From Antibes to a New York Penthouse with Mingus

The 1960 albums

The year 1960 saw Mingus record five great albums, three released in 1960, one in 1961 and one in 1980. The 1961 release was the result of his collaboration with conductor and musicologist Gunther Schuller and entitled Pre-Bird Mingus. The album released in 1980 was the live set at the Antibes Jazz Festival.

The 1960 release which will not be part of this Hub is the Candid album Reincarnation of a Lovebird, produced by Nat Hentoff, as was the album we will discuss here, Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus.

The other album we will discuss here is the live set recorded at that year’s Antibes Jazz Festival.

Mingus at Antibes

On 13 July 1960 Mingus appeared at the Antibes Jazz Festival, Juan-les-Pins on France’s Côte d’Azur, with Ted Curson on trumpet; Eric Dolphy on alto and bass clarinet; Booker Ervin on tenor; and Dannie Richmond on drums. Bud Powell joined the group for “I’ll Remember April”.

The group’s set opens with an atmospheric, swinging version of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, which sounds indeed like a Holiness Church meeting, complete with shouts, moaning and hand-clapping, which generates an incredible emotional energy, especially during Dolphy’s amazing solo. A solo from Richmond is followed by a brief but exciting chorus from Curson before the whole meeting is wrapped up with another short Richmond solo just before the whole group comes together with Mingus chanting “Oh yeah, my Lord” which others take up.

“Prayer for Passive Resistance” opens with a slapped bass figure from Mingus which Richmond quickly echoes, leading into Ervin’s soulful solo.

Next comes that great Mingus number “What Love” which features great solos by Dolphy and Curson.

Bud Powell delivers a typically great solo on “I’ll Remember April”, a kind of bebop revival thing in this context. Powell’s solo is a feat of creativity – the track is 14 minutes long and the solo lasts almost half of that time. The number swings furiously throughout. and features solos by Curson, Dolphy and Ervin besides Powell. There is a long passage of play in which Ervin and Dolphy enthusiastically trade fours, building up to a great finale in which Curson also gets involved in some group improvisation before the head comes back and Powell signs it all off.

“Folk Forms No 1” is introduced by Mingus playing a funky figure before the ensemble comes in equally funkily. Ervin, Dolphy and Curson again do some great group improv with Mingus providing some enthusiastic support and playing off the others. This all generates enough energy to light up New York City, never mind the crowd at Antibes who get enthusiastically into the swing of the whole thing. Mingus’s solo on upright is enough to make any bass guitarist worried. The three horns just keep on going, playing off each other, sometimes with rhythm section and sometimes without. An incredible performance all round.

The final track is that great Mingus number we first met on Mingus Ah Um: “Better Git Hit in Your Soul”, here taken at breakneck speed and with an incredible load of energy pulsing along. It gets so breathtaking at times I keep expecting the band to collapse with exhaustion, especially seeing they had by this time been going for an hour of high intensity music, but they just seem to get higher and higher on the energy. Amazing stuff! Again the gospel feel is heightened by hand clapping and shouting, encouraging the players to ever new heights of expression.

This is an album I return to again and again, an album of really exciting, emotional music, just as Mingus said: “Music is, or was, a language of the emotions.”

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus

This recording was a relatively rare instance of Mingus recording with a quartet – besides himself there were his current favourite collaborators in the Jazz Workshop: Dannie Richmond on drums, Eric Dolphy on reeds and Ted Curson on trumpet. In spite of Mingus’s interjections and introductions this is a studio recording and there was no audience. Mingus wanted to replicate the ambiance of a club date without the distractions of such gigs, like ice clinking in glasses and cash registers ringing. It was in fact recorded at Nola Penthouse Sound Studios in New York City

The first track is listed on the cover as “Folk Forms No 1”, but Mingus seems to have been a bit unsure about the title in the actual performance, he calls it “Opus”, or “New Series 1”, “Folk Series”. Whatever, it is a swinging vehicle for each of the collaborators to shine, which the leader and Richmond proceed to do, each taking longish solos. Mingus introduced the number as being based on “folk song form” and if jazz can be termed a “folk form” then it surely is.

