Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Charles Mingus
Why it’s daunting: In his lurid, hallucinatory memoir Beneath The Underdog, Charles Mingus details—with a penchant for psychotherapy that also pops up in one of his greatest albums, The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady—how his personality was split into three: the observer, the animal, and the sucker. As subjective as Mingus’ self-diagnosis was, in real life, he did indeed embody a trio of facets. He was a composer capable of stunning emotion, sophistication, and prolificacy. He was a virtuoso—bass being his primary instrument, a funnel through which he conveyed everything from ribald humor to tenderness to savage outrage. And he was a self-mythologist whose overcompensating sense of his own righteousness and virility is simultaneously buttressed and demolished in Beneath The Underdog—and in his music.
The difficulty of diving into Mingus has less to do with his complexity as either man or musician and more to do with the size of his catalog. From his first sessions as a leader in the ’40s to his long artistic peak throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Mingus was a force of nature; in that 20-year period, he recorded more than 40 albums. And although he was an incredible handler of standards, he composed the vast majority of his recorded work, fueled by a compulsion to create, if not reorder reality. That said, Mingus never failed to swing. During his tumultuous life and career, no fleeting trend or sublime ambition kept him from making jazz that pulsed and breathed. A bad album with the name Mingus on it is a rarity; still some of his releases are far more suitable than others as introductions to his passionate, relentlessly probing oeuvre.
Possible gateway: Mingus Ah Um
Why: Released in 1959, Mingus Ah Um launched an on-again, off-again association with Columbia Records that was far less productive—but no less vital—than his friend Miles Davis’ tenure on the label. Which isn’t to say that Mingus wasn’t prolific during that period. Hopping from label to label during his creative prime, he nonetheless set the pace with Ah Um, an album that stands as his most recognizable and accessible. If Mingus has such a thing as a “hit song,” it’s Ah Um’s gripping opener, “Better Git It In Your Soul.” From its infectious brass vamp to Mingus’ gospel-tinged holler, the song showcases the deceptive ease of his wit and intricacy.
The album is also graced with a dizzying burst of Mingus’ characteristic impressionism (“Bird Calls”); tributes to a handful of his jazz heroes (Lester Young on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Duke Ellington on “Open Letter To Duke,” and Jelly Roll Morton on “Jelly Roll”); and a stinging repudiation of a man he loathed: Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus, whose anti-integration stance—and the unrest it subsequently caused—spurred Mingus to immortalize him in the venomous, elephantine, sardonically phrased “Fables Of Faubus.” “Goodye Pork Pie Hat,” however, would survive as one of Mingus’ few contributions to the canon of standards; amid tenderly shared lines from saxophonists John Handy, Booker Ervin, and Shafi Hadi—plus the simpatico touch of pianist Horace Parlan and Mingus’ staunchest sideman, drummer Dannie Richmond—the song beautifully captures Mingus’ own grief as well as the feathery tone of its subject, the late Young.
Next steps: Mingus had already built a formidable catalog of albums as a leader before 1956’s Pithecanthropus Erectus. But Pithecanthropus was his Big Bang, the first comprehensive statement of his outlandish attempt to fuse bop, big-band jazz, and even elements of pop and modern classical into a workable synthesis of 20th-century music. Alongside an imagistic rendition of George Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” is the dynamic title track, which packs almost everything great about Mingus into a teeming 10 minutes. In addition to his savvy and invention as a composer, Mingus uses his bass to sigh, groan, laugh, yell, scrape, tickle, and trip. Not to mention swing: Despite his forays here (and later) into semi-improvisation and head-spinning complexity, Mingus was committed to swinging deeply and profoundly. As Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) pointed out in his jazz treatise Black Music, not only was Pithecanthropus a “massive orchestral breakthrough” that presaged Ornette Coleman’s crystallization of free jazz three years later, the title’s allusion to the first upright human resonated as both artistic bravado and a call for black identity and pride. While tentative in spots, Pithecanthropus formed the template from which Mingus’ essential string of mid-period masterpieces—among them The Clown, Blues & Roots, Mingus Dynasty, and Oh Yeah—would spring.
