Charles Mingus Songs: Guide To A Jazz Eccentric

One of the most prolific composers in jazz history, bassist Charles Mingus’s fiery temperament and eccentric personality was often audible in the music he wrote.

Driving his band on with a big sonorous sound and powerful rhythmic figures, join us for a look at 10 Charles Mingus songs which capture the essence of a true jazz genius.

Born in 1922, double bassist Charles Mingus cut his teeth first with some of the leading names of the 1940s swing era before establishing himself in New York as part of the burgeoning bebop scene.

It’s perhaps his earlier years, though, which were formative in his rather unique ways of working…

When first learning to play as a child, Mingus had trouble learning to sight read musical notation fluently, impeding his ability to join the local youth orchestras.

Whilst this didn’t hinder his career for long, he adopted the life-long practice of teaching his band the music by ear, rather than via sheet music.

Mingus believed that this gave them a higher level of freedom in how they expressed themselves through his songs; the examples below will often touch on just how important this was in creating his ‘sound’.

This deep connection between his music and the performance of it doesn’t stop there either.

Like his idol Duke Ellington, Mingus preferred to write for a specific pool musicians. These compositions, tailored for the unique talents within his ‘Jazz Workshops’, resonate with a depth that transcends melodies and harmonies.

This independence and originality as an artist was evident in even his earliest recordings, but it wasn’t until the mid-fifties that he really broke-through as a composer and bandleader.

The 1956 recording Pithecanthropus Erectus set the wheels in motion for a spate of classic albums in the most creative decade of his life.

We’ve picked ten Charles Mingus songs – starting with the title track of that game-changing record – which highlight some of the highest points of his creativity.

Bassist Charles Mingus playing one of his songs in New York City.
Tom Marcello Webster, New York, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pithecanthropus Erectus

From the album Pithecanthropus Erectus – Rec: 1956

Sounding as radical today as at the time of release, this Charles Mingus song is a tone poem that he said depicted the rise and fall of man.

Pithecanthropus Erectus (translated from latin as ‘upright ape-man’) is an early example of a common theme in the bassist’s work which often eschews love and romance for political or social commentary.

In his liner notes, he connects this fall of man with “his own failure to realize the inevitable emancipation of those he sought to enslave, and his greed in attempting to stand on a false security.”

The music is lucid and fluent yet has a wildness about it that is exhilarating.

Importantly, this session appears to be the first where Mingus taught the musicians to play the music by ear and not rely on written parts.

Haitian Fight Song

From the album The Clown – Rec: 1957

One of the most vital elements of Mingus’s writing is it’s deep connection to the blues and early jazz, whilst anticipating some of the developments of the free jazz of the 1960s.

As you might guess from the title, this is a dramatic Mingus composition, with an equally powerful performance by the band.

This original version opens with an intense solo by the bassist himself before the drums pick up the tempo and the horns enter, led by Jimmy Knepper’s growling trombone.

Haitian Fight Song is taken from the album that introduces drummer Dannie Richmond to the Jazz Workshop. Richmond and Mingus would strike up a deep musical association, and Richmond would stay with Mingus’s until the bassist’s death.

Ysabel’s Table Dance

From the album Tijuana Moods – Rec: 1957

Recorded just months after The Clown but not released until 1962, the album Tijuana Moods hints at some of the musical ideas that Mingus would follow up a few years later with his epic The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady (1963).

Perhaps the clearest example of that is the Charles Mingus song Ysabel’s Table Dance, with the eponymous Ysabel Morel heard on castanets and vocals, giving a Spanish tinge to the music.

Alongside the singer are many of the familiar cast from Mingus’s Jazz Workshops and, as soon as Shafi Hadi picks up his alto, it’s the blues all the way!

Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting

From the album Blues & Roots – Rec: 1959

The Charles Mingus album Blues & Roots features a larger band than usual (even for him!) with two altos, tenor and baritone saxophone, two trombones and rhythm section.

It’s a magnificent record that Mingus said only captured one part of his music, the blues.

In our opinion, one of the best Charles Mingus songs from this album is ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ which Mingus said was inspired by the music that he heard in church.

It was apparently recorded, on the recommendation of Atlantic Records boss Nesuhi Ertegün, as a follow up to he music of ‘Haitian Flight Song’ which counters Mingus’s critics who made the (preposterous) suggestion that he didn’t swing!

It has a deeply spiritual and gospel feel, with an infectious groove right down to the exuberant vocalised cries and hand clapping.

Better Git It In Your Soul

From the album Mingus Ah Um – Rec: 1959

1959 has often been described as a magical year in jazz, giving us an ordinate number of the most famous jazz albums of all time.

