“Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.” – Charles Mingus
Bassist and composer Charles Mingus was a true original. Everything he did was from his heart and was remarkably fresh while still respecting the tradition of jazz. He led his own bands of various sizes from the ’50s until his death in the late ’70s. His best known bands were medium-sized ensembles of eight to 12 musicians, which is fairly uncommon but allowed him to sound both like a big band and a smaller ensemble as he saw fit.
His compositions are remarkable in that they are both highly-structured and very free at the same time. He was a big fan of collective improvisation, which dates back to the early jazz from New Orleans that we talked about when discussing Louis Armstrong.
As you hear in the featured song today, there are elements of highly technical playing where the band has to play together as a tight-unit as well as parts that sound very chaotic with all the instruments soloing simultaneously. I think this perfectly mirrored Mingus’s personality, which was at times calm and serene and at times ferocious and mean. He was know to fire musicians in the middle of gigs, yell at bandmates he didn’t think were doing things right and even throwing instruments at people. Ironically, he also kept a fairly consistent band together for years in the ’60s and ’70s. He was certainly an enigma.
Mingus was also one of the first musicians to start his own record label. He and drummer Max Roach started Debut Records in 1952 to release music from his contemporaries. Debut records released many of the classic bebop albums of the era.
In 1959, Mingus released the album “Ah Um,” which many feel is his finest work. This was the same year that many classic albums were released, including some we’ve talked about like Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out,” and others by John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans.
This was a watershed year in jazz, and “Ah Um” is definitely a big reason for that. The album features many of Mingus’s long-time collaborators: saxophonists John Handy and Booker Ervin, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, pianist Horace Parlan and drummer Dannie Richmond, among others. All the music on the album was written by Mingus and refers either to his heroes (including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Lester Young) or events that were important to him. Today’s song, “Better Git It In Your Soul,” is an homage to the church music he grew up with. As you’ll hear, it sounds at times like an ecstatic church service. That’s one thing I love about Mingus’s music — it always sounds fun!
I’m going to leave you with a bonus track as well. This is from a legendary concert in 1953 that featured Mingus with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Roach. This was a one time only concert with five of the top bebop musicians, and it was never repeated. It’s considered one of the finest live jazz recordings ever. This song is Dizzy’s “A Night In Tunisia.”
Tomorrow we’ll talk about another true original, Thelonious Monk.
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as “the next generation of Seattle jazz.” Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.