Charles Mingus’s creativity as a jazz musician atones for all his mood swings
Sanjoy Narayan revists a genius and a very difficult man.brunch Updated: Sep 25, 2016 12:14 IST
I was zero when Mingus Ah Um, Charles Mingus’s landmark album, was recorded. Mingus recorded that album in New York over two days in May 1959, on the 5th and 12th (I hit the world four days later; just saying!). I was introduced to jazz late in the day.
At home when we were little, my father would play western classical music records and very occasionally a little bit of jazz. I remember the cover of an album he had and liked to play sometimes – Ella and Louis – on which both Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sang. It was the first time I listened to jazz and to one of the greatest musicians of that genre, Armstrong.
It would be much later that I realised what a stellar cast of musicians he had on that album: Buddy Rich on drums, Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, and the iconic man himself, Louis on the trumpet. Growing up, jazz was an occasional pool that I’d dip into in a musical experience that otherwise consisted of deep and obsessive immersion into rock music. But as the years catch up, I find myself given to reaching out for some of my jazz albums more frequently or, if I don’t have what I want to hear, searching for them to stream or acquire digitally.
Many consider Mingus Ah Um to be the double-bassist, composer, bandleader, and genius Charles Mingus’s best album, but that is a difficult choice to make. Mingus’s career spanned more than 30 years till he died in 1979. And the number of records he made as bandleader, sideman or collaborator is huge. I’ve not had the chance to listen to all of them and probably will not be able to, but I’m yet to hear a Mingus album that is not excellent.
On Mingus Ah Um, you can hear all of the unique roots that Mingus put into his pot to stir up and brew his brand of jazz – gospel, blues, classical music and more. Whenever I put on the album and the first tune, Better Git It In Your Soul begins with his bass notes I sit up straight and get transfixed. That happened again when I picked out Mingus Ah Um once again last week.
For the album, Mingus, who was a difficult and temperamental man to work with, had gathered a star cast: Horace Parlan on piano, Willie Dennis trombone, Shafi Hadi, Booker Evan and John Handy on saxophones, Dannie Richmond on drums, and Jimmy Knepper on trombone.
It wasn’t very much after the release of Mingus Ah Um that Knepper, an accomplished trombonist and a friend of Mingus with whom he’d also co-arranged music, got a taste of Mingus’s legendary violent mood swings. The two were practicing in the bassist’s house when Mingus, in an angry outburst of violence, punched Knepper in the face. This was the second time Knepper got punched by Mingus. The first was once during a performance onstage. This time it was worse.
Embouchure is the French word used to describe the way the facial muscles, lips and the mouth are used by musicians to play wind instruments, such as the trombone Knepper played. That blow from Mingus, a big man, damaged his embouchure and affected the way he could play for a couple of years.
Several musicians were victims of Mingus’s rage, sometimes being summarily sacked or publicly rebuked. Yet the man’s sheer genius and creativity probably atones for all of that. On Mingus Ah Um, I particularly like Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, a tribute to Lester Young, a great saxophonist who’d died just before the recording of the album. And also Jelly Roll, which name-checks Jelly Roll Morton, an early jazz pianist.
When I said I picked out Mingus Ah Um again last week I was cheating. In fact, I got a cue from an unlikely quarter: to be precise, from Jehny Beth (whose original French name is Camille Berthomier). Beth is lead singer of London-based noise-rock band Savages (if you haven’t heard them, you must!) and does a show on Beats1 Radio called Making Sense with Jehny Beth. On a recent episode, she surprised me by playing three jazz tunes in succession: Thelonius Monk’s I Surrender, Dear, Mingus’s Tijuana Gift Shop, and a Chet Baker song. That’s how I turned to re-listen, for the umpteenth time, to Mingus Ah Um. Ah, um. How pleasing that can be!
Just a little coincidence about embouchures before I wind down: Chet Baker, jazz trumpeter and singer with a soft and gentle voice (I’m listening to Chet Baker Live in Italy while I write this), had a career-long struggle with drugs and once got beaten up in California after a gig when he was trying to buy drugs. That destroyed his embouchure so badly that he had to get fixed with dentures to get back to playing. Baker died at 58 in 1988 in Amsterdam where his body was found below his hotel room window. Apparently, it was drug-related. Sad.
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From HT Brunch, September 25, 2016
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