The next number is listed as “Original Fables of Faubus”, perhaps a wry reference to the banning of the lyrics from the “Fables of Faubus” track on the Columbia album the previous year. Mingus dedicates the piece to “the first, or second, or third all American heel”:

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us!

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us!

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us!

Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!

Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

The next number, “What Love?” featuring a great solo by Mingus and otherwise very similar (with, of course, a smaller force!) to the arrangement on Antibes. It’s a great tune and gives especially Dolphy a chance to really shine on that bass clarinet! Great stuff.

Mingus introduces the next track as “a tribute to all mothers.” I’m not sure if he means “mothers” in the jazz sense, but whatever, it has a ridiculous title (must be one of the longest in jazz): “All the things you could be by now if Sigmund Freud’s wife was your mother.” Yes? Even Mingus admits “it means nothing.”

What it is, is a another Mingusian (how’s that for a made up word?) romp at high speed through the changes. Curson especially makes the most of the opportunity to take some high flying liberties with the whole thing. Then Dolphy just makes mincemeat of everything with some amazing pyrotechnics, to the shouted encouragement of Mingus. It’s great fun and wonderful to listen to. I love the way the solos sound as if they cannot stop at all and then do, very suddenly. The changes in the tunes are not anywhere near those in “All the Things You Are” but Mingus apparently told his players to keep that tune in mind as they played this one. Weird idea but it makes for great fun.

The reviewer of CD Universe ( accessed 21 July 2009) wrote of this album that “The songs here feature a fiery amalgam of blues, gospel, and folk with group improvisation.” Fiery it is, and like things that have been tried by fire, it is very pure Mingus, to my mind one of his best.

Ronnie Lankford, Jr is quoted on the Accoustic Sounds website ( accessed 21 July 2009): “The album accomplishes what the best of Mingus accomplishes: the perfect tension between jazz played as an ensemble and jazz played as totally free.” I totally agree. It’s a blast, it’s thoughtful, it’s angry and it’s fun.

Tijuana to ‘Frisco – more Mingus moods

The albums

This article will look at Charles Mingus albums released in 1962, 1963 and 1964. The first of them was actually recorded in 1957, with Danny Richmond on drums for the first, and most definitely not the last, time with Mingus. This was the ever-popular Tijuana Moods , which Mingus wrote, “was written in a very blue period in my life.”

The second album is one which is very special in the whole Mingus ouvreThe Black Saint and the Sinner Lady , recorded and released in 1963.

The third album is a live album recorded at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco on 2 and 3 June, 1964. This album, called Right Now , is notable, apart from the amazing music, for the contribution of Jane Getz on piano.

Tijuana Moods

“This is the best record I ever made” – Mingus

This album features a little-known trumpeter Clarence Shaw, who, Mingus wrote in the liner notes of the 1962 release, “by now would probably have become as famous as any of our current so-called jazz players if this record had been released six years ago when recorded.”

Shaw shines especially on the opening track, “Dizzy Moods” which is based on the Gillespie composition “Woody ‘n You”. His solo is clearly articulated and swinging, exemplifying Mingus’s comment that Shaw “doesn’t overcrowd his ideas like most improvisers. He’s like a great conversationalist, he stops and rests…” This is a typically Mingus number with frequent changes of tempo.

The next track is “Ysabel’s Table Dance” is Mingus’s successful attempt to capture his experience in Tijuana, whence he had gone to forget a break-up from his wife, and he “decided to benefit musically from this experience and set out to compose and re-create what I felt and saw around me.”

This track “contains the fire, the pulse, and all that I felt as I heard the tune in my head with the movement of her body.” A truly remarkable evocation of place and mood in jazz. The mood is greatly enhanced by the castanets played by Ysabel Morel and her vocal interjections.

Its a driving, swinging and exhilarating choice from the opening bars with Mingus’s bowed riff and the castanets setting up a fabulous rhythm which is maintained throughout. Wonderful piece, altogether.