He may have helped lay the groundwork for Coleman and his free-jazz brethren, but Mingus never fully took to the movement. Indeed, he aimed potshots at the chaos of free jazz every chance he could get—although one of his best albums is nearly a parody of it. Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus was released in 1960—mere months after Coleman’s watershed The Shape Of Jazz To Come—and its unorthodox, piano-less roster (alto sax, trumpet, bass, drums) seemed to lampoon Shape’s similar lineup. Lean and severe, it’s a disc full of jolts and jabs—the sharpest being “Original Faubus Fables,” a shakedown cruise on the tune that would become Ah Um’s “Fables Of Faubus.” Here, though, Mingus doesn’t just let the music do the talking; he takes the opportunity to add vocals, calling the titular governor, among other things, “sick and ridiculous” and “a Nazi fascist supreme.” The song drew a lot of lightning, but even more electrifying is the saxophone of Eric Dolphy, one of the most stunning and innovative multi-instrumentalists in jazz history (although his career was cut tragically short by his death in 1964).
Like most of his tenures with record labels, Mingus’ time on the legendary Impulse! imprint was fleeting. But the experience allowed him to indulge in some worthwhile experiments, including his reimagining of some of his most noted compositions, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, and his surprisingly excellent piano album, Mingus Plays Piano. But the centerpiece of his Impulse! catalog—and arguably his whole career—is The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady. With an 11-piece band at his disposal, Mingus dredged his own mental instability (his psychoanalyst wrote the album’s extensive liner notes) and the studio itself (Black Saint is one of the first jazz records to use overdubbing as an art) for inspiration. The result is thick, tangled, recursive sprawl incorporating everything from symphonic grandeur to balletic poise to flamenco guitar. Mingus lets his music feed off itself, but rather than being merely self-indulgent—which it proudly is—Black Saint is one of the purest examples of Mingus’ vehement impurity.
For such a stormy personality, Mingus was relatively able to play well with others—that is, as long as he was in charge. Accordingly, he appeared on few albums as a sideman after making his mark as a leader. But his final recording gig as such, 1963’s Money Jungle, also happens to be his best. Joined by his biggest hero and influence, Duke Ellington, as well as his Debut Records partner and master drummer Max Roach, Mingus plays some of the most arresting bass of his life. Despite or because of the idol worship, there’s a subliminal battle of ego and generation going on between Ellington and Mingus—a give-and-take (or lack thereof) that bleeds into otherwise quiet tracks like “Fleurette Africaine.” Money Jungle is strung together by alternating passages of, not so much tension and release, but pique and fatigue. It makes for a breathtaking listen.
Where not to start: To Mingus’ credit, he’s one of his few contemporaries who didn’t succumb to the lure of fusion in the ’70s (just as he resisted free jazz in the decade prior). His major works from the early-to-mid-’70s—Let My Children Hear Music and Changes One and Two—are incredible, but they smolder where his early works exploded, and are therefore less likely to snare the newcomer. Another record from the ’70s that might seem to be the perfect bridge to Mingus’ world is Joni Mitchell’s 1979 album Mingus—a collaboration completed only after he died that year at the age of 56, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease and unable to play bass. The album itself is gorgeous, but it’s understandably more Mitchell’s show than Mingus’, although the album’s haunted version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” serves as an evocative, if unintended, epitaph for the man.
Speaking of epitaphs: Mingus’ magnum opus (a flawed live version of which came out in 1964 as Town Hall Concert) was performed in 1989 as Epitaph. Reconstructed from thousands of pages of Mingus’ notes, the staggering, two-hour piece was brought to life by a 30-piece orchestra and later released on CD. Before the heartbreaking failure of Town Hall, Mingus had meant Epitaph to be the ultimate statement of his vision—and perhaps his life. But its density and gravity isn’t for the initiate. His other live albums range from mediocre to amazing, with the famed Jazz At Massey Hall—which captures the 1953 dream lineup of Mingus, Max Roach, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker—being as muddy and frustrating as it is historic. 1964’s Mingus At Monterey is another blazing set muffled by poor recording. (Below is a 1964 clip featuring Mingus and crew—which includes the fierce yet elegant Eric Dolphy—burning through Mingus’ “Meditations On Integration,” a version of which closes the Monterey album.) Regardless, Mingus’ studio output is the better place to start.