In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
I remember when interviewers used to ask him, despite the breadth of his legacy, how he fit into traditional categories that included European classical forms, bebop, Dixieland, gospel, Latin rhythms, and the blues—all genres of music he drew upon in his compositions and then transcended. He would look up and sigh: “Can’t you just call it Mingus music?” —Sue Mingus
Today is the day Charles Mingus Jr. would be turning 98 years old. Only two years left to prepare for the centennial! It should be epic: the mark he left on 20th century music was profound and lasting. He leaves behind this monumental legacy even though his life was cut short—he died at age 56 after a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Let’s celebrate Mingus with a look back at his musical legacy through some wildly different covers of his material. We’ll include several from the past couple of years, and one from an artist born well after Mingus had passed, proving that his spirit is still with us to this day.
Raised in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood during the 1920s and ’30s, Mingus made his first real mark playing with Louis Armstrong in 1943. During the formative years of bebop, he gigged with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. A virtuoso on double bass, he earned a slot in the band of his idol, Duke Ellington, and promptly got fired (something about an on-stage knife fight).
Shedding the sideman role, Mingus took matters into his own massive hands: he became bandleader and composer, music publisher and record label owner. Major label success and financial rewards arrived in the late ’50s, when he unleashed a series of groundbreaking albums. Among them was the game-changer, 1959’s Mingus Ah Um. (The album is a focus of the BBC documentary 1959, The Year That Changed Jazz.)
On the heels of that success came a roller coaster of emotional and physical health struggles. The death of his collaborator Eric Dolphy in 1964 left Mingus in a depression that lasted years. The bandstand increasingly became Mingus’ soapbox as the civil rights movement heated up. 1974 saw a return to creative form with an exciting new band and a pair of recordings, Changes One and Changes Two. The diagnosis of ALS disease came in 1977 and with it the news that he had 3-6 months to live.
But Mingus would not be silenced so easily. Through 1978 he was still going, still creating, still conducting new music from his wheelchair. He had Joni Mitchell write lyrics for and sing his final set of melodies. He lived long enough to be honored by President Jimmy Carter at the White House. In January 1979 Charles Mingus Jr. passed away in Cuernavaca, Mexico. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.
More than any other jazz composer of his generation, he was willing—-determined-—to confront his fears and force his musicians to confront theirs. He was dogmatic, pensive, demagogic, irreverent, furious, nostalgic: a far cry from the cool and collected brainy music rife in jazz in the ’50s, but nowhere near as anarchic as the orphaned dissidents of the shrieking ’60s. He is the best example we have of disciplined turmoil. – Gary Giddins
OK, bring on the covers!
Elvis Costello with Hal Willner – Weird Nightmare (Charles Mingus cover)
Impresario Hal Willner, who died earlier this month from COVID-19 complications, produced a carnivalesque tribute to Mingus back in 1992. He called this project Weird Nightmare, and in chaotic Willner fashion, he united a multiverse of players to make it. Among them were mercurial figures like Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot (on banjo!), Charlie Watts and Keith Richards, Henry Rollins and Henry Threadgill. To sing the title track, Willner tapped Elvis Costello.
The song “Weird Nightmare” is among the earliest works in the Mingus canon, dating from 1946, but it’s one that Mingus revisited more than once. Costello sings it as if he wrote it himself; it could be the flip side to “Watching the Detectives.” Costello returned to this song in different settings, just like Mingus. You can find him doing it on later occasions with Bill Frisell, and with Andy Summers of the Police.
A weird thing about Weird Nightmare: throughout the project Willner insisted on using a set of eccentric and impractical instruments invented by Harry Partch, the maverick American composer. That’s just the sort of mischief Mingus would have liked. Fortunately for all of us, the process of recording Weird Nightmare has been documented in a film by Ray Davies (yes, Ray Davies of The Kinks). Thanks for that, Ray. And thanks for everything, Hal Willner.
Maceo Parker – Better Get It In Your Soul (Charles Mingus cover)
So much for the brooding and haunted side of Mingus. We now swing in the other direction, and hear Mingus in a high-spirited rollicking romp. Soul and funk-master Maceo Parker of James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic fame leads the way. With Bootsy Collins on bass, this one heads directly to the dance floor and never leaves. The great Don Pullen, a Mingus alumnus known for avant-jazz piano styling, is sounding great here on soulful Hammond organ. It’s a straight-ahead run through one of Mingus’ most popular numbers.
Andy Summers – Remember Rockefeller at Attica (Charles Mingus cover)
After fleeing The Police, Sting famously hooked up with the finest jazz musicians he could hire. Police guitarist Andy Summers waded into jazz waters too, recording album-length tributes to Thelonious Monk (Green Chimneys) and Charles Mingus (Peggy’s Blue Skylight). Summers had A-list collaborators for both projects, including the Jazz Passengers and The Kronos Quartet. Here is Summers taking on a high-intensity and multi-faceted number from the mid-70s, “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” The guitarist adheres to the spirit if not the energy of the original. The Latin feel is a unique spin, as is Alison Wedding’s vocalization of the melody (with its echo of the Star Trek tv show theme).