“Tijuana Gift Shop” is a tightly swinging number with gorgeous ensemble work, featuring amazing unison riffs from Shaw on trumpet and alto player Shafi Hadi. Jimmy Knepper’s trombone growling in the background adds a great feel to the whole thing. Shaw’s muted few bars at the end are things of great beauty.

The CD made to look like the original vinyl LP

In the liner notes Mingus tells of finding himself, after arriving in Tijuana at six in the evening, “wandering through the street followed by local bands of five to ten musicians with bass, sax, guitar, and typical Spanish instruments.” That is the feeling he creates in “Los Mariachis” which, he wrote, “typifies the blues beat.” This is a gloriously atmospheric piece, alternating between hard-driving blues beat and moments of quiet, when typically just two instruments will play. In the first such break there is a superb dialogue between Shaw and Mingus himself. That is worth buying the whole album for! It’s one of those moments of total magic that sometimes happen in great music, when everything else falls away and one becomes lost in that timeless time. There are whole worlds and long beguiling stories told in this number.

The final number on the original album was “Flamingo” which is marked by an absolutely gorgeous solo from Shaw.

The final track on 2000 double CD re-issue is entitled “A Colloquial Dream (Scenes In The City)”, a great spoken poetry with music mix which was recorded in the same session as the rest of Tijuana Moods. It features the voice of Lonnie Elder, who declaims “I love jazz” and “I guess I must be the only man in the world who wakes up with jazz music!” Its a great mood piece and a fine end to the album. The words and the music are wonderfully evocative and supportive to each other. “Beautiful like a woman, a real woman,” as Elder says at the end.

Besides those already mentioned the personnel on this album include Frankie Dunlop on percussion, and Bill Triglia on piano.

The production of the two-disc re-release from 2000 that I have is great for many reasons, not least of which is the sound which is superb.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

This album has been hailed by critics as having “a special place in Mingus’s work,” and “one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history.” It certainly was a very ambitious project on Mingus’s part, to write a ballet for an 11-piece orchestra, a ballet which would capture all the emotions of which his psychologist Edmund Pollock would write in the liner notes: “Mr. Mingus cries of misunderstanding of self and people.” The music does indeed, as Pollock continues, “present a brooding, moaning intensity about prejudice, hate and persecution.”

My contention, though, is that if that were all this music did it would not grab us as it does, with deep emotion, yes, but with that emotion expressed in so “right” a way, and covering a wide range of human experience, fittingly made musical in the adoption by Mingus of themes and modes from many different musics, and blended into an artistically unitary whole of immense power.

The first track “Solo Dance” is introduced by Danny Richmond opens with what Mingus describes in his 1963 notes about the album, as a “written repeated rhythmatic (sic) bass drum to snare drum to sock cymbal figure that suggests two tempos along with its own tempo.” This complexity is maintained throughout the track, through some wonderful ensemble work and a just a few solos, most notably a longer one on the alto, by Charlie Mariano, sounding like a voice “calling to others.”

The second track, “Duet Solo Dancers”, starts with a gentle piano theme, almost classical in feel, at a slow tempo, then the whole ensemble comes in with sonorous harmonies, Ellingtonian in feel (Black, Brown and Beige comes strongly to mind) In Pollock’s words, “The music then changes into a mood of what I would call mounting restless agitation and anguish as if there is tremendous conflict between love and hate.” There is an amazing muted trombone solo which again sounds like a voice calling out in anguish.

“Group Dancers” opens with some interesting piano and features some wonderful Spanish-tinged music played on a classical guitar by Jay Berliner, reminding strongly of Tijuana Moods. There are again multiple tempo changes which mirror the changing emotions. According to Dr Pollock Mingus said that the use of the guitar was meant to mirror the Inquisition and El Greco’s “mood of opppressive poverty and death.”

