The best of Charles Mingus: Five essential tracks that are as vital as ever

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Charles Mingus: bassist, composer, bandleader and a towering figure in jazz history.

Born in Nogales, Ariz. on April 22, 1922, Mingus was raised in Los Angeles in a home where his mother only allowed church music. That didn’t last long, and young Mingus soon discovered jazz, and the artist who would be his greatest influence: Duke Ellington.

Mingus made his reputation as one of the most proficient and powerful bass players in jazz, but he started out on the cello — still rare, but not unknown, in jazz today. An orchestral career was not a possibility for a Black musician in those years, and Mingus moved to the bass. His encounters with racism and injustice fired his anger and he was tagged “the angry man of jazz” for his vocal, vehement stand against racism, prominent in his suite Fables of Faubus that castigated the Arkansas governor over the Little Rock Crisis.

Choosing five of Mingus’s best recordings is just a sampling. His deep knowledge, his powerful and unceasing commitment to the fight against discrimination, and his love of jazz shine through in every track he recorded. Celebrate the centennial of Mingus by immersing yourself in his music, which is as vital, compelling and affecting now as it ever was.

The Jumpin’ Blues

Mingus played Toronto at the famous Massey Hall concert of 1953, joining Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach. He recorded that concert, but later had to dub in the bass because it was inaudible on the original tapes. Around this time, Mingus and Roach started their own independent label, Debut, to record their music and that of other young artists; the Massey Hall concert was Debut’s first release. Debut lasted only until 1957, and only released two dozen albums, but they made their mark — and most of them are still in print.

Better Git It in Your Soul

Mingus moved to New York in the late 1950s and formed the Jazz Workshop, where his greatest work took shape. He recorded for Columbia and Impulse, music of deep spirit, sweeping power and lyricism. Among the finest of these albums is Mingus Ah Um, whose lead track Better Git It in Your Soul is a gospel-like, exultant shout.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

Mingus’s gifts as a melodist were sometimes in the shadow of his titanic, often furious personality. No song demonstrates this better than Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, probably the best-known of his compositions. Also from Mingus Ah Um, it’s Mingus’s tribute to the great tenorman Lester Young, for whom the pork pie hat was a trademark. Aside from Mingus’s own recordings, it’s been recorded by close to 300 jazz artists. Joni Mitchell formed a close friendship with Mingus late in his life, when he was dying from ALS, and wrote lyrics for Pork Pie and several other Mingus compositions, which appear on her album Mingus.

Hora Decubitis

Another Mingus composition to draw the attention of a major artist is Hora Decubitis, originally appearing on Mingus’s 1963 album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. Like Better Git It, it’s strong, driving music. Recorded in 2004 with lyrics by Costello and the Metropole Orkest led by Vince Mendoza at the North Sea Jazz Festival, it’s an arrangement entirely worthy of the composer — big band meets rock group meets symphony orchestra.

Wig Wise

All along the way, Mingus played bass — constantly and with extraordinary power and skill. Some of the musicians who spent time at the Jazz Workshop called it the “jazz sweatshop.” Although Mingus slowed down somewhat in the late 1960s, his musical horizons kept on growing and brought him to the studio in 1962 with his longtime collaborator Max Roach and his great influence, Duke Ellington, for an album called Money Jungle. Although the setting is unusual for Duke — he rarely recorded away from his band — the playing is compelling. For fans of Duke and Mingus alike, this album is a must-listen.

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