Mingus Ah Um

Charles Mingus

album cover

The Whole Time Line of Jazz, in Forty Minutes

The crowded and cacophonous time line of jazz comes alive in the music of Charles Mingus. The bassist and thinker, one of the most erudite of bandleaders, had the rare ability to channel ghosts from long ago—the jumps of Jelly Roll Morton, the tirades of bebop—into music that couldn't have been born a second earlier.

Mingus made music that was so joltingly alive it scared people. This album, his first for Columbia Records, is described by one record guide as an "extended tribute to ancestors," and that's certainly part of what's going on: There are nods to tenor saxophonist Lester Young ("Goodbye Pork Pie Hat") and Duke Ellington ("Open Letter to Duke") and Jelly Roll Morton ("Jelly Roll"). But Mingus doesn't freeze his sources in their historical moment. Situating them inside his group's rowdy irreverence, he brings them into the present, makes them part of his story.

By 1959, Mingus, forever interested in the world beyond jazz, had developed a sound that bubbled with blues and the fervor of gospel. These are key ingredients in Ah Um. The opening wail "Better Git It in Your Soul," arguably the single piece that sums up Mingus best, is built on a boisterous prayer-meeting gospel vamp. Its fast-moving call-and-response volleys are punc- tuated by saxophone honks and vocal exclamations as things heat up, giving the piece the feeling of a happening. That's what Mingus wanted. He taught his musicians by singing and playing the parts on piano, providing just enough guidance to get his twisting themes across—and trusting that the musicians would take it from there, contributing exuberant outbursts of their own.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 1959, Columbia
Key Tracks: "Better Git It in Your Soul," "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"
Catalog Choice: Blues and Roots; Money Jungle; Pithycanthropus Erectus
Next Stop: George Russell: The Jazz Workshop
After That: Air: Air Lore
Book Page: 504

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