Song of the Day: Charles Mingus, “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me”

Charles Mingus Oh Yeah
Charles Mingus, Oh Yeah, Atlantic (1961)

Charles Mingus was my first jazz obsession.  For a kid that grew up more focused on The Beatles, Jazz seemed aloof to me – at first.  My brother had taken up Miles Davis and John Coltrane rather quickly, and I therefore had to be opposed in my formative years, as siblings do.

There is something so exciting and human about Mingus, he’s a cataclysmic character–one of my favorite stories involved his interactions with the famous film director John Cassavetes:

“John Cassavetes, another raging iconoclast, despised “cuteness” from his performing actors. Though he pretended to know a lot more about jazz than he actually did, he had the good sense to approach Charles Mingus to score his first feature, Shadows. Mingus said he’d do the score on one condition: that Cassavetes and his cohorts came to his apartment and cleaned up all the cat shit that was littering his piled-up scores. He did so, then was notified by Mingus that it was too clean in there now, that he was unable to think, that he had to wait for some cat shit to accumulate again before any progress could be made. (The score ended up arriving about two years late.) From this anecdote we can derive one thing about Mingus’ psyche: it is perennially untidy.”

Larger than life in many respects, his personality burned brightest on record.  There’s very few Mingus records where you can’t hear Mingus exhorting his bandmates in the background, shouting and growling. Mingus had idolized Charlie Parker and how, “sometimes, he could make the whole room feel like he did”. If there could be any defining mission of Mingus– that is probably it.

He played bass, and played it exceptionally well, but his skill was most manifest as an arranger. Nobody charted horns like Mingus and it was no small thing that his bands included the likes of horn luminaries Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk. His ability to make order out of disorder is the quality that makes him so exciting to listen to, and makes his works sound so human.

It’s particularly hard to note any record as out of the ordinary for Mingus, because there hardly seemed to be an ordinary,  but Oh Yeah stands apart from the ’59 triumvirate of Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um, and Mingus Dynasty as well as later works like Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.  Mingus plays piano instead of bass, something he would revisit with Mingus Plays Piano and even sings on a couple tracks, “Oh Lord Don’t Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me” included.

Predating both the Cuban Missile Crisis and Doctor Strangelove, “Oh Lord” manages to foreshadow the humanism and absurdity of both, a ballad with wonderful piano flourishes and Mingus’s direct emotional appeals.

Further Information:

Sadly, the article from which that Cassavetes quote is sourced is no longer available online, but exists as an excerpt in a comment on a blog here. It was written for Stylus Magazine by Chris Smith.

The whole album is fantastic, though I find myself torn between “Oh Lord”, “Ecclusiastics”, and “Eat That Chicken”.

“Eat That Chicken” is probably Mingus at his most fun, it’s a touching tribute to Fats Waller, another great jazz musician who is responsible for one of my favorite songs ever

An Argument With Instruments: On Charles Mingus found in the October 7, 2013 issue of The Nation by Adam Shatz, is a great overview of Mingus’s character and relation to his jazz contemporaries.

A dash of Jazz

It would seem silly of me to write a piece about jazz, those that are interested in jazz know about it and those who aren’t choose not too, regardless here are a few of my all time favorites.

Love for Sale

Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else featured one of the most prolific lineups to ever be featured on a jazz record.  Miles Davis, Hank Jones, Sam Jones, Art Blakey and of course Cannonball Adderley who in my honest opinion has a tone equal too, if not greater than Coltrane, course I say this because Coltrane got the reputation he deserved and is well known outside jazz circles while Cannonball Adderley is not.  A lot of people point to Autumn Leaves as being the best track from this album but I feel it wanders too far.  Love for Sale begins with a beautiful piano intro that seems to  be giving the track its first breath before it opens up into a perfectly executed ensemble piece.  Miles Davis proves his excellence at carrying a melody on this track and the changes in percussion are dynamic if not sublime along with the piano that still sways in the background.

Moment’s Notice

This song, off of Blue Train by John Coltrane was recorded as the title suggests, on a moments notice.  As much of a skill as it is in jazz to interpret standards and make them live anew, there is also a place for those who can improvise and make something completely original and beautiful spur of the moment.  The melody and horn arrangments on here are fantastic, the band has a tight dynamic groove that shows just how skilled the musicians are and how well they can play together.  Off the cuff as this song was, it doesn’t feel that way listening to it.

Mood Indigo

Charles Mingus was a hell of a jazz bassist, but perhaps his greatest strength lay in arranging music.  Mood Indigo was a standard from days gone by, a favorite of Duke Ellington when he was at his performing peak.  Everything about Mingus’s take on Mood Indigo is breathless in its beauty, from the sweeping piano at the  beginning to the perfect harmony of the horns through out, and even the spacious bass solo in between, it is understatement at its most elegent.  If there is a better song that expresses the feeling during a slow rainy day, or the end of a very late night, I haven’t heard it.

Central Park West

John Coltrane could definitely impress with a rapid pace solo.  But it was in his slower songs that he was his most beautiful.  Soft and elegant, it is easy to picture a beautiful fall day in Central Park, with the leaves falling, guided only by the wind and Coltrane’s drifting saxaphone, the piano is also beautifully done.  A real slow burner, but a real beauty.

Bonus:

Turn it Out

Soulive is a modern day jazz organ trio and this is probably their finest song featuring  great guitar and organ interplay and a great melody. This recording is taken from a live setting.