnel on the album is made up of great musicians, all individualists with their own styles and personalities, who come together brilliantly to blow their hearts out for Mingus. On tenor sax Booker Ervin makes a weighty and soulful contribution. John Handy plays alto, clarinet and tenor on various tracks, the clarinet most notably on “Pussy Cat Blues” which he said was the only time he had played clarinet on a recording. The third tenor seat is held down by Shafi Hafdi, who doubles on alto on some of the tracks. Two trombones complete the horn line-up: Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis. The rhythm section consists of, besides the leader, Horace Parlan on piano and long-serving Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

Each of these players is noteworthy in their own rights and play significant roles both as soloists and in ensemble work on the album. Besides Mingus, only Parlan, Richmond and Ervin play on all the tracks, the other tracks having different combinations.

Track 1: Better Git It in Your Soul

This album opens with the bluesy, gospelly “Better Git It in Your Soul” which is suffused with the sounds and rhythms that Mingus grew up with in the Holiness Church he attended with his step mother in Watts – it is a foot-stomping, shouting and moaning declaration of all the “harmony and disharmony, peace and disquiet, and love and hate” that Dr Pollock wrote about.

The hand-clapping and shouts (Halleluia! Oh Yes!) add to the “Holiness” feel of the song, which never lets up in emotional intensity throughout its more than seven minutes duration. It’s a stunning and engaging performance.

Track 2: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

One of Mingus’s best-known compositions follows, his soulful, keening tribute to great tenor sax player Lester ‘Prez’ Young, who had died in March 1959, just two months before this recording date. the title was a reference to Young’s favourite headgear.

The song is a 12 bar blues and, unlike most others of Mingus’s tunes, has been covered by many musicians, including Joni Mitchell who wrote lyrics for it and included it on her Mingus album released in 1980.

Track 3: Boogie Stop Shuffle

Next up is “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, a combination of boogie and shuffle rhythms with stop time. Stop time is defined in Jazz: The Essential Companion (Carr, Fairweather and Priestley, 1988) as “a lengthy series of breaks, so that the rhythm section marks only the start of every bar (or every other bar) for a chorus or more, remaining silent between each of the stop-chords.” On the face of it boogie and shuffle rhythms would seem to be incompatible. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (Kernfeld, 1996) defines boogie as a “percussive style of piano blues” and shuffle as being a “smooth” rhythm “played legato and at a relaxed tempo.” In the hands of Mingus’s group, it makes for exciting and unusual listening, especially with its four themes and alternating backing behind the soloists.

Track 4: Self-Portrait in Three Colours

The next tune, “Self-Portrait in Three Colours”, was originally written for the John Cassavetes movie Shadows, but for budgetary reasons was not used in the film. This is a relatively unusual piece for Mingus in that it is composed throughout, with no solos or improvisations. It starts in a quiet, beautiful way, just piano and bass, but then the horns come in with some clever voicings which give the impression of collective improvisation.

Tracks 5 and 6

The next track is a rollicking tribute to Duke Ellington called “Open Letter to Duke” and the following one is an exciting tribute to Charlie Parker called “Bird Calls.” Of this latter song Mingus wrote, “It wasn’t supposed to sound like Charlie Parker. It was supposed to sound like birds – the first part.”

Track 7: Fables of Faubus

“Fables of Faubus” comes next on the programme. This is a searing, angry meditation on segregation and injustice, occasioned by the attempts of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus who attempted to prevent the integration of schooling in the state in the 1950s by sending the Arkansas National Guard to block the entry of African American students into Little Rock Central High School in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling. This piece was one Mingus returned to again and again in his career, giving voice to his strong feelings about justice and freedom.

Tracks 8 and 9

The next track, “Pussy Cat Dues” is a stunningly lovely down-tempo blues with some brilliant solo work by Handy, Knepper and Handy. Simply exquisite playing and brilliant arranging. Knepper especially stands out on this number, as he does on the next, called “Jelly Roll”.

Tracks 10, 11 and 12

The last three tracks on the 1998 re-issue are bonus tracks not found on the original LP. Indeed many of the tracks on the re-issue are released at full length for the first time as they were edited into shorter versions for the LP. The tracks are “Pedal Point Blues” which features Mingus joining Parlan on another piano, “GG Train” and the only non-Mingus composition on the album, “Girl of My Dreams.”