The final track, consisting of three movements or modes, is an even more complex piece than any of the preceding. the sub-titles of the numbers are revealing of what the music expresses: “Mode D — Trio and Group Dancers” Stop! Look! and Sing Songs of Revolutions! ; “Mode E — Single Solos and Group Dance” Saint and Sinner Join in Merriment on Battle Front; “Mode F — Group and Solo Dance” Of Love, Pain, and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, My Beloved, ’til It’s Freedom Day. Pollock notes that “the ending seems unfinished but one is left with a feeling of hope and even a promise of future joy.”

Its a “monster” of an album, which required a very special corps of musicians to handle all the music, and Mingus had assembled a stellar cast for the recording. The personnel were, besides Mingus himself, Jerome Richardson on soprano and baritone saxes and flute; Charlie Mariano on alto; Dick Hafer on tenor and flute; Rolf Ericson and Richard Williams on trumpet; Quentin Jackson on trombone; Don Butterfield on tuba and contrabass trombone; Jaki Byard on piano; Jay Berliner on acoustic guitar; and Danny Richmond on drums.

As Steve Huey wrote on All Music ( “The result is one of the high-water marks for avant-garde jazz in the ’60s and arguably Mingus’ most brilliant moment.”

A date in ‘Frisco: Right Now

This just happens to be the first Mingus album I ever bought, back in the days of vinyl and I was living in Durban, in the South African province now known as kwaZulu-Natal and then simply known as Natal, with my family. Not sure why this particular album, but it must have sounded good to me at the time, the early 1970s, and I loved the sound and the feelings of the whole thing.

Had a bit of fun with a rather serious friend who fancied himself as a bit of an expert on classical music (to be fair, he was actually), by playing him the few bars of Mingus bowing his bass in the upper register at the beginning of “Meditation for a Pair of Wire Cutters”, the second side of the vinyl LP, and asking my friend to identify the composer. He was baffled and tried John Cage, Hindemith and a few other of the modernists, and was furious with me when I let him into the secret!

This is a wonderful album, which still sounds good to me. The first track is an updated version of “Fables of Faubus” which really cooks, as the saying goes. John Handy on alto really wails, to the great pleasure of his leader, who shouts his customary encouragement. Mingus’s own solo iks a veritable tour de force, a virtuosic display, with quotes from “Down by the Riverside” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” woven into the swinging flow. Clifford Jordan on tenor is also inspired and uses some Coltranesque “sheets of sound” in his solo. Danny Richmond on drums is fervent and swinging and very supportive. Jane Getz doesn’t get much chance to shine but her presence is nevertheless felt. The blues with which the track ends is simply stunning..

“Meditation” starts with bowed bass introduction with which I teased my friend all those years ago. It then gets down to some serious swinging. The group on this track is without Handy but otherwise the same as the first track. Jordan gets a long solo and so does Getz. Towards the end of the track Getz and Jordan play together, he on flute, while Mingus gets out his bow again, for some interesting, almost modern-chamber music style stuff. It’s really inspired playing by all three and becomes almost atonal until the very last chord. A brilliant piece of music which in its 24 minutes covers a great range of styles and sound.

A musician of powerful originality

This ends my review of what is possibly the most creative decade of Mingus’s career, although there would still be some great albums in the years that followed, more surprises and explorations of what music is all about.

To my mind Mingus is quite simply one of the giants of 20th Century music, not just of jazz. He displayed a range of music that stretched any definition of jazz beyond the limits. No-one interested in music of any sort can really avoid the contribution of this massive genius and he certainly deserves to be taken very seriously indeed, as he demanded during his lifetime.

Nat Hentoff wrote about Mingus: “Charles Mingus was not only the most powerfully original bassist in jazz history, but he was one of the few legendary soloists and band leaders to leave an utterly distinctive body of continually unpredictable compositions. In that respect, he was in the rare company of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.”

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, accessed on 5 June 2009).

