In the mid 1950s, Mingus began composing and performing with a rotating band he called the "Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop." Mingus Ah Um marks the height of this ensemble's accomplishments. Many of the pieces on the album are some of the most recognizable songs in jazz, and their performances are at once highly arranged, and yet loose and seemingly improvised.
"Goodbye Porkpie Hat" is a ballad written for saxophonist Lester Young, and named after Young's signature headwear. The melody is haunting and beautiful, and played in unison or octaves by tenor saxophonists John Handy and Booker Ervin except for one note, on which they play the dissonant interval of either a minor second or minor ninth. The single dissonance resembles a wince, and it's perhaps a subtle nod to Young's pained life.
The other ballad on the album is not as dark, but just as beautiful, and tinged with sadness. "Self-Portrait in Three Colors" features a dulcet unison line in two saxophones, under which the other horns eventually join in with counter lines. The accretive result is a swirling tapestry, with one dissonance resolving into another.
"Fables of Faubus" is a bitterly sardonic protest song. It is inspired by the 1957 Little Rock Nine incident in Arkansas, when Governor Orval Faubus stood in the way of desegregation in public schools. The song has also been recorded including biting lyrics, but this version attempts to express the same vitriol with instruments alone.
1959 on Columbia Records
Are people so much like goats that they fear to explore their own personal tastes, both literally and figuratively? When you see people dressing alike, their homes decorated so boring…so dull… so unimaginatively, their lives such hum drum of the ho hums. Are they just hoping to get through life unnoticed? Unscathed? Teaching their children, their spouse and especially themselves that “I am not unique, I am so ordinary, so dull, that I don’t want to explore the wonder, the excitement of being alive and being me”.