The rewards of open ears

This album is a great example of authentic, real music. It is definitely not “easy listening” but will reward anyone willing to really listen with some moments of transcendent beauty, deeply spiritual experience and true feeling.

Mingus gets down to the roots of the matter

The album

On 4 February 1959 bassist Charles Mingus took a group of top class jazz musicians into the Atlantic Records studio to record a “barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy” to quote his own words, and the result is the magnificent Blues and Roots, an album which gets me shouting and moaning myself whenever I listen to it (which, I have to admit, is quite often!).

From the opening moments of the first track, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, this album is just full of swinging, engaging and earthy jazz with its blues and holiness church roots exposed.

The musicians Mingus assembled for this date were each impressive in their own rights – John Handy and the inimitable Jackie McLean on altos, the soulful Booker Ervin on tenor, Pepper “The Knife” Adams on baritone, Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis on trombone, with Mingus’ favourite drummer Danny Richmond and pianists Horace Parlan and Mal Waldron (who only appears on one track) completing the rhythm section.

The tracks

“Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” starts with “preacher” Mingus setting the tone with some big bass sounds and he’s soon joined by the “congregation” getting right down to it – with some interesting interchanges between reeds and trombone before the swinging, blue-based piano of Parlan starts some preaching of his own. This becomes a wonderful rhythmic interchange between Mingus and Parlan, with Mingus shouting his encouragement behind the music. Parlan keeps a chord pattern going behind the tenor preacher and Mingus and the rest shouting their responses – I think anyone with any soul in them will join in also while listening to this track! Then Richmond gets to add his few bars worth of rhythm before the whole congregation brings it all to an end with a heartfelt “Amen!”

The next track, “Cryin’ Blues”, is noteworthy for the relatively long bass solo from the leader, who quotes from other blues, especially “Blues in the Night” before Parlan gets in on the act with a beautifully-phrased, blues-drenched solo. “Oh yeah! Going home!” Mingus shouts in the background before the whole gang get back into it to bring it all to a great ending, with Adams making it a very deep one indeed. That baritone really strikes home.

“Moanin'” features the baritone from the start. This up-tempo blues is swinging in the most enjoyable way. Many years ago drummer Mel Lewis explained how Adams got his nickname: “We called him ‘The Knife’ because when he’d get up to blow, his playing had almost a slashing effect on the rest of us. He’d slash, chop, and before he was through, cut everybody down to size.” Hearing his solo on this track, which comes after McLean’s and before Ervin’s, gives one some idea of his explosive, “cutting” playing. Mingus can be heard shouting “Yeah, I know …what I know” behind the title for Todd Jenkins and Sy Johnson’s book on Mingus: I know what I Know, published by Praeger Publishers in 2006.

Mingus starts “Tensions” before the rest of the gang put in some spirited ensemble work over the light touch of Richmond. Then come solos from the leader, McLean, Ervin and Parlan before the solos end with what Jenkins and Johnson call “a passionate drum improv” by Richmond.

“My Jelly Roll Soul” features Mingus playing “slap bass” and solos by Knepper, Parlan, McLean, Mingus and Richmond. This tune also featured on the later 1959 album “Mingus Ah Um” where it was simply called “Jelly Roll.”

Mal Waldron replaces Parlan in the final track “E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too” to play an incredibly beautiful blues solo. The track is altogether amazingly energy-filled and the players all have opportunities to make their presences felt. Its a hard-driving affair and a great tribute to the stamina and musicality of all involved.

On the CD which I have there follow alternative takes of tracks 1, 4, 5 and 6 which are interesting to listen to but I can hear why they are “alternative” tracks. The tracks issued on the original album are definitely better overall, though the alternative tracks do have some good moments.

Post-modernist tribute to New Orleans

Overall this is an album that stands well with all of Mingus’ output, though perhaps not as great as the later Mingus Ah Um or Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (this album, by the way, is rated by jazz writer Piero Scaruffi, as the number one jazz album of all time), but one which is a favourite of mine for the feel and energy of it all.

Scaruffi described the album as “a post-modernist tribute to the sound of New Orleans, an exercise in disassembling the clichés of a genre and rebuilding it from an analytic perspective (best the gospel-y Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and the bluesy Moanin’). None of the exuberance was lost, but the harmonic complexity was certainly not what the old New Orleans bands had in mind.” (From http://www.scaruffi.com/jazz/mingus.html, accessed on 5 June 2009).

