Crate Digging: Charles Mingus Blues & Roots

Charles Mingus’ Blues and Roots is a raw, fiery and surprising record from start to finish. Find out why it’s too often overlooked, and why it’s recommended listening every musician and fan – even those who aren’t into of jazz.

By all accounts, 1959 was a pretty good year for American instrumental music. It saw the creation of  nearly a dozen albums that would become some of the biggest touchstones in jazz for a half-century to come.

In that single year, Miles Davis released the modal masterpiece Kind Of Blue, John Coltrane pushed the boundaries of song and chordal structures with Giant Steps, Ornette Coleman prophesied free-form compositions with The Shape Of Jazz To Come, and Dave Brubeck made odd meters mainstream with Time Out.

Charles Mingus, for his part, recorded not one, but three masterpiece albums in ’59. Blues and Roots, Mingus Ah Um, and Mingus Dynasty are all landmark records on their right. And each of them might even sound fresher to today’s listeners than some of the other classics from the same year.

The Mingus Discography

Biographer Gene Santoro credits Charles Mingus with 102 releases as a bandleader and another 80 as a sideman. So where to start?

1959’s Ah Um is often cited as the quintessential Mingus album. It’s not hard to imagine why. The record is a flawless combination of genteel finesse and raw emotive power, steeped in the language of iconic mid-century jazz music. In stores today, you’ll often find it paired with the equally excellent and fairly similar Mingus Dynasty which recorded and released the same year.

On both of these albums, Mingus was out to marry the dapper sophistication of Duke Ellington with the jerky stream-of-consciousness of Thelonious Monk; the studied angularity of Igor Stravinsky with the throbbing swing of Baptist gospel. He succeeded, and it sounds really motherf*ing good.

But in back in February 1959, before he recorded either of those albums, Mingus went into the studio at the request of music-critic-turned-Atlantic Records-exec Nesuhi Ertegun, who asked him to try something different.  Something that came from the most unconscious part of his brass ensemble.

The result is Blues & Roots, a record that features moments with more balls, swagger, and visceral force than almost anything else before or since. For those listeners who aren’t entirely comfortable with the language of jazz, it’s probably the best introduction to the temperamental genius of Charles Mingus.

Mingus The Man

Charles Mingus is remembered as a bass player, pianist and composer. Heavy-set and irascible, he was known for self-important tantrums and a bullying approach.

In a musical argument, Mingus once punched his trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the lip, cracking a tooth and knocking a crown straight out the player’s mouth. According to Knepper, his upper octaves never sounded the same again. Although he avoided the hard drugs he saw tearing apart his contemporaries Miles Davis and Charlie “Bird” Parker, Mingus developed an on-again-off-again reliance on diet pills that he failed to see as an addiction.

Jim Paul Eilers, who ran Showplace in Greenwich Village, remembers Mingus literally pulling the strings out of piano when he was told the club would be phasing in new replacement acts after a solid year of Mingus concerts.

“One night he just got so upset, he started pulling out the piano’s strings. That takes an incredible amount of strength,” Eilers remembers in Gene Santoro’s biography of Mingus, Myself When I Am Real. “He didn’t bleed at all; too many calluses on his hands, probably. But he just didn’t want to leave. It was such a beautiful piano… but I didn’t hold it against him.”

He had unusual habits. There were times he ate dinner on stage. He could be seen in the clubs eating brandy snifters full of ice cream, and chasing them down with a pickle, theorizing it would “break up the fat” and keep him from gaining weight.

Mingus reportedly hated to hear people talking during his sets. He’d heckle his audience, sometimes it would be serious, sometimes it was part of the show. Often it was hard to tell the difference, perhaps even for Mingus himself. At one point he even threw his instrument at the crowd, sending his $20,000 bass crashing at the feet of an especially chatty table New York’s Five Spot.

These sensational stories are real and often-told, but to make a one-dimensional characterture of Mingus would be a mistake. He was insecure and narcissitic perhaps, prone to dominant posturing and great mistakes of temper – but he could also be profusely apologetic, suave, or charming.

