The Penguin Guide to Jazz, Penguin Books’ jazz encyclopedia, has for nine editions given “crown ratings” to albums the editors feel supersede their highest rating of four stars. My object in these “Preening” articles (because that’s what penguins do) is to analyze each crown album and decide if it is a 5-star album by our count. I don’t wish to criticize Penguin’s choices, but merely to catalogue and appraise the most acclaimed records in an art form that I believe is America’s greatest export.
Some jazz records woo you. Some offer up roses, or present a gentle hand for a dance, or buy you dinner. Some records you could lie down with on a placid December night in front of a fire, or curl up with in bed on a dewy April morning. Some records you laugh with, some you cry with, and many you hearken back to fondly and warmly. And then a Mingus record comes along and flays your spleen by staring you straight in the face and daring you to blink.
Two of the myriad reasons Mingus Ah Um stands out from bassist and composer Charles Mingus’ catalog are its immediacy and relatability. The record is often seen his greatest accomplishment along with The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which the Penguin Guide both gave crowns. Where the latter is boundless and ambitious, however, Mingus Ah Um strikes a very local chord. It is a dedication in nine parts to the musicians who came before Mingus, rather than a dazzling and terrifying glimpse of jazz music to come. Nothing about this album is delicate, though: the compositions never get tangled up in themselves trying to glorify venerable artists, the musicians never imitate but for humor and context, and the composer never learned how to be anything but blunt when trying to get his point across. All this may seem a bit scary for those who haven’t listened that much to jazz, but I can assure you there aren’t too many better albums for a listener who wants to dip his feet into the art form than this one. Mingus Ah Um makes jazz new again, and it is this way for young novitiates like me just as it is for those who loved jazz before Mingus Ah Um ever came out.
In part the virgin beauty of this record is due to Mingus’ employment of young or unknown talent. Many of the musicians on Mingus Ah Um would later become successful bandleaders, but even for them their main accomplishment is still performing with Charles Mingus. He decided to forgo trumpets for his lineup and instead selected a woodwind-heavy ensemble. Booker Ervin was the default tenor saxophone player on the album, and both John Handy and Shafi Hadi switched between the alto and the tenor. Handy mainly played alto sax on these nine tracks, but Hadi split his time on each right down the middle – five songs on tenor, four on alto. The rhythm section comprised of Horace Parlan on piano, Dannie Richmond on drums, and Mingus on bass. Finally, the lone brass players were Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper, who alternated on trombone. Absent are the Max Roaches, the Red Garlands, the Clark Terrys, and the Ron Carters who so often sell records on the weight of their name as much as their talent. Dannie Richmond is well-known, but mostly for his collaborations with Joe Cocker and Elton John years later. Horace Parlan is a prolific artist, but he didn’t start recording until 1959, the year Mingus Ah Um was released. Mingus could thusly work in the absence of ego – which worked just fine, as his was enough to compensate for the loss – and create something more focused than most bop groups were recording at the time. In fact, it would stand a golden standard to just how focused a septet could get.
I spoke of this album as a “dedication.” Mingus Ah Um pays special tribute to Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Lester Young, as well as many other musicians who are not referred to expressly by name. “Open Letter to Duke” in its three movements encompasses the lively clip of “Take the ‘A’ Train” as well as the sluggish sway of “Mood Indigo.” “Jelly Roll” is as fitting an homage as one of the genre’s pioneers could hope for, complete with an exclamation of “hot dog!” from Mingus himself, presumably. The record’s most famous chart, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” is an elegy for Lester Young, the tenor saxophonist who died two months prior to the recording. “Bird Calls,” though Mingus would have you believe is not in any way connected to Charlie Parker, still echoes the blistering melodies of early bebop compositions. “Better Git It In Your Soul” is a throwback to the impassioned gospel music Mingus might have heard growing up in Watts. “Fables of Faubus” satirizes Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor whose antagonism towards desegregationist legislature was as recognizable as his limp (which the melody of the head is set to). The inspiration on “Pussy Cat Dues” is unclear, but Handy’s powerful clarinet solo evokes the memory of Sidney Bechet. The two remaining tracks, “Boogie Stop Shuffle” and “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” are not outright manifestations of any musicians, but they clearly exemplify existent ideas and conventions in jazz, including stop time in the former. The latter was almost used in John Cassavetes’ debut Shadows, a film which Shafi Hadi coincidentally ended up scoring.
All these concepts and themes would fall through if the musicianship was lacking, but on Mingus Ah Um are some of the most iconic melodies and some of the most memorable improvisation in jazz. Handy distills everything that was great about ragtime and early jazz into 28 bars on “Jelly Roll,” and Knepper’s counterpoint is just as ecstatic as Parlan’s syncopated solo. The way each voice gradually fractures and pursues its own melody on “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” is clever and beautiful. The interplay between Handy, Hadi, Ervin, and Knepper on “Better Get It in Your Soul” is dazzling, and that composition is perhaps the most dynamic I have ever heard. Hadi is at his most expressive in “Open Letter for Duke,” and the call-and-response between Ervin and him at the end is well-executed. The head on “Fables of Faubus” is hilarious, which I thought was impossible from a piece of instrumental music. All these moments forget Handy’s rare tenor solo in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which is for me the most transcendent 24 measures on the album.
Sometimes jazz should be coy, or gentle, or subtle. However, each quality has its place in the genre, and never should we think of jazz as exclusively one thing or the other. This record showed me that jazz can be as arresting, as funny, and as memorable as anything. It’s not often an album comes around that is so blunt and brutal that its minute subtleties could pass for blaring focal points on more unassuming works. For making the beauty and the terror of jazz clearer than the glass of the jewel case it came in, I’d say Mingus Ah Um has earned every inch of its crown rating.
Stream: “Better Git It in Your Soul”
Stream: “Fables of Faubus”
Stream: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”