#380: Mingus Ah Um, Charles Mingus
It can be intimidating for me to review straight instrumental records, because I’m a vocalist and a writer, and lyrics are the easiest way for me to tap in. But Charles Mingus makes it easy.
Mingus was a prodigious jazz musician and composer, who plays both the double-bass and piano on this record. (Fun fact, he was also an accomplished cellist.) He grew up in L.A. and was surrounded by jazz, but his mother only allowed church and gospel music in the house. (See “Better Git It In Your Soul” for his tribute to the genre, complete with the occasional jubilant yelp.) Also, I think he might have been a weirdo. See: The mail-order how-to guide he published in 1954, “The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat.” Just, why???
Moving on. In many ways, Mingus Ah Um serves as a tribute record to other jazz giants. I feel like I’ve received a crash course in jazz history. He writes an “Open Letter to Duke” for Duke Ellington, whom RS calls his “hero.” (And I just noticed that Duke isn’t on the list at all. What gives?) “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is an elegy for saxophonist Lester Young, who had passed just two months before recording. (On Mingus’ last project, an album he wrote with Joni Mitchell, he re-recorded it with added lyrics from Joni.) “Jelly Roll” was written in tribute to pianist Jelly Roll Morton. THAT’s a name you should definitely look into. (Ignoring the kind of gross meaning behind his nickname in the first place…) He was reportedly the first person to formally arrange jazz music. In fact there was some post-mortem controversy over his apparent claims that he “invented” jazz music itself.
(All that being said, “Bird Calls” was NOT a tribute to Charlie Bird Parker. “It was supposed to sound like birds,” Mingus said.)
Mingus also gives plenty of reason for future generations of jazz musicians to pay tribute to him. I got excited when I realized all the crazy ways he elevated the twelve-bar blues, either by messing with the rhythm (“Boogie Stop Shuffle”) or completely transforming the progression (“Pussy Cat Dues”). I also fell completely in love with the clever “Self-Portrait In Three Colors,” in which two saxophones and a trombone riff on the same phrase, nearly in unison but not quite. Jazz, man. It’s smarter than me.
Then there’s the protest song, “Fables of Faubus.” Orval Faubus was the 36th Governor of Arkansas, and became infamous for his refusal to recognize the decision of Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools. He used the fricking National Guard to keep black children out of a Little Rock high school. But I gotta tell you — for an instrumental jazz piece, this one is pretty biting and sarcastic. You can just feel the derision for this guy. I guess that’s one of the coolest things about jazz: even when they’re not speaking a word, you can sometimes tell exactly what they’re trying to say.