When I was nine, my eyes opened. Or rather, my iPod’s pre-set alarm clock woke me up from a bad nap. Just in time for dinner, yet my thoughts were ripped quickly and terrifyingly from my rumbling stomach as I realized I’d mistakenly queued my brother’s jazz playlist as my alarm instead of my AC/DC collection. What woke me, then, was not Bon Scott’s wailing on “Highway to Hell,” but the hellfire and brimstone erupting from a foreign baritone sax opening Charles Mingus’s “Moanin’.” Soon, more than my eyes opened. I realized that the music flooding my tiny closet of a room was different than any other music I’d ever heard. This song, I quickly realized, was Mingus’s tribute to freedom, and class was in session.
Mingus is the King of His Band, and the accompanying octet is the King’s cabinet. Although every member of the band expresses himself in his own way, whether through daring improvisation or choice tonal flavors, they are all prodded forward by Mingus, who pulls them back in line when they deviate too far from the path. Some of the band members are subversive, while others stick to Mingus as faithful followers. The result is a story detailing a history of struggle and freedom.
A note to the reader: This piece can be read along with the music, if you use the studio version that appears on the album Blues and Roots, which can be found on Youtube, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and in the stacks at the Colorado College Seay Music Library. By following the timestamps provided, usually at the beginnings of paragraphs, you can synch your reading up with the music. If you reach the end of a paragraph before the next timestamp, hang out and “listen closely.” I’m sure you have eight minutes to spare.
(0:00) The tune begins with the lone lament of Pepper Adams on baritone sax. It is more angry than sad. Adams turns his sax into a jackhammer, stomping his big sound up and down. Thoughts, all those unholy thoughts, the ones that don’t have to do with music, are exorcised. Adams, Mingus’s most obsequious follower, has prepared the ground for three more preachers to speak.
(0:19) Now that we are attentive, two trombones enter with the drummer, building up sonic breezes in anticipation of what is to come. Their melody is different, even contradictory, to what Adams is playing on the sax. This adds, not only to the volume, but also to the fervor of the subtly roaring fanfare, preparing it to change at the arrival of more members of the cabinet.
(0:36) The drums (played by Dannie Richmond) swell to announce King Charles Mingus on the bass. Closely following is the tenor saxophonist, Booker Ervin. Ervin plays a simple harmony with Adams, changing the dogmatic tune, hinting at the rebellion-to-come. This harmony changes the melody just enough so that it goes from being a fearful ode to Mingus, into a light, eerie warning. Ervin’s meddling is somewhat ironic. It causes the grand moment of Mingus’s entrance to be confusing and less powerful than Mingus may have intended. Empowered by Ervin’s subversiveness, the other members of Mingus’s troop confidently plunge into musical depths unintended by the original composition. Mingus is challenged, yet his will is not so weak.
(0:53) Fearless in the face of opposition, Mingus calls on his secret weapon, Jackie McLean, his beloved alto saxophone player. With McLean’s soaring entrance, at a forte unmatched by the now wailing nonet, the rest of the band falls back in line. McLean presents a bright, new and utterly appealing melody. For a while, everything seems under control. But, given the taste of freedom, the band wants it again, and suddenly, a cacophony swells and every individual become unrecognizable in the din of this new battle. They descend into madness.
(1:11) After a bit of chaotic, free, improvisational fun, a single note on the piano awakens the band to their original roles, and they fall back into their original parts, for the first time playing together at the same volume. The piano subtly becomes Mingus’s other half, filling his silences and doing the work that the bass physically cannot do. This conformity to the written notes lasts only one time through the head of the song (1:20), as the band gives in to their pleasures and wants to be free again. Mingus hears this and yells at the band, “Aww I know, I know…,” (1:27) affirming their tug at freedom and expression, lamenting the control he’s quickly losing.
(1:47) The band members soon move onto the bridge, where everyone but McLean plays the same melody, building the band onwards and upwards toward a unified peak (2:01). The swell glides into a low note from Pepper Adams, who keeps up his same bari sax lament, but this time (2:08), the rest of the band joins in, unified, seeming to poke fun at Adam’s unchanging tune, mocking his blind and unquestioning faith to King Mingus.
Finally, we approach the solos. This is where the other members of the band take Mingus’ power into their own hands, taking his suggestions at their own discretion.