Kyle Eastwood – Boogie Stop Shuffle (Charles Mingus cover)
A Mingus survey wouldn’t be complete without a contemporary ensemble led by a double bassist. Enter Paris-based Kyle Eastwood. After years of playing hard bop jazz and composing for film, Eastwood knows how to lead, and how to find killer players worth leading. The Mingus credit in his repertoire is “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” Eastwood made it the closer on his 2017 In Transit album. Eastwood boogies right through this burner, hardly breaking a sweat. No gimmicks, no overthinking, nothing but the real thing. A side note here: The bassist’s father happens to be Clint Eastwood, who is known to be a decent jazz pianist himself. More to the point: he directed Bird, a Charlie Parker biopic. It’s a rare Hollywood film about jazz that succeeds. All the love and respect for the music that it took to pull that film together is present in Kyle Eastwood and his band.
Chrissie Hynde – Meditation On a Pair of Wire Cutters (Charles Mingus cover)
This is the most recent of the cover songs in this list, appearing on Hynde’s 2019 Valve Bone Woe (check out our review from last year). It’s an instrumental number, so Hynde’s voice is hardly present here: she’s literally humming a few bars somewhere deep in the mix. But none of this is what makes her cover distinctive. It’s the fact that it’s only about 3 minutes long.
Let’s back up: The Mingus original is epic, an extended suite of several sections lasting up to 31 minutes depending on which concert or studio recording you listen to. He performed the suite with a number of line-ups, changing the title each time. The first recording of it features 16-year-old Jane Getz on piano. (Her account of this scarifying event is available here and is a fascinating read.) But the iconic version of “Meditation” features Eric Dolphy on sax, bass clarinet, and flute. It was Dolphy’s thoughts on slavery that inspired Mingus to write the piece; after Dolphy’s death, Mingus referred to the suite as “Praying with Eric.”
So what’s with Hynde’s drastic reduction? She can do what she likes with the music she loves, of course, and purists can gnash their teeth all they want. Some will. But as Mingus himself said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple—-awesomely simple-—that’s creativity.”
George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet – Diane (Charles Mingus cover)
In terms of the greatest performing team to spin off of a Mingus ensemble, it has to be the George Adams-Don Pullen quartet, with long-term Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond as its engine. These are the guys who brought “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” to life, and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” too. Pullen (piano) and Adams (sax) parted ways from each other and from Mingus in 1976, but in the ’80s they reunited and brought in Richmond, who’d stayed with Mingus to the end. Here they stretch out on a Mingus song from 1959, “Diane.” Playing live at the Village Vanguard, the extend the short, pensive original into a flowing fantasia twice as long as the Mingus recording.
John McLaughlin – Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat (Charles Mingus cover)
Our memorial to Mingus concludes with pieces Mingus composed in memory of his own departed heroes. First up is “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ most renowned composition, a tribute to the leading tenor sax player of his day, Lester Young. Young died in 1959, just weeks before the Mingus Ah Um recording date.
The original recording of the ballad calls on two tenor saxophonists to play the melody in near unison. For a song so saturated in saxophone and sax history, it’s the guitarists of the world who seem most drawn to it. Bert Jansch and John Renbourn in Great Britain were the first artists to cover it. Jeff Beck recorded it in 1976 and still features it in concert. The list goes on.
John McLaughlin’s rendition from 1972 is a real standout. It’s from a period when McLaughlin was forging the “jazz fusion” genre, with the likes of Miles Davis and Tony Williams. But the only things getting fused in this rendition are feeling, style, and energy. Here it’s just McLaughlin solo and unplugged (with some overdubbing). The way he attack the strings suggests he had been listening to the Jansch/Renbourn version.
Kandace Springs – Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love (Charles Mingus cover)
On to the other memorial tune from Mingus. It honors Duke Ellington, the one composer that Mingus would acknowledge as his superior (and one of the few people Mingus himself chose to cover). His response to Ellington’s death in 1974 brought forth one of his greatest pieces, “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.” Mingus recorded it twice, first instrumentally and then with lyrics. Here it’s Kandace Springs soulfully singing those lyrics, backed by Jules Buckley and his Metropole Orkest. Earlier this year, Springs released an album of covers, The Women Who Raised Me–maybe this 2017 performance inspired that project: she is so clearly in her element here, in a loving embrace of two past masters.
There’s more to cover, but we’ll leave some for the centennial in 2022. Meanwhile, if you want to stream some original Mingus music, and find out how his legacy is being carried forward, visit Charlesmingus.com.