Mood Indigo – Charles Mingus
I have been writing this occasional musical memoir now for almost two years. This is the 151st entry, the 151st song. Am I halfway-through? One third? Just started? Almost finished? Who knows. If only it had been the 150th…
I am pressing the great pause button in the sky after this entry though, because, so far at least, I have not been paid for my writings here. So for the time being I will transfer my attention and energy to the commercial sphere, and look to create some drama, whether it be theatre, TV or film. I am sure occasional entries will insist on being registered, songs will trigger memories, memories will trigger songs. The blog’s not dead, just resting.
Charles Mingus entered my world in the late 1970s. I was studying law at LSE. I’d spent the first two years in University accomodation around Fitzroy St W1, beneath the Post Office tower, a short walk down Charlotte St to Soho and the West End. I’d torn tickets at The Other Cinema on Scala Street, soon to become The Scala Cinema. I’d seen the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Clash live onstage. Now in 1978 I moved out of Central London and dared to relocate south of the river, where fellow student Mike Stubbs rented an entire house on Canonbie Road in Honor Oak. SE23 for fuck’s sake. I had a bedroom (with a piano in it!), and shared the facilities – bathroom, kitchen, living room, garden – with Mike and his girlfriend Hilary, and her friend Rosie, who were both nurses. It was massively civilized, and very comfortable – by far the most well-appointed place I’d ever lived in, reminding me of the Korner’s Lewes house, or the Ryle’s place on St Anne’s Cresecent. Or come to think of it, our beautiful semi-detached place in Selmeston where I grew up. Honor Oak is a hill just to the south of Peckham Rye, and I caught the number 63 bus into the LSE every day, rather than walk through Bloomsbury down to the Aldwych as I had for the two previous years. It was all very grown up and rather shocking. I recall that at least some of the time I would stay in town with my girlfriend Mumtaz in William Goodenough House, Mecklenburgh Square WC1. Bloomsbury.
I was musically curious even then. Not content with punk and new wave I was exploring the deeper realms of Pop with the encouragement of Mike. He made me a tape – a C90 cassette – called Gotta Have Pop, which contained songs by solo Jay Ferguson (from Spirit), the later period Kinks (Celluloid Heroes), Supertramp, 10cc and Colin Blunstone. My classmate Lewis MacLeod and I were deep underground in the soul mine digging out ‘unknown classics’ from the record shops of Soho – Major Lance, Garnet Mimms, Lorraine Ellison, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland (see My Pop Life #28 ) or Millie Jackson.
But my inner explorer was going further – I’d bought a Duke Ellington LP, a Billie Holiday LP, a Stan Getz LP, and next : a Charlie Mingus LP. I cannot remember why or how this album caught my attention, but I bought it without listening to it, I liked the cover, maybe someone I admired had mentioned it, maybe a random choice.
It was called Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and it was and still is completely amazing. I am eternally grateful that I found this album and this artist at such a young age – or at any age really. Hours of joy and passion. There are many jazz artists that I have simply not heard in any context, and I am sure that many of them are absolutely brilliant, just undiscovered by my ears just yet. But here was a bullseye. Mingus played double bass and ran a large band for this LP which was made in 1963 in New York. Among the players : Eric Dolphy on saxophone, Eddie Preston & Richard Williams on trumpets and Jaki Byard on the piano. The album collects different versions of some of Mingus’ best-known compositions often with different titles. The classic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat becomes Theme For Lester Young, while Haitian Fight Song becomes II B.S. The LP was a kind of full stop in Mingus’career to that date, a summation of a brilliant run of albums that culminated in The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady in 1963. He was a superb arranger and big-band leader, second only to the great Duke Ellington in the history of jazz. On this record he pulled in Bob Hammer to help orchestrate, arrange and score the eleven-piece band.
None of which I knew in 1978. It was just a great noise. Jazz. Squelchy, fat, fluid, wild and hot. The notes stretch against each other, pulling in different directions, the result is terrifically exciting music. It operates like a kind of collective improvisation at times, and although the elements of free jazz might be suggested, everything is pinned down, but loose. It’s a great trick if you can pull it off.
