Sixty Years Later \\ Theon Cross on Charles Mingus’ classic, ‘Mingus Ah Um’

7th August 2019
Sixty years after its release, broadcaster and writer Ben Noble reflects on the evergreen power of Charles Mingus’ ‘Mingus Ah Um’, with the help of tuba player Theon Cross. 

Unique in its ability to both reflect the past of Jazz and predict its future, Charles Mingus’ ‘Mingus Ah Um’ is often referred to as the ideal entry point to the bassist’s colossal repertoire of over fifty albums. Immaculately polished, it nonetheless manages to feel nonchalant, reflecting the swagger of Mingus’ towering personality, along with all its warmth, humour, and frustration. His roving inclusivity, tense arrangements and elastic style set a precedent still grasped at by musicians today.

‘Mingus Ah Um’ is a kind of musical collage sometimes likened to the eclectic work of the Beatles in the late 1960s – on the one hand, there’s nods to history in the warped swing of ‘Jelly Roll’, a loving caricature of Jelly Roll Morton’s style, and the mournful traditionalism of ‘Open Letter to Duke’ (Duke Ellington was a major influence on – and later a collaborator, with – Mingus). On the other, Mingus is out in front of the avant-garde: the track ‘Bird’ sees bird-calls mimicked on brass; Jazz meets gospel in ‘Better Get Hit In Your Soul’, with its spontaneous devotional yells; and ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ showcases post-modern, racy noir styles. The result was a modern pastiche that pushed beyond hard bop to something new and compelling

We spoke to Theon Cross, the London based tuba player ubiquitous in today’s scene. “It’s a masterpiece”, Theon says of ‘Mingus Ah Um’. “Mingus’ music incorporates many of the Jazz traditions that came before him, while also creating a sound that’s unique and undeniably Mingus.” This wide-ranging approach still resonates today: “it’s something all musicians try to accomplish. Albums like these are blueprints, essential listening for learning how to develop writing and arranging.”

The album is also a study in discipline vs. style. Mingus brought the strictly managed big band tradition to bear on a small group, insisting on mastery while allowing artistry to flourish. Songs are shorter, as are solos, and the album is incredibly consistent as a result. “Mingus Ah Um’ is a great example of how music can be very loose yet still be incredibly tight, well arranged and carry important themes and messages,” says Cross. Mingus has been a personal influence on his tuba playing, too: “I’ve always found the way [he] writes for tuba in his bands interesting. Seeing the way he utilises it has been a great inspiration for me seeing the instrument in different Jazz contexts”.

A lot of ‘Ah Um’s colour comes from Mingus’ understanding of music as an emotional and political space, a place for activism where he could mourn or vent frustrations. ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, an instant standard, is a eulogy to Lester Young that wordlessly conveys the sense of loss to the Jazz scene at the time. The cartoonish, farcical sounds of ‘Fables of Faubus’ make a buffoon of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who had refused to de-segregate schools in Little Rock, leading president Eisenhower to send in the National Guard to escort African-Americans into college. The fact that Mingus could make Jazz sound not only joyful or sad, forlorn or angry, but satirical, even funny, is a true mark of his genius.

Although rooted in bebop, ‘Mingus Ah Um’ made even the cutting-edge Jazz acts of the time sound old-fashioned. As one of four albums Mingus recorded in 1959, its ability to absorb and reinvent the genre make it enduringly original. Meticulously composed though it may be, it also has a glowing vitality, a fluidity that makes it feel untethered and personal. No wonder musicians today still aim for this delicate balance.

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