Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

January/February 2010: EJ Strickland

Charles Mingus (1922-1979):
Mingus Ah Um

Written by:

Charles Mingus is one of the music world’s true characters and one of its most disturbing. A demanding, even bullying band-leader, a talented composer, and an innovative bassist, Mingus helped to free the bass from its traditional supportive role in jazz and make it an instrument that people listened to.

His unpredictable, volatile personality was cause for concern for many, and at one point Mingus spent time in New York’s Bellevue psychiatric hospital. While working as a sideman in the early 1950s, he was the only musician Duke Ellington personally fired from his orchestra. When leading his own band, Mingus would sometimes stop playing mid-song to shush the audience or to berate a musician in his group for the inadequacy of his performance. During one concert, he punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth.

Mingus Ah Um [Columbia/Legacy #CK 65512] is the pinnacle of his career. It was recorded in the spring of 1969 and boasts the premiere of several exceptional songs. The best known is the melancholy ballad “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” This is a salute to the great saxophonist Lester Young, who died seven weeks before the session. “Better Git It in Your Soul” was influenced by the church music Mingus listened to as a child in the Watts district of Los Angeles. It is a fabulous blues-gospel opus drenched with personality. The third acclaimed song that premiered on this disc is “Fables of Faubus.” It was named after Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who in 1957 tried to block school integration in Little Rock, until President Eisenhower sent in the National Guard. Mingus had lyrics to go with the song but because of their topical nature Columbia refused to allow them to be recorded.

Mingus had a great ear for talent. For this album, he used John Handy and Booker Ervin on saxophones, Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis on trombones, Danny Richmond on drums, and Horace Parlan on piano. Collectively and individually their performances are yardsticks for musicians to measure themselves against.

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