The beginning of something new – a portrait in jazz

The players on the date

“The beginning of something too new to invite easy description” – that’s how jazz critic Rob Mariani recalls pianist Bill Evans’ debut at New York’s Village Vanguard in the early 1960s. He might have been describing Evans’1959 album, A Portrait in Jazz, recorded almost at the end of jazz’s most amazing year, a year which saw the recording of many albums which have become “classics” of jazz.

Evans went into a studio on 28 December 1959 under the direction of producer Orrin Keepnews, with young bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian to lay down 11 tracks of a new way for a jazz piano trio to play and sound.

Evans himself was an almost painfully shy young man of 30 who was battling some internal demons, partly the result of being the only white musician in the Miles Davis sextet, which in fact he had left to follow his own dreams just more than a year before. Earlier in 1959 Davis had hired Evans to return to the sextet just to record that other classic 1959 album Kind of Blue.

Scott LaFaro, a young musician born in Newark, New Jersey, was only 23 at the time of Portrait in Jazz,and was already making a name for himself, having played with Chet Baker, Buddy De Franco, Sonny Rollins, Harold Land and Hampton Hawes. Earlier in 1959 he also played with Thelonius Monk, and would go on in 1960 to join Ornette Coleman in the ground-breaking double quartet album Free Jazz with Charlie Haden on the other bass.

Paul Motian, then a 28-year-old drummer from Providence, Rhode Island, is a drummer of great sensitivity with a very distinctive style, who nevertheless was capable of providing superb backing to a wide range of musicians besides Evans: he played with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, with Oscar Pettiford, Lennie Tristano and Zoot Sims, and even recorded with Arlo Guthrie.

Bill Evans himself was also, like LaFaro, a New Jersey native, born in Plainfield in 1929, to a Rusyn mother and an alcoholic father of Welsh extraction. His mother was herself an amateur musician who encouraged young Bill to study the modern classical composers. I wonder to what extent Evans’ sometimes melancholic sound is the result of the influence of these two cultures on him? The
Rusyn people are an eastern Slavic ethnic group who have always been overshadowed by the other people with whom they shared living space, the Poles, the Russians and the Slovaks. The Welsh are Celts with their own history of struggling for identity. Another famous person with a Rusyn background is artist Andy Warhol (Warhola), born just a year before Evans, in Pittsburgh PA.

So it was a highly talented and individual group of musicians who went into that studio. And the music they left on the tapes was similarly individual and new. Davis, in his autobiography, said of Evans’ piano playing, “The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”

Track 1: Come Rain or Come Shine

The tracks the trio laid down in the studio that day were all standards except for two compositions by Evans, namely “Peri’s Scope” and the song attributed also to Davis, “Blue in Green”, which the Davis sextet had recorded earlier in the year on the album Kind of Blue.

The first track on the album is Harold Arlen tune “Come Rain or Come Shine”, the Johnny Mercer lyrics of which were sung so wonderfully by Billie Holiday. It was written for the show St Louis Woman and was published and recorded several times in 1946, and in the years following. In this trio’s hands it is a beautifully thoughtful ballad in which the playing of LaFaro takes the tune to new heights. The whole track feels indeed “High as a mountain and deep as a river” with delicate harmonies from both the piano and the bass, underscored by the beautiful brushwork of Motian who keeps the whole thing moving gently along.

Tracks 2 & 3: Autumn Leaves

The second (in stereo) and third (mono) tracks feature the ever-green (to coin a phrase!) “Autumn Leaves” written, originally as “Les feuilles mortes” by Joseph Kosma in 1945, to which Johnny Mercer added English lyrics in 1947. The interplay between piano and bass in the opening few bars is delicious beyond words. The trio play the song mid-tempo rather than the more usual slow pace, which helps it avoid the kind of mawkishness it sometimes achieves in certain hands. The way the three members of the trio interchange ideas all through the track is just exquisite. I am never sure who is leading whom, they all come across so strongly and with such conviction. A beautiful number indeed.

Track 4: Witchcraft

Track 4 is the Cy Coleman song taken to great heights by Frank Sinatra in 1957, “Witchcraft”. Listen out for LaFaro’s incredible solo. It’s a virtuoso performance from a young bassist just getting into his stride, and what a stride it is! In fact LaFaro pretty much dominates this track, with some really brilliant playing and thoughtful phrases that just jump out at the listener. He goes with such ease from the bottom register of his instrument to very high flights of melodic invention at the top end of the ergister without for one moment losing the momentum of the piece, in fact propelling it along at a good pace, keeping it swinging all the way. A grand example of the art of the bass.

