Jazz & Blues Edge: Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um

Credit: BootLoverPhotography

by Ms. Ann

May 5, 1959 (A1, B1-B4) / May 12, 1959 (A2-A5).


A1                   Better Git It In Your Soul                    7:22

A2                   Goodbye Pork Pie Hat                                    5:44

A3                   Boogie Stop Shuffle                           5:02

A4                   Self-Portrait in Three Colors  3:06

A5                   Open Letter To Duke                          5:51

B1                   Bird Calls                                                        6:17

B2                   Fables Of Faubus                                8:14

B3                   Pussy Cat Dues                                               9:14

B4                   Jelly Roll                                                         6:17


Alto Saxophone, Clarinet – John Handy

Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone – Shafi Hadi

Bass, Composed By – Charles Mingus

Drums – Dannie Richmond

Photography By – Herb Snitzer

Piano – Horace Parlan

Producer – Teo Macero

Tenor Saxophone – Booker Ervin

Trombone – Jimmy Knepper (tracks: A1, B1 to B4), Willie Dennis (tracks: A2 to A5)

Recorded At – Columbia 30th Street Studio

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My record is a 2008 Sony Entertainment “Music On Vinyl” remaster with the original unedited versions of the recordings.  It is a warm and vibrant sound.

Imagine my surprise when the needle hit the record and I knew “Better Get It In Your Soul” by Charlie Mingus.  At the University of Nevada 8th Annual Stage Band Festival, the John Muir Jr. High School Jazz Band won our category, playing this piece arranged for Jazz Band.  Downbeat did a review saying we gave the audience “an emotional bloodbath.”  Easy to do being pre-teens and given this piece to throw our exuberance into.

Better Get it In Your Soul is a swinging Gospel tune in 6/8, and very fun to play.  Listening to this recording, I feel I am privy to a lively, ecstatic church service.  From tight ensemble playing to hand clapping behind an improvised solo, the piece is a juxtaposition of the controlled and the chaotic.  The meter in 6/8 has emphasis on 1 and 4 counts, and it is Vivace in a Hot Swing.  The controlled is a theme, a riff, played by different groups of instruments to create different textures behind improvised solos. It is AABA form (10 + 10 + 8 + 10) tune. Booker Ervin’s solo stands out above the rest in its vibrant boldness.  

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, this tune was written for the legendary saxophonist Lester Young who had passed away months before. Young often wore pork-pie hats.  This song has an unusual chord progression in E flat Minor, and yet, a haunted and stunning melody floats over it. When the trio of saxophones play the melody, this is a very sophisticated sound, reminding me of Duke Ellington arrangements, whom Charlie played with.  The song conveys the strong feelings of loss the jazz world was having in its grief of Lester Young.  

Boogie Stomp Shuffle is upbeat, a return to fast-paced cooker, a joyous song.  Mingus takes advantage of his ensemble group to orchestrate a sound of a swing band for this tune.  There are wonderful break out solos with tight riffs backing them up.  This tune features great drum work solo breaks.  I can play this tune over and over.  I just love it.

Self-Portrait In Three Colors, takes us back into the slow sophisticated feel.  The saxophones and trombone intertwine with an ascending and descending melody.  Not a catchy tune, yet it sticks to you with its dissonant harmony and free flowing up and down the stairs melody.

Open Letter To Duke is a tribute to Duke Ellington.  It’s an epic letter.  It starts off in a swaying sophisticated ensemble way, rambles off into a rant on a totally different subject and then circles back.  It has that drawing and pushing of the beat feel Mingus dove into later with “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”, then will suddenly dive off into a cooking swing.  It is ALL Mingus chatting over this and that to the Duke.           

Bird Calls features saxophones making sounds that are supposed to be Bird Calls. There is even some drum work during the song that sounds like wings flapping.  This take of the song starts and ends with the saxophones giving us the “melody”.  In the middle of this sandwich is a huge cauldron of improvisation, furious, joyous, mischievous, ecstatic, and introspective. This tune feels like a cascading waterfall of many emotions falling over me.                       

Mingus was a very politically minded person. On September 2, 1957, Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent a group of African American students, who later became known as the Little Rock Nine, from entering the all-white Central High School.  Gov. Faubus was vocal in his opposition to integration. Fables Of Faubus is a song in which Mingus gives his opinion of this man very clearly.  He recorded this song many times, until it finally was recorded with the lyrics. This is the first recording of this tune. This version is instrumental.            

Pussy Cat Dues at first glance reminds me of 1920’s New Orleans jazz, both in the instrumentation (clarinet and trombone are prominent) and in the use of polyphony (improvised counterpoint).  After the intro, the first 4 bars are the I chord in the key of D major. However, there is a second chord added to each measure. Going from D down a major 3rd to Bb7 evokes a kind of “film noir” sound.  Mingus changes this in measure 4 when he puts in the Ab7 chord, which is a tri-tone substitution leading to G7. He then moves up a 4th to C7 before heading back to the tonic in measure 7.  Mingus then leads us through a very “bebop” sequence of ii-V’s, before ending with a I-IV/I, a traditional jazz and blues progression.  What is important about this is Mingus’s unusual use of harmonic travel.  He had his own journeys to share.        

Jelly Roll is Mingus’s tribute to Jelly Roll Morton.  This song has a distinct chord progression also.  It travels perfect fourths, Eb7, Ab7, Db7 and then does a turnabout with a very traditional I, VI, II, V progression.  Mingus captures the blues to make it his.

In conclusion, all the songs are very accessible, easy to listen too, and yet the complexity and depth of individuality that is Charlie Mingus genius lives in each.  I love this album, with all the different moods, styles, rhythms, textures, speeds; yet it maintains a flow to our auditory journey.  It is a collection of short stories, each quite different, each part of the anthology that is Charlie Mingus.