Deep Dive: Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um

Mingus Ah Um

A radio personality holds a Charles Mingus CD in front of his face.

You’re on a jazz radio station’s website right now. Chances are, I’m preaching to the choir here, but in case you’re new to jazz, Mingus Ah Um is the cream of the crop. If you thought jazz was stuffy background music for academics who are afraid to feel anything, every note of this record will change your opinion.

I want to tell you about this music, but first, I’d like to offer a STEAMING HOT JAZZ TAKE: This is the best jazz album released in 1959. What does that mean you ask? Does that mean Sean McPherson thinks this record is better than Kind of Blue by Miles Davis!? YES I DO. Does that mean Sean McPherson thinks that Mingus Ah Um is better than Time Out by Dave Brubeck? I SURE DO.

I want jazz that aims to deliver spirit into the universe. I appreciate cool jazz; I appreciate that jazz can often exude a distance and depth that comes from playing it close to the chest–leaving moments of melancholy inside songs of jubilee, bringing a frenzy of joy into a ballad. I don’t think there’s anyone better at that than Miles Davis. He’s a master. But, as far as delivering undiluted spirit and emotion in a jazz setting, there’s one gold medal, and that medal is on Mingus. It doesn’t get more soulful and magnificent than album opener, “Better Git It in Your Soul,” and it doesn’t get more melancholic than track two, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” In two tracks, Mingus covered more emotional real estate than a lot of jazz acts get to in their whole career.

It doesn’t surprise me that the seeds of this record come out of a Composer’s Workshop that Mingus co-led during the 1950s. Sometimes a jazz song sounds just like a neutral roadmap–the beauty is in how the players make the trip, not the trip itself. But this album is different. This album is full of SONGS with a capital S. Songs with a vast array of textures. Songs where the strengths of each player is focused on, and is used to the advantage of the whole song. Songs where the magic of it relies on every element of the performance–the composition, the players, the solos, the different textures the rhythm section provides beneath the soloists. It is a stunning effort and it is one of the great jazz releases of all time.

It’s also a great record to wield if you find yourself in one of those “jazz doesn’t get political” arguments that we all enter in from time to time. It is fine for someone to say that they wish there weren’t politics in jazz, but it is an ahistorical take. Toss on “Fables of Faubus” and dial up the Wikipedia page of the song and then ask if they still thank jazz is apolitical.

I hope you’ll tune in to today’s Afternoon Cruise to dive into this awesome release.

Thanks for checking this deep dive out! If you have music suggestions, contact me at

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