It was indeed a truly remarkable period of creativity for Mingus, who was back in the studio just a few months after recording Blues & Roots.

If anything, ‘Better Git It In Your Soul’ (our personal pick of the best Charles Mingus album of all time) is even more gospel-inspired than the songs from the earlier session.

Following a similar approach, the playing is even more intense, with an impressive solo from Richmond. It’s the response and passion of the horns, though, that drives the music.

The album has no less than five classic Mingus compositions and is a brilliant example of the bassist’s work as both a composer and a bandleader; something which can’t be overlooked in analysing the success of his compositions.

Fables of Faubus

From the album Mingus Ah Um – Rec: 1959

In 1957 the Arkansas governor Orval Faubus set out to prevent the racial integration of a high school in Little Rock, culminating in the National Guard preventing the nine African American teenagers from entering the school.

The story inspired Mingus to write the song Fables of Faubus in protest which, after an initial outing on the iconic album Mingus Ah Um, would be a feature in the band’s live show for many years to come.

The music was presented here as an instrumental as Columbia Records refused the lyrics to the song to be released; it’s still a powerful and potent performance though.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

From the album Mingus Ah Um – Rec: 1959

Whilst many Charles Mingus songs are easily recognised in the jazz world, their relatively unusual structures meant few became ‘jazz standards’.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (again from the album Mingus Ah Um) is one exception, with the tune now firmly established in the repertoire of many musicians around the world.

The exquisite ballad was written by Mingus as an elegy for the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young who died just prior to the recording of the album. It’s title, a direct reference to Young’s choice of headwear: his ever-present Pork Pie hat.

A further recording was made of the tune under the title ‘Theme for Lester Young’ on the 1963 album, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus but the original, featuring tenor saxophonists John Handy and Booker Ervin, gets our nod as the definitive version.

What Love?

From the album Mingus at Antibes – Rec: 1960

Many of the great American jazz musicians have a long-standing history with Europe – both for touring and living – and in particular France.

Mingus was no exception and his reworking of the jazz standard ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ was recorded live at the Antibes Jazz Festival, with the contrafact released as “What Love“.

Whilst by definition less original compositionally, it’s a great way to assimilate the bassist’s music at that moment in time.

With a pared-down line up of Mingus, Danny Richmond, trumpeter Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet (he plays alto on the other titles recorded) there is a feeling of a new direction in Mingus’s music.

Tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin (from the earlier Jazz Workshops) was also on this gig, but sits out on ‘What Love’.

The music is freer with more room for the soloists, but what is really special is the relationship between Eric Dolphy and Mingus. The way bass clarinet and double bass entwine their lines, and the dialogue that is developed throughout the piece, is extraordinary.

Original Faubus Fables

From the album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus – Rec: 1960

The famous version of the Charles Mingus song Fables of Faubus was released without the lyrics, with Columbia Records deeming them too politically sensitive.

They were finally committed to record the following year in 1960 – spoken/sung by Mingus and Richmond – for the recording Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

Featuring a very different line-up from the instrumental version heard on Mingus Ah Um, the bassist can be heard introducing the composition as if playing in a club setting.

The band is on fire with Curson’s bright and burnished trumpet, and Eric Dolphy’s wild excursions on alto saxophone, and it’s a fascinating comparison to the original.

Solo Dancer

From the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady – Rec: 1963

Hailed by many as Mingus’ finest album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was an ambitious project that featured eleven musicians and included a classical guitar, tuba and contrabass trombone in the instrumentation.

The use of the lower register instruments is quite spectacular on our highlighted track, Solo Dancer, with Mingus’s double bass, Don Butterfield’s tuba and Jerome Richardson on baritone saxophone creating a magnificent sound world.

Richardson’s baritone provides a suitably robust solo, followed by the brief offering from altoist Charlie Mariano whose solo, which spills into the ensemble passages, is a welcome release.  

Keeping on the contrasting sounds, Jerome Richardson gets a second solo, this time on soprano saxophone, all driven along by Mingus and Dannie Richmond on drums.

Ready For More Charles Mingus Songs?

For an artist credited with over 300 compositions, these ten Charles Mingus songs only scratch the surface of one of jazz’s true originals.

They do, though, hopefully show why he is often credited as one of the greatest composers in jazz – if not music in general – alongside Duke Ellington.

From joyous collective improvisation, touching ballads and deeply political statements, we hope these selected Mingus tunes will provide you with the tools and inspiration to continue digging into the bassist’s music!

Looking for more?

New York saxophonist Tobias Meinhart shared his pick of the best Charles Mingus albums to get you started an you can also, of course, discover him on our list of the most famous jazz musicians of all time.

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