The famous 1959 Charles Mingus albums

Jazz’s “annus mirabilis”

Mingus recorded four albums in this annus mirabilis of jazz: Mingus in Wonderland, a live album recorded on 16 January at Nonagon Art Gallery in New York City; Blues and Roots recorded on 4 February with Nesuhi Ertegun again doing the producing; and the two Teo Macero-produced albums Mingus Ah Um recorded in May and Mingus Dynasty recorded at the famous 30th Street Studio on 1 and 13 November, with different personnel on each day.

Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um stand out as works of art – albums that continue to shine, inspiring jazz musicians and fans 50 years later.

They are albums which show a musician reaching a pinnacle of creativity, and the wonder is that they are not the final words in this particular musician’s career – Mingus went on to make many more superlative albums. Somehow, though, these two are albums that fans and other musicians turn to again and again, they are both treasuries of great music that one can learn from and a great deal of fun to listen to.

Wonderland and blues

Mingus in Wonderland features John Handy on alto, Booker Ervin on tenor, Richard Wyands on piano, and Dannie Richmond on drums. Two of the tracks are songs that Mingus wrote for the John Cassavetes movie Shadows, namely “Nostalgia in Times Square” and “Alice’s Wonderland”. The other tracks are “I Can’t Get Started” and “No Private Income Blues”.

I have not been able to obtain a copy of this album and so cannot write with any certainty about it.

The album Blues and Roots is the subject of my article “Mingus gets down to the roots of the matter” and so I won’t describe it in any detail here. It was the first album on which Mingus’s composition “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” appeared, a number which subsequently became something of a Mingus staple. This composition distilled the experiences Mingus had in the Holiness Church in his days in Watts.

Mingus Ah Um was the subject of my article “Mingus Magnificus Ah Um” and so again I will not describe it in any detail here. It introduced another Mingus staple, “Better Get It in Your Soul”, another feast of gospel and blues sounds. It also featured the song to which Mingus returned more than any other, the famous “Fables of Faubus” written in response to the attempt by Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus to prevent the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957. The lyrics, which included the words “Nazi Fascist supremists!” in reference to Faubus, were allegedly regarded as too extreme and not allowed on the album by the Columbia management.

Mingus Dynasty

The final 1959 album, also a Macero production, was Mingus Dynasty, which featured on the first date a line-up of 10 musicians including Mingus: Richard Williams on trumpet; Jimmy Knepper on trombone, John Handy on alto, Booker Ervin and Benny Golson on tenor, Jerome Richardson on baritone, Teddy Charles on vibes, Roland Hanna on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums.

On the first date the band recorded “Diane”, “Song with Orange”, “Gunslinging Bird”, “Far Wells, Mill Valley”, “New Now Know How” and “Strollin'”.

On the second date the musicians were Don Ellis on trumpet with Knepper, Handy, Ervin, Hanna and Richmond. They recorded “Slop”, “Put Me In That Dungeon” Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, and the Duke’s “Mood Indigo”.

For me this last track is the pick of the album. It starts with a really slow introduction by the whole band with Mingus bowing his bass. Then Knepper enters with an incredibly soulful solo over the pizzicato bass. Then comes one of many abrupt tempo changes into double time. Then its abruptly back to a slow blues as Hanna takes over the solo spot to deliver a blues solo that is quite amazing, with another change to double time (punctuated by a “yeah” from Mingus) before he starts a brief solo which quickly moves into triple time – just unbelievably fleet by both Mingus and Hanna, and then it’s a tempo again as Mingus takes up the solo spot for a deep blues exploration with more abrupt tempo changes before Handy comes in to make his wailing solo and some great ensemble backing (with another shout by Mingus: “Early in the morning!”) to the end. Simply superb stuff!

Of the other tracks from the second date “Slop” and “Put Me In That Dungeon”are interesting, among other things, for the addition of two cellists to the line-up.