Despite a handful of violent altercations, Mingus’ aggression was more often pomp and showmanship. More often than not he’d stand down from real confrontation, especially if when he was outmatched. Mingus had a sense to humor to match his size and was also a voracious reader, even if his attention often strayed from book to book. He wrote a long, sprawling, and half-invented autobiography throughout his life titled Beneath The Underdog.

There were moments where Mingus the man could be a tempestous clown. For certain, his moods swung as hard as his best tunes. In ways it would hold him back artistically, professionally, economically, and personally. But there were also moments when Mingus was a king. Blues & Roots is one of them.

An Organizational Genius

Mingus had what Dizzy Gillespie would call “an organizational genius.”

A few years before Blues and Roots Mingus was in his mid-thirties and finally had his first small successes as a bandleader. In 1956 he released Pithecanthropus Erectus and followed it in 1957 with The Clown.

Both albums are a great listen from start to finish and each features more than one standout track. On the former, the most memorable might be “Foggy Day”, a brainy but visceral piece where of Mingus’ brass ensemble use their instruments to impersonate car honks and fog horns over an infectious figure. The convincingly accurate blats and sqwuacks are freeform and gestural, but also deeply musical. As a whole, Erectus leans toward Mingus’ erudite side.

But on The Clown, Mingus wanted to remind the world he could swing. The real standout composition here was “Haitian Fight Song”, a track so reeling, ballsy and steeped in gospel blues that’s it’s impossible to separate from the larger-than-life personality of the man who wrote it.

“Why not make an entire record for us that sounds like that?” asked Nesuhi Ertegün of Atlantic.

Mingus was apprehensive at first, worried that he wouldn’t be taken seriously in the jazz community if he made an entire record that that only paid homage to the most basic of his roots. Mingus wrote:

He wanted to give them a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy. I thought it over. I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I’ve grown up and I like to do things other than just swing. But blues can do more than just swing. So I agreed.”

I’m thankful he did.

The Sound

All the classic instrumental jazz albums made in 1959 can be seen as an extension of, or a reaction to Bebop. In ways, Blues & Roots might be both.

Where Miles Davis veered away from Bebop by on Kind Of Blue and the equally listenable Sketches of Spain by steering toward minimalism and modality, Mingus reacted to the form by bringing swing, structure and concise emotional expression back to improvisation. If Kind of Blue is the pinnacle of cool jazz, then Blues & Roots is steaming hot lava of molten emotion, contained by rootsy structures, and driven by a near-tyranical bandleader who never let self-expression cross the line into self-indulgence.

To Mingus, any solo that lasted more than two choruses was likely to drift into cliché, boredom, mannerism, or all of the above. On Mingus records, soloists sounded more awake, alive, and more like themselves than they did on other dates. He expected a lot of them, and they gave a lot of themselves. There’s no better place to hear this effect than on Blues & Roots.

Earlier in Mingus’ career, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (who was a momentous force in popularizing the virtuosic Bebop style along with saxist Charlie “Bird” Parker) joked that all the trumpet players Mingus hired sounded like himself, and that all his sax players sounded like Parker.

Gillespie’s comment was more than grandstanding. His and Parker’s influence was inescapable at the time. As Mingus’ career evolved, when he bullied his players, it was often to lambast into stripping away their affect, to heckle and frustrate them into sounding like themselves for the first time.

Blues and Roots achieves this. Songs like Moanin’ and Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting are uniquely human and unrestrained. According to saxist Charles McPherson in Santoro’s biography:

“Aesthetically, he liked organized chaos. Now, that’s a hard tightrope to walk. What’s too much chaos and what’s not enough? And how are you going to get the other guys in the band to know exactly what you mean when you may not mean the same thing tomorrow? It means a lot of the time you scare yourself when you’re almost falling. And sometimes you fall. It’s that risk that’s part of the attraction.”

More than 50 years later, Blues & Roots is as fresh and energizing as music can be.

Although it was recorded in the beginning of 1959, the LP’s release was held back a full year. It wasn’t filled with sounds that Mingus felt would appeal to the discerning jazz fans he still so wanted to earn favor with. This album was something wilder, more rootsy and more basic to our humanity than that. That’s also precisely why Blues & Roots may be the best entry point to Mingus’ music for today’s eclectic music fans.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, From The Vaults, November 2011. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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