People seem to prefer Mingus Ah Um from 1959 (a stunning LP) or The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady LP, but my ears prefer this album which for me is simply wall-to-wall genius. On it there is one cover – a song which appeared on my Duke Ellington LP (1929-1930) – a very famous slow blues ballad called Mood Indigo. Written in 1930 by Ellington and Barney Bigard, with occasional lyrics by Irving Mills, although often played as an instrumental. Ellington’s genius was to take the three lead instruments : Bigard on the clarinet (normally the top line) Arthur Whetsol on trumpet (in the middle) Joe Nanton on trombone (bottom line) and reverse them, so that Nanton was playing at the very top of his range, and Bigard at the very bottom of his. The result was astounding. Mingus takes the elements of this gentle lyrical tune, strips them out and reconfigures them – with respect, always with respect for Duke – and then proceeds to play a double bass solo which is the final word in bass playing I believe.
Charles Mingus died in 1979. His widow, Sue Mingus, runs several bands who play his enormous legacy of works. There is the seven-piece Mingus Dynasty. There is a Mingus Big Band who perform at the Jazz Standard on E 27th St every Monday night, a 14-piece playing the well-known and undiscovered compositions of the master. Jenny and I went last year with Doraly & Kristine and had a terrific night in the company of five-star players – occasionally Randy Brecker, Wayne Escoffery or Vincent Herring sit in, but they’re all top top players. The school of jazz that Mingus started back in 1956 is still running it’s collective improvisation classes, play loose, stay tight, listen to each other. Although the work now is scored, the feel has to still be there. One of the very best nights out you can have in Manhattan.
At the interval I went upstairs for a cigarette and had a chat to the bass player Boris Kozlov who was doing the same. Well- he was being Mingus, I was just smoking a cigarette. I asked him if he was going to play Mood Indigo. “No,” he said, “Mingus didn’t write that.”
“I know” I said. “But it’s one of his greatest moments for me”.
“You’re right” he said.
I base my opinion on a small collection of Mingus LPs which I have collected over the years – and my ears. Last year I read his pungent and scandal-laden autobiography which is nothing if not honest, entitled “Beneath The Underdog“. It describes his early years and adventures in Los Angeles and New York in the underbelly of the jazz scene with startling clarity and eye-opening salacious detail. I recommend it to all.
Mood Indigo has become one of my theme songs over the ensuing years. Never far from a top 20 list or a mixtape, it conjures something ineffable and pure which seems to come from my very bones. It’s all in the bass. The horns wail the familiar tune which appears to express pure sorrow, while the piano adds splashes of colour. But the double bass expresses the soul of the piece and takes the solo into inner space, while always being aware of the song’s essential shape. Mingus adored and admired Ellington, and so do I, (see My Pop Life #34) and this song, like many of the Duke’s, became a standard – a tune to play for the punters then improvise around, stretch out on. It is the definition of beauty.
It also seems to express an inner sadness that is an essential part of me. I am unable to rest or relax without feeling it. Only when busy or when filled with purpose does this feeling retreat. When I am writing, playing music, acting, shopping, sweeping the floor or folding clothes in the corner laundrette then I feel fine. But when everything is done and the great void offers to swallow me up once more, the horror vacuii emerges from within and I feel in my essence a profound depression which I have had for over 50 years. Mingus suffered from depression too, and fits of rage with famous examples of physical explosions and giant sulks. He was a musical perfectionist and demanded the very best from his team, from his band. He hated the clink of ice in a glass when he was playing live in nightclubs, and often stopped to berate the audience. He was driven, unhappy and had to express himself to survive, and I totally understand that. It’s not a matter of choice, it’s a compulsion to create or drown in your own mood indigo.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog, it will continue but not on a regular basis. There is a Follow button to the right beneath this post, if you click it, any new posts will come direct to your inbox. Stay well. Be kind. Bye.