Apart from “Mood Indigo” the other outstanding tracks for me are “Gunslinging Bird” (Mingus’s tribute to Charlie Parker, originally called “If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there would be a whole lot of dead copycats”), “Slop” (a close cousin to “Better Git Hit in Your Soul”), “Song with Orange” (a great vehicle for solos by Handy and Knepper, with strong blues undertones), “Far Wells, Mill Valley” (after an almost atonal introduction, which has some echoes of “Some of My Favourite Things”, it continues interspersing some almost Oriental sounds with some straight-ahead jazz), and the short (too short?) blues “Put Me In That Dungeon” with its unusual voicings. I say “too short?” because it never seems to get going to the extent that it perhaps could if the musicians had a little more time.

The final track is “Strolling” which is in fact “Nostalgia in Times Square” which Mingus wrote for the Cassavetes movie “Shadows” with words added, sung by Honey Gordon.

Mingus created music in this great year that has stood the test of time.

Don Heckma, in the Los Angeles Times of 11 February 2001, wrote the following paragraph which to me sums up why Mingus’s legacy is so enduring, and expecially the music he created in 1959:

“But it was probably his passionate intensity, a drive to transform his visionary ideas into the hard facts of performance reality, that made his music such an extraordinary combination of accessible melody, driving rhythms and insistent social statement. His live performances were often delivered in chaotic settings, but they were never dull. And his recordings could easily serve as the passionately interactive soundtrack for the unfolding civil rights developments of the ’50s and ’60s.”

Jazz bassist Charles Mingus goes from Massey Hall to Pithecanthropus

Leadership development

The three albums discussed in this article represent bassist Charles Mingus growing in stature as bass player, composer and band leader. On the first album he becomes leader almost by default as the two who were meant to lead the outfit which has come to be known as “The Quintet”, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, were not able to function properly as leaders due to various personal issues. Mingus took over the role and did his best to protect the interests of all the musicians involved.

The next two albums show Mingus taking over leadership and really getting, so to say, into the swing of it. The Bohemia albums are live dates originally released, as was Jazz at Massey Hall , on the label that Mingus and Max Roach formed, called Debut.

Pithecanthropus was an Atlantic album and was the start of Mingus’s productive relationship with producer Nesuhi Ertegun.

Cover of the original 10 inch LP

Cover of the original 10 inch LP

Cover of the 12 inch LP also used on later CD releases

Cover of the 12 inch LP also used on later CD releases

Cover of the double CD re-release by French label Carrere - this is the version I now have

Cover of the double CD re-release by French label Carrere - this is the version I now have

Jazz at Massey Hall

This great album was one of my earliest exposures to this wonderful music usually called jazz. My brother Chris brought home from university a copy of a 10-inch LP of the concert (I imagine it was the original Debut release) which had been put on by the Toronto, Canada, New Jazz Society on 15 May 1953. Being about 12 at the time what got me fired up at the time was Max Roach’s amazing solo in the Dizzy Gillespie number “Salt Peanuts.” It was just a blast for me and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Besides Roach and Gillespie the other musicians are, of course, Mingus, who completes the rock-solid rhythm section with Bud Powell on piano and the incomparable Charlie Parker (who, for contractual reasons, was credited on the album as “Charlie Chan”) on alto. A veritable feast of bop super-stars!

By this time, as C. Michael Bailey has written on the internet jazz magazine AllAboutJazz, bop “had fully matured and was settling in as the established mainstream rather than the cutting edge movement it had been in the early 1940s.” But on this night of jazz, bop, “in all of its brilliant invention was alive, well, and in charge.”

Over the years my appreciation for this album has grown, and I think around in particular two of the pieces on it (not that the others aren’t great – just these are my particular favourites), namely Ellington’s “Perdido” and Jerome Kern’s wonderful 1939 song “All the Things You Are.”

“Perdido” gets off to flying start which doesn’t let up, the only slight tentativeness is at the beginning of Parker’s solo which is not surprising seeing he was playing an unfamiliar borrowed instrument, and a plastic one at that! Gillespie’s solo is just stratospheric, both in register and virtuosity.

“All the Things You Are” is a lovely tune to start with and these musicians give it a wonderful feel, as is to be expected. What appeals to me the most is what Powell does behind the other musicians – just gorgeous comping with the occasional melodic comment on what a soloist is doing. Mingus is also so solid there. Altogether entrancing music from a group of masters – almost eight minutes of pure heaven!