Track 5: When I Fall In Love

The next track features Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love” made into a hit in 1952 by Doris Day, with words by Edward Heyman. The song was written for the 1952 movie One Minute to Zero, in which it featured as an instumental. It has since become a very popular standard for jazz musicians from the likes of Miles Davis to Toots Thielemans. This trio takes it very slowly and ruminatively, a seemingly deliberate contrast to the “restless world like this is” of the lyrics.

Track 6: Peri’s Scope

On the next track the trio gets back into swinging mood with Evans’ own song “Peri’s Scope.” with Evans creating a very interesting series of melodic variations in the right hand with strong comping in the left. And as high as Evans takes the melody, LaFaro is right there with him, never losing a beat or getting left behind for one second by the piano’s flights. Motian puts rhythmic emphases in exactly the right spots to keep the whole thing together.

Track 7: What Is This Thing Called Love

The next track is a song of the same vintage an Evans himself, Cole Porter’s 1929 song “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The trio make this into a wonderful up-tempo romp after a slightly quiet start which is quickly blown away by the harmonic inventiveness of Evans and LaFaro and the solid rhythm supplied by Motian. In fact, in my view, this is Motian’s track. A lovely solo by LaFaro is followed by an exciting yet solid drum solo, all too short in my view. But Motian really shines all through the track as he keeps his partners to the rhythm. An interesting note about this tune is that it has been reinterpreted many times by jazz musicians, and sometimes transformed into new pieces. For example, Tadd Dameron based his great tune “Hot House” which Charlie Parker played so wonderfully, on “What is This Thing Called Love,” and John Coltrane based his great tune “Fifth House” on “Hot House.”

Track 8: Spring is Here

The next track opens with a beautiful singing note by Evans which became the subject of a whole page of analysis by Peter Pettinger in his book on Evans, How My Heart Sings. The song in this case is the 1938 Richard Rodgers composition which Alec Wilder called “a shattering ballad”, “Spring is Here.” The song was written for a broadway musical I Married an Angel and was in fact the second song Rodgers and his partner Lorenz Hart had written with that title. The first was an upbeat song written in 1929 and quickly forgotten. In the trio’s hands this is a brilliant exposition in notes of the melancholy of the words:

“Spring is here!

Why doesn’t my heart go dancing ?

Spring is here!

Why isn’t the waltz entrancing?”

The song ends with a gently cascading rain of notes from Evans, reflecting a feeling, the irony, of the last line of the song: “Spring is here I hear.”

Track 9: One Day My Prince Will Come

Next up is another popular jazz standard, from the calssic Walt Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves of 1937. The song was written by Frank E. Churchill with lyrics by Larry Morey. One of the moist famous jazz recordings is the 1961 version by Miles on his eponymously-named album. The Evans trio show their melodic and rhythmic virtuosity in this number, which again features a glorious LaFaro solo.

Tracks 10 & 11: Blue in Green

The last two tracks are of the Davis/Evans tune “Blue in Green“which Evans had recorded with Davis earlier in 1959. This tune has been the subject of speculation about who really wrote it for decades now. According to Ashley Kahn ( Kind of Blue, The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, 2000) Evans told the story: “One day at Miles’s apartment, he wrote on some manuscript paper the symbols for G-minor and A-augmented. And he said, ‘What would you do with that?’ I didn’t really know, but I went home and wrote ‘Blue in Green.'” On Kind of Blue the song is attributed to Davis alone,while on Portrait it is attibuted to Davis/Evans. Is it that important who wrote it? It’s a wonderful tune with great moments for all three of the musicians on this album.


Overall, this is an album worth savouring. It bears repeated listening. Indeed, listening to it over and over again as I have done over the past few days, it reveals new subtleties and nuances every time. There are many critics who dismiss this album, and indeed much of Evans’ playing, as little more than good quality cocktail lounge music. I would strongly disagree with that assessment. There is lyricism and harmony a-plenty, but the rhythmic and harmonic subtleties and the way the tracks are structured lift this album way above cocktail music. The interplay between the musicians is always a delight, and each time I have listened to this album I have found new delights. Jazz piano trios would never sound the same again, and pianists, bass players and drummers all can learn from the playing on this rich and deep album.