Mercurial Mingus

The making of "Mingus Ah Um"


Jan. 4, 2013

In 1959, Columbia Records released three discs poised to set the future course of jazz: Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue," Dave Brubeck's "Time Out" and "Mingus Ah Um" by bassist, bandleader and composer Charles Mingus. "Kind of Blue" has come to be considered the essential jazz record, and "Time Out" the essential Brubeck record. "Mingus Ah Um" deserves recognition not only as the essential Mingus disc, but as a compelling, enduring vision for jazz radically different from the other two.


The Davis and Brubeck records were variations on the "cool" aesthetic. In reaction to the pyrotechnics of bebop, with its blizzards of notes and relentless complexities of harmony, Davis presented an ascetic simplicity, with spare melodic improvisations over modal harmonies so static they nearly drone. Brubeck took California's "West Coast Cool" school and with mathematical intellection removed it even further from the sweaty dance rhythms of jazz gone by: The album's compositions were in tricky, decidedly dance-averse time signatures.


The self-conscious modernism of "Time Out" and "Mingus Ah Um" was announced on their covers, both of which featured abstract art by S. Neil Fujita. But the records were modern in very different ways. Cool was not the idiom for Mingus, an artist variously described as "mercurial," "volcanic," "volatile" —choose your euphemism. "Better Git It in Your Soul" opens "Mingus Ah Um" with an ecstatic fervor emphatically at odds with the cerebral style of the moment. "Boogie Stop Shuffle" has enough energy to be a Louis Prima side, if Prima had been prone to scowl.


Perhaps most important, Mingus, who was born in 1922 and died in 1979, was not looking to divorce jazz's future from its past. "Ah Um" is explicit in its celebration of sounds predating the postwar bebop revolution. Three of the tunes are named in nods to prebop musicians. There is the forlorn elegy for saxophonist Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"; the discursive shout-out to Duke Ellington, "Open Letter to Duke"; and the fractured barrelhouse homage to pianist and composer "Jelly Roll" Morton. Mingus mashed up bebop, swing and soul, all while leading an avant-garde excavation of the free-jazz latent in New Orleans group improvisation—a sort of bluesy Charles-Ives-meets-King-Oliver approach.


Part of what makes "Ah Um" a high point is the use of material that Mingus had been reworking and reimagining for years. "Better Git It in Your Soul" is an extension of the gospel waltz "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," and "Jelly Roll" was originally "My Jelly Roll Soul"—Mingus had recorded both a few months earlier for Atlantic Records. Songs from 1957's "A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry"—including "Nouroog" and "Duke's Choice"—combined to form "Open Letter to Duke."


Mingus would tear his compositions apart and reassemble them, much as he did his band, the Jazz Workshop. Sometimes the results were brilliant. And sometimes the organized chaos was more chaos than organization, as with the infamous 1962 concert fiasco at New York's Town Hall, when an overlarge and unrehearsed ensemble attempted to present underprepared arrangements.


"The Workshop was never stable for long," Gene Santoro writes in "Myself When I Am Real," a biography of Mingus. By contrast, "Ellington had the luxury of long-termers in his orchestra." Partly this was a matter of money: Ellington was able to keep his big band together through the lean years by dipping into his songwriting royalties. But even more so, it was the bass player's personality that kept him from enjoying the benefits of a consistent ensemble. Ellington cloaked his strong will in an elaborate graciousness ("Love You Madly" were his bywords); Mingus advertised his strong will by cultivating combativeness. The bassist would not only shout encouragement but holler abuse at his musicians during performances, sometimes firing musicians midgig. Those not fired often quit, exhausted by the ordeal of working in this creative cauldron. The personnel, like the music, was always in flux.


John Handy, one of the saxophonists on "Mingus Ah Um," told an interviewer: "You could never relax with Charles. There was always unnecessary tension, unnecessary intimidation."


And if intimidation didn't work, Mingus was quick to use his fists. In an interview with DownBeat published in February 1975, Mingus praised Jimmy Knepper as "probably the greatest trombone player who ever lived," and lamented how long it had been since they had worked together. Knepper is a crucial voice on "Mingus Ah Um," mixing gut-bucket swoops worthy of Kid Ory with dextrous Charlie Parkerisms translated to the trombone. It's a blend of old and new in perfect sync with Mingus's own sensibilities.


Mingus failed to mention to the interviewer that, a decade before, as the big Town Hall concert loomed and arrangers were frantically arranging, Knepper and Mingus had argued over getting the parts copied in time. Furious, Mingus punched the trombonist in the mouth. It was hardly a first for the bandleader: Mingus had tried to do the same a few years before to saxophonist Jackie McLean, who held him off with a knife. "To hit a horn player in the mouth is like breaking the fingers of a pianist. It can ruin his musical life," observes Mr. Santoro in his Mingus biography. When I performed with Knepper in the 1990s, he still bore the scars of his stint with Mingus—before we would take the stage, he would glue his upper teeth in with extra adhesive.


Among Mingus's notable albums—including "Pithecanthropus Erectus," "New Tijuana Moods" and "Mingus Dynasty"—"Mingus Ah Um" stands out as the purest and most affecting expression of his aesthetic, a moment when his ever-shifting music and musicians came into perfect alignment. And now, when jazz has split into diffident camps divided over whether the music should gaze back or peer forward, the retrofuturism of "Mingus Ah Um" remains an essential guide for how old and new can be reconciled.