I accidentally held a birthday celebration for Charles Mingus last Friday. The influential bass player would have been 94 years old on April 22nd.
This accident was started a few weeks ago when I found a minty looking copy of the 1979 Joni Mitchell album Mingus at the local used record store. The cover was perfect, the artwork was bright and beautiful, and the shiny black record showed no wear whatsoever.
Being a fan of the Weather Report era Mitchell albums, but never having heard Mingus before, I took the plunge.
I mean with Hancock, Shorter, and Pastorius involved what did I have to lose, right? To boot, four of these compositions were from the man himself (with lyrics by Mitchell)… three brand new compositions and a reimagining of the classic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (from the Mingus Ah Um album).
After I got it home and excitedly loaded onto the turntable, what I could hear over the screeching coming out of the right speaker sounded pretty darn good!
Yup, screeching. Someone had played this pristine looking album with a broken stylus or something else that damaged the right side of the groove throughout. Fortunately the store took back this damaged beauty, but now I had to have a copy!
Trouble is, I had never seen this album in the wild before.
So, the hunt was on! My first stop was eBay where mint condition copies were selling for upwards of $20… add in shipping and that seemed to rich for my thrift store sensibilities. Next stop was the Discogs database where $10 – $20 were plentiful.
I settled on a listing that was described as mint for the low low price of $5 plus another $4 for shipping. It sounded too good to be true, but the seller had a 100% favorable rating from 100 other buyers… “What the heck” I thought “I’ll give it a try”.
Two weeks later a moldy, dirty and scratched copy of this elusive record showed up on my doorstep. So much for “mint”.
Later that same week, I visited a thrift store out of town. Going through the single rack of used records I did manage to find a few gems. As I was packing out my lot to the checkout line an employee said “Hey are you interested in looking at some more vinyl? We have a few bins of it out back we just don’t have room to display out here on the floor”.
There was rock, there was a country, there was blues, there was jazz! Amongst the 130 albums I came home with there was a copy of Mingus… not mint but VG+ for sure!
With the album all cleaned up and spit-shined, and the morning to myself before work, I finally gave Mingus the attention it deserved.
First off, if you’ve never heard this era of Joni Mitchell recordings… this is not hippie, Woodstock, Big Yellow Taxi, Mitchell… It’s very experimental and free (almost free) jazz… with Mitchell’s haunting vocals and buzzing acoustic guitar throughout.
Interspersed throughout the record are sections labeled as “rap”, they’re basically home recordings made by Mingus’s wife Sue.
Pouring over the liner notes, it seems that someone had introduced Mingus to Mitchell’s music and he took it upon himself to compose some music for her and suggest a collaboration. Mingus was suffering the full effects of ALS at this time, confined to a wheelchair and no longer able to play. But he was still able to compose and arrange.
These rough sketches were taken to recording studios in LA and New York and worked out by a fantastic lineup of musicians. Listed in the liner notes are such luminaries as Gerry Mulligan on saxophone John McLaughlin on guitar Jan Hammer on synthesizer and Stanley Clarke on bass.
Mitchell claimed that Mingus heard all of the tracks on this record before he passed away in January of 1979… all except one. Written two days after his death, the Mitchell song God Must Be A Boogie Man was inspired by the opening salvo of Mingus’s autobiography Beneath The Underdog.
This is a beautifully presented and recorded album. The musicianship is top-notch and the production by Gary Katz is fantastic.
Mingus was cremated on January 6th 1979 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where has been seeking treatment for his ailment. His ashes were scattered on the Ganges River by his wife.
The final bit of the liner notes are a poem by Mitchell:
Sue and the holy River
Will send you to the Saints of jazz
To Duke and Bird and Fats
And any other Saints you have.