Happy 60th Anniversary to Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, originally released September 14, 1959.
In August 1958, a young, inexperienced photographer named Art Kane somehow managed to assemble a throng of jazz musicians in front of a row of brownstone houses on 126th street between Fifth and Madison Avenues in Harlem, New York for a special jazz-centered edition of Esquire magazine due to be published in January 1959.
The great and the good of New York’s jazz scene were there for the “A Great Day in Harlem” photoshoot: Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins…the list was seemingly endless. Scanning across this incredible picture, so many faces with a million stories etched across them pop up, yet one gentleman amongst all those effortlessly cool figures strikes a glacially cool pose. There, on the fourth step down on the righthand side lurks a 36-year-old Charles Mingus.
Slightly slouched, with a cigarette hanging precariously from the side of his mouth, he stares straight at the lens with what can only be described as a healthy dose of “f**k you” attitude. This belligerence would grow to become one of his most infamous attributes—there is many a tale of things becoming confrontational between Mingus and his collaborators. Indeed in 1953, he became one of the few band members to be fired by Duke Ellington personally after an altercation with Juan Tizol.
Yet it was that belligerence that drove him towards innovation and excellence, a belligerence born of the all too familiar tales of racism, injustice and inequality throughout his life. His heart as a young musician though had been captured by classical music and when he moved to New York from Los Angeles in 1951, he decided to try to apply the methods of a classical workshop to the spontaneous medium of jazz. Having worked in this way he realized that two things were true to him, according to a 1959 interview transcribed in the album’s liner notes: “…a jazz composition as I hear it my mind’s ear—although set down in so many notes on score paper and precisely notated—cannot be played by a group of either jazz or classical musicians. A classical musician might read all the notes correctly but without the correct jazz feeling or interpretation, and a jazz musician, although he might read all the notes and play them with jazz feeling, inevitably introduces his own individual expression rather than the dynamics the composer intended. Secondly, jazz, by its very definition, cannot be held down to written parts to be played with a feeling that goes only with blowing free.”
This tension between the improvised and the structured (or written) would become the defining feature of his work, as he strived for the perfect balance between the sensibility of classical notation and the innate freedom of expression of jazz music.
1956 proved to be a key turning point in Mingus’ career with the release of Pithecanthropus Erectus. Despite having been a bandleader for ten years, this saw him more widely recognized as both a bandleader and a composer, and the following ten years would prove to be his most fertile and best received, recording for many different labels and in such prolific quantities that perhaps the only comparable jazz figure was Duke Ellington.
Key among those recordings is Mingus Ah Um released in September 1959. 1959 was quite the year for stunning jazz albums—Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’—are just some of the albums that broke cover in that year, but Mingus Ah Um stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best of them.
Mingus’ work of genius sports a stunning abstract cover by legendary graphic design innovator S Neil Fujita—part of a concerted effort on Columbia’s part to keep level in the cool stakes with Blue Note. Francis Wolff’s iconic photography and Reid Miles’ typography had given Blue Note the lead, but the abstract design that graced Mingus Ah Um mirrored the freewheeling jazz spirit that lay within the grooves of the vinyl.
A glimpse at the tracklist demonstrates exactly the breadth of Mingus’ compositional focus. There’s the self-reflection of “Self-Portrait In Three Colors,” the skewering of those at the heart of injustice on “Fables Of Faubus” and the inspiration found within the jazz community of “Open Letter To Duke.” Such diversity of inspiration manifests in the diversity of dynamics in the tracks.
But those subject matters allied to his infamous brooding temperament might lead you to think the music contained within was sonorous or intrinsically serious and joyless. What Mingus Ah Um does brilliantly is take those darker recesses of the world and wraps them up in a joyously exuberant roll call of tunes that not only take their cues from jazz, but also add the slightest hints of gospel and the blues. It is, in effect, a glorious gumbo of Black music up to that point.
“Better Get Hit In Your Soul” is the most obvious case in point. At times it shuffles along, before breaking into a surging juggernaut swinging as it careers into view, but beneath the music are shouted exhortations from Mingus himself. Like the call and response of early blues or the moment the spirit moves in church, he yells his testimony from somewhere deep in the mix. Throughout the changes in tempo and instrument, one thing abides—a refreshingly healthy dose of fun. It feels the opposite of other, intensely earnest recordings of that year (and beyond).
The elegiac “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” hits precisely the right somber tones in tribute to the recently departed Lester Young and “Boogie Stop Shuffle” sounds like the (complex) theme tune for a detective show or film noir. An expected change of tone and feel comes with the introspection of “Self Portrait In Three Colors.” Starting with a mournful mellow mood, it meanders into a wistful, louche reflection of the artist.
Hard swinging platonic love letter to Duke Ellington “Open Letter To Duke” does exactly as you might expect—it blurs the lines between the orchestrated precision of Ellington’s compositions and the freer from of jazz that swept through the genre, while that same hard swinging tribute comes with “Bird Calls” as the sax goes through its gears in tribute to the trail blazed by Charlie Parker. But what follows next is one of Mingus’ most intensely political compositions: “Fables Of Faubus.”
It has to be said that when I first listened to the track, its vaguely comedic tones made me smile from ear to ear. To learn later that it had been written for Arkansas governor Orval E Faubus, who notoriously brought in the National Guard to ensure that nine black children couldn’t be integrated into a Little Rock school, left me agog. But listening to it again showed the music in a different light—its intent wasn’t comedy, it was ridicule. Ridicule for a man so deeply entrenched in vile racism that Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division of the US army to shut his plans down.
There is some debate about the original nature of the piece, as there was a version released the following year (1960) with lyrics that gave even greater depth to the contempt on record. Some say that Columbia refused to have the lyrics add to a powder keg situation, whereas the independent label Candid allowed the powerfully charged lyrics to see the light of day as they were more friendly to the cause of equality and justice. Others maintain that the lyrics just happened to come to Mingus too late for inclusion on Mingus Ah Um.
The final two tracks offer the same throwback to bygone jazz days, with his unique modern twist. “Pussy Cat Dues” and “Jelly Roll” both use musical touchstones of earlier incarnations of jazz (seen easily by being named using vocabulary from that same era), but they add the same unshackled exploration of themes that punctuate Mingus’ works.
In 2003, Mingus Ah Um was chosen by the Library Of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry alongside other epochal, life-changing albums and it deserves its place entirely. The beauty of these recordings (and Mingus in general) is that they acknowledge the debt of previous musicians and art forms, while forging a new way to navigate the tensions between written composition and improvisation.
That he was a volatile figure should be expected given the circumstances he grew up and played in, but his music was salvation both for him as composer and for anyone who listened. Salvation that could only come from someone steeped in blues and gospel traditions—the sweetest of salvations.