The other tracks on the album are Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and “Salt Peanuts”; and Tadd Dameron’s “Wee” and “Hot House”.

To quote Bailey again, this album is a “testament”, “The elder statesmen of Be Bop stood on the bandstand and gave the next generation of jazz musicians a lesson in performing Modern Jazz and from that performance came everything else we hear today.”

The Charles Mingus Quintet Plus Max Roach

This 1955 album has Mingus in the leader’s role and how firmly he does it! Other musicians on this live date at New York City’s Café Bohemia are Eddie Bert on trombone, George Barrow on tenor, Mal Waldron on piano and Willie Jones on drums ( Max Roach joins the group only on the tracks “Drums”, a Mingus composition, and “I’ll Remember April”).

Of the six tracks on this album I will write about only three here.

The first is Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” which he opens with an eight-bar bass solo which sets the swinging mood of the whole number, before George Barrow’s tenor comes in. He takes a couple of choruses and then lets Mal Waldron on piano take over with the horns giving support in the background over Mingus’s driving, walking bass line. Then its the turn of Eddie Bert on trombone before Mingus comes back with a solo mostly in the lower register of his instrument with a few flights up to the higher end, then the ensemble led by Barrow takes it out.

The next track is that lovely ballad by Gene De Paul, Pat Johnston and Don Raye, “I’ll Remember April” which Mingus introduces with some interesting bass sounds before Barrow takes over. The ensemble plays it somewhat up-tempo and very swinging. The bridge has some intriguing contrapuntal exchanges between Barrow and Bert. Halfway through the track there is some interesting trading of fours between Roach, Barrow and Bert before Roach gets his turn to solo, and its a very eloquent solo too, very typical of the man’s style!

Waldron sets up Mingus’s “Love Chant” with some rolling chords which he keeps going as Bert takes over with Barrow coming in to join the three in some intricate interplay. Again the contrapuntal figures from Barrow and Bert set up some dissonant chords before they set off again playing catch up with each other. Thereafter Barrow gets down to some serious swinging soloing with bass and drums giving strong support. Bert gets another chance before the whole swinging affair comes to a glorious end. Willie Jones’s contributions are particularly interesting as the song ends.

The other tracks on the album are Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” and Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird.”

Pithecanthropus Erectus

This four-track album was recorded in 1956 at the Atlantic Studios in New York City and produced by Nesuhi Ertegun. The band supporting Mingus consisted of Jackie McLean on alto, J.R. Monterose on tenor, Mal Waldron on piano and Willie Jones on drums.

The tracks on the album were three Mingus numbers and Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day”. The Mingus compositions were “Pithecanthropus Erectus”, “Profile of Jackie” and “Love Chant”.

Mingus described the title track as a “tone poem” about the rise of humanity, from the earliest hominids until the eventual demise of humankind. The name of the track can be seen as a play on Mingus’s instrument, the upright bass, as the Latin means “Upright Ape-man”.

Most critics rate Pithecanthropus Erectus as one of Mingus’s greatest albums.

Introducing a Charles Mingus decade – the flowering of a jazz genius

The truth of what I am

“I’m going to keep on getting through and finding out the kind of man I am through my music. That’s the one place I can be free.” – Mingus in conversation with Nat Hentoff (A Musician Beyond Category – From Gadfly April 1999)“In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.” -Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus playing at the Bi Centenial, Lower Manhattan July 4, 1976. Photo by Tom Marcello via Wikipedia

This is the first in a series of articles which will explore some of the music Charles Mingus recorded in the astonishing decade in which he emerged from being a sideman of note and great virtuosity to being a composer and leader of imposing stature. Of course this decade includes that incredible year for jazz, 1959, during which Mingus was involved with four major releases as leader.