(2:22) The first solo, unsurprisingly, is alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who, up to this point, has had all of the lead lines and has been the loudest voice in the band. He opens with a new, melodic line, which he builds without rest. Mingus, apparently pleased, lets out a delighted shout (2:31), and McLean continues to climb up and down the scales without much hesitation. He reaches a turning point when he hits a note that is out of the chord, ruminating and fluttering on it for a never-ending moment (2:39). His attempt to recover suddenly births a motif that he uses as a powerful new toy (2:42). After this, scalar runs become experimental riffs, and short bursts of sound become longer and sustained. He repeats himself, changing everything slightly, subtly, an appeal to the listener: “listen closely.”
(3:31) The next soloist is Pepper Adams. The baritone saxophonist begins with a moment unlike all others—silence. Mingus, not Adams, is the first voice to speak during this moment of individual triumph, pleading to his friend, “come on.” And “come on” the bari sax does. Adams is the antithesis of his canonic counterpart, Gerry Mulligan, who would never come near a record like this. Mulligan, the modern definition of baritone sax in jazz, sticks to soft, high notes that baffle the listener into wondering how such a rough instrument could create such beautiful, pleasing, and melodic songs. But Adams embraces the rough, equipping it as a weapon of a peaceful war. Adams blasts his axe into the mic, coming in and out of both time and key, place and space. This throws the rhythm section off, and to combat this, Mingus plays the same two notes over and over, which the drummer and pianist match (3:49). Adams pauses at the perfect moment, highlighting Mingus’s musical brilliance, as the solo coalesces into a coherent wonder. Adams continues with his solo, a master craftsman, a bird who sings to shame even the greatest winged sopranos. Adams mocks, “listen closely.”
(4:40) Dannie Richmond on drums whacks the splash cymbal and the final and most interesting solo begins with the jarring end of all other sound. Booker Ervin, the dissident, wades on alone on his tenor sax. Mingus says, if you don’t like it, leave, telling Ervin that he should try surviving on his own if he doesn’t like the guidance of the bass, drums or piano. Ervin doesn’t care, creating magic out of thin air. A jealous Mingus wants to make sure the listener doesn’t forget who the King is, hitting a few solitary notes and sliding off into oblivion again, back down the neck of his bass (4:45, 4:49, 5:00). He tries to re-enter the solo multiple times, but to no avail. There are no holes within Ervin’s impenetrable wall of sound, and the King is scared that his empire may just topple. Phased by Mingus’ attempts only for a moment, however, Ervin raises his shield, wailing ahead into the abyss of musical possibility.
(5:15) Richmond faintly counts one, two, three, four, on the hi-hat and gets the rhythm section, Mingus’s most loyal soldiers, to pull one final united attack to end all of Ervin’s disobedience. Richmond, Mingus and the piano charge at double the original speed, but Ervin continues to play as he pleases, going even slower than before, refusing to conform to the brutal will of the King (5:22). Finally, Ervin accepts that the rhythm section is going too fast, and he catches up, playing a snaking train of notes at blazing speed (5:28). Mingus, amused, slows back down to normal speed, while Ervin only speeds up (5:32). Ervin only gets hotter and hotter, his solo becoming more tense and vibrant. Instead of ending it, he smoothly passes his flaming torch back to Pepper Adams (5:49) to complete the solos. Adams fades away, inviting his bandmates to champion their own sound, to sing proudly against the winds of oppressive conformity.
The tune ends the way it began, a rage against Mingus’ rule. The piano has joined the rebels, countering each one of Mingus’ angry screams with passion, fueling the mutiny. Mingus screams, his sweat and terror audible, but the piano calmly sails ahead (6:42). The band becomes one again, and their differences, seemingly worked out, fade away with the drums into oblivion (6:53). Now, what began as individual wills battling for domination, ends with cohesion—the band realizes that they can only conquer the tyranny of the King by weaving a blanket of their own sound. Out of love, they once again become a free cacophony. They ascend into madness (7:13). Then, once again unified, they swell and fade, setting the listener back down, firmly on the ground, head spinning, the world finally stable (7:43). Richmond taps the snare drum softly (7:56), an exhausted Mingus throws one last violent burst of noise through the airwaves. No longer feared, the individual triumphs, and after eight minutes and two seconds, freedom has won.
Part of the Obvious issue