Saturday Night Tunes: Mingus Ah Um

I kind of skipped last week because of a nasty cold, and I’ll be skipping again next week due to travel, so to make it up this week we’ll have a listen to one of my very favorite jazz albums, 1959’s Mingus Ah Um by bassist and composer Charles Mingus. This is one of the very best appreciated albums of Mingus’s lengthy discography, so well-liked that it’s part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, which seems like a big deal to me. If it helps, you can think of Mingus Ah Um as a tribute album of sorts, to many of the people and musical styles that influenced Mingus in his formative years, but in the end the final product is uniquely Mingus. calls it “a stunning summation of the bassist’s talents and probably the best reference point for beginners,” so with that high praise in mind let’s get to it.

Mingus put together an 8 piece ensemble for this one (though never more than 7 of them play on any given track, and sometimes fewer than that), with John Handy on alto and a tenor sax plus one track on clarinet, Shafi Hadi on alto and tenor, Booker Ervin on tenor, Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper alternating on trombone, Horace Parlan on piano, and Dannie Richmond on drums.

“Better Git It in Your Soul” is Mingus’s tribute to the gospel church music of his youth, and in that sense it has some things in common with his “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” from Blues and Roots. It’s one of Mingus’s best-known tunes, and for good reason:

“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is my favorite track from the album. It’s a tribute to tenor saxophone legend Lester Young, who was fond of wearing said style of hat:

for example
for example

and who died two months before Mingus Ah Um‘s recording session. It’s a heartfelt blues ballad:

“Boogie Stop Shuffle” is another tribute, this time to the boogie-woogie blues that is among the many musical styles that influenced the early development of jazz:

“Open Letter to Duke” is, that’s right, a tribute to Duke Ellington. It starts off sounding like it has more in common with the hard bop of the late-50s than the big band swing of Ellington’s heyday, but then slows down into a smoky melodic section that really evokes the Ellington sound:

“Bird Calls” is not a tribute apparently, despite the obvious invocation of Charlie Parker. Apparently Mingus wanted to write a track that sounded like literal birds, and if you listen to the opening melody, he actually kind of does it. Any Charlie Parker influences can be chalked up to the fact that pretty much all jazz that came along after Charlie Parker was influenced by him in one way or another:

“Fables of Faubus” is a “tribute” of sorts, I guess, in the sense that it’s a protest song written about Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus and his 1957 decision to call out the National Guard to try to block the integration of Little Rock Central High School. This version is an instrumental:

but Mingus later recorded another version, titled “Original Faubus Fables,” that featured a smaller ensemble (including Eric Dolphy) and, more importantly, included lyrics ridiculing Governor Faubus:

There’s some question as to whether the lyrics were a later addition to the tune, or whether Mingus had them ready for Mingus Ah Um but was prevented from recording them by Colombia Records executives.

Finally, here’s “Jelly Roll,” which is Mingus’s tribute to ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who famously claimed to have personally “invented” jazz and who, hyperbole aside, was one of the style’s first true performers and arrangers. If he didn’t invent jazz, he at least helped to make some sense of its chaotic, group improvisation beginnings. “Jelly Roll” captures that ragtime feel before moving into a more strictly jazz feel:

We’ve skipped “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” and “Pussy Cat Dues,” but hey, 9 tracks is a lot and my dinner is getting cold. Enjoy!


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