The decade in question is from the incredible Jazz at Massey Hall of May 1953 to the Jazz Workshop recording Right Now of June 1964, a period in which he was involved in some 30 releases. OK, so it’s a year more than a decade but you get the idea – it’s a convenient period starting and ending with very different and very great live recordings (there will be a couple more live recording thrown into the mix as we go along). I will concentrate to some extent on numbers that recur throughout these recording to give an idea of the growth and change that Mingus insisted on throughout his life.

First just a little about Mr Charles Mingus, a towering genius of jazz.

He was born 22 April 1922 at a US Army base in Nogales, Arizona and grew up in Watts, Los Angeles, where his mother fed him a diet of church music and his grandmother took him to a Holiness church in Watts where he was exposed to the crying, moaning and singing of the church people.

He told Nat Hentoff about this musical background: “All the music I heard when I was a very young child was church music. My family went to the Methodist church; in addition, my stepmother would take me to the Holiness church and other such churches.

“The blues was in the churches—moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher.”

In his genes he carried a wide cultural mix of Chinese, English, Swedish and African American, but the blues seem to have been central to his music over the years. It comes out in almost everything he recorded in one form or another.

From a relatively early age he became interested in jazz, most especially the musician who for most of his life was his idol, Duke Ellington. In 1943 he toured with Louis Armstrong and later played in Lionel Hampton’s band, in a trio with Red Norvo and Tal Farlow before joining, for a brief and shining moment, the orchestra of his idol, Ellington. Here his tempestuous temper led to his being allegedly the only musician (although Sidney Bechet might also have been) to be fired by the Duke.

Mingus increasingly demanded respect for his music, becoming intolerant of audiences who did not pay sufficient attention to the music. He once said to a nightclub audience when the clinking of ice in glasses was distracting him: “Isaac Stern (the great classical violinist) doesn’t have to put up with this shit!”

His famous temper led him into many difficulties with club owners, fans and even fellow-musicians. He once famously hit trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth, causing damage to Knepper’s embouchure and leading to a court case.

Mingus was a larger-than-life personality who could inspire both awe and fear. He also struggled all his life with a weight problem, shedding and re-gaining weight regularly.

He contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) which is caused by the degeneration of the motor neurons, those nerve cells in the central nervous system which control voluntary muscle movement. The loss of muscle activity leads to atrophy of all the muscles and the loss of the ability to initiate and control voluntary movement. The body wastes away, while the mind is still unimpaired, so patients can literally watch themselves slowly die.

Even after he was unable to play, Mingus continued to compose and supervise recording, but was unable to complete a project with Joni Mitchell.

He died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1979, where he had gone with his wife Sue in search of a cure or at least a palliative for the disease that was so cruelly taking away everything he had lived for as a musician.

A look at some important albums

Nat Hentoff, in the same article quoted at the start of this post, said of Mingus: “The reason Mingus reached so many people around the world was the depth—sometimes the explosive depth—of his expressions, his emotions.”

In the posts that follow I will try to look into those depths and see in them what it is that stirs me, and I hope will stir you, to the depth of my being. As Mingus said, “Music is, or was, a language of the emotions.”

In the articles which follow I will look in a bit more detail at some of the more important recordings of this most creative and growthful decade in Mingus’s life. Of course, this is my personal selection and is based on the recordings that I have access to and knowledge of. Others might argue for a different selection, and that’s jazz for you – always something different and new.

The albums I am going to examine (not necessarily in separate posts) in this series are:

Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)

The Charles Mingus Quintet with Max Roach (1955)

Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956)

Mingus in Wonderland (1959)

Blues and Roots (1959)

Mingus Ah Um (1959)

Mingus Dynasty (1959)

Mingus at Antibes (1960)

Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus (1960)

Tijuana Moods (1962)

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

Right Now (1964)

The first article in the series will look at the first three albums and will be called “Massey Hall to Pithecanthropus.”

The second article will look at the famous 1959 albums, delving in a bit more detail into Mingus Dynasty..

The third article will take the two important 1960 albums.

The fourth article will look at Tijuana Moods, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Right Now, taking us up to 1964.

© Text copyright Tony McGregor 2011