Mingus Ah Um
With such major statements as Pithecanthropus Erectus and The Clown behind him, bassist-composer Charles Mingus reached an early career height in 1959 with Mingus Ah Um, his first album for Columbia. It’s not trivial that roughly half of it was recorded on May 5, the same day that John Coltrane waxed roughly half of Giant Steps for Atlantic. Creative fire and intelligence were in the air, and Mingus’ contribution was as bluesy and timelessly melodic as ever, performed by a eight-piece incarnation of his Jazz Workshop. The abstract cover art of S. Neil Fujita (who also designed Dave Brubeck’s Time Out cover) evoked a modernist mindset well-suited to some of Mingus’ most enduring compositions, including the dark, dissonant ballad “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” an implied homage to saxophone great Lester Young (with a John Handy tenor solo that Joni Mitchell later set to words on her album Mingus). With the Young dedication as well as the multilayered “Open Letter to Duke,” the minor-key uptempo swinger “Bird Calls,” and the playful finale “Jelly Roll,” Mingus seemed to be working out his own place in the jazz pantheon. The result was avant-garde in its way, even if not as conceptually radical as Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, recorded for Atlantic just two weeks later. Mingus’ music conveyed a unique sense of abandon—one hears it in his uninhibited vocal hollers at the outset of “Better Git It in Your Soul.” There’s also an overt connection to the freedom struggle of the time, evident in “Fables of Faubus,” one of jazz’s most celebrated protest songs, which was aimed at the governor of Arkansas in the aftermath of Little Rock's school-integration crisis. (Columbia, however, shied away from including Mingus’ scathing lyrics, which can be heard instead on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus from 1960 on Candid, under the title “Original Faubus Fables.”) Given that he produced Mingus Ah Um and Brubeck’s Time Out (and coproduced Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue as well), Teo Macero’s role in the jazz sound of 1959 can’t be overlooked. The splices he used to shorten six of the nine tracks on Mingus Ah Um were predictive of techniques he’d employ 10 years later (to much different ends) on Davis’ Bitches Brew.