One summer many years ago when I was still single, two married friends of mine started inviting me to spend time with them: a lot of time. We usually had a great time: sharing delicious food and laughter: a lot of laughter. What I was slow to realize was that their marriage was ending, and I had served as a temporary balm for their pain that summer: a friendly face to provide respite from endless fights, frazzled emotions, and the agony of a marriage falling apart. I share this story because I picked up Joni Mitchell’s Mingus album that summer, at the height of our evenings together, and the music on Mingus perfectly captured the emotion of that summer: joyful, peculiar, fragile, sad, disjointed, raw, and fragmented, like a tentative conversation or an unfinished painting.
Mingus was Joni Mitchell’s tenth studio album and the result of legendary jazz bassist, Charles Mingus, contacting Mitchell through shared acquaintances. According to Mitchell’s website, Mingus “…had been introduced to her music by a friend of a friend. Mingus thought Mitchell was a gutsy artist with a sense of adventure, and he wanted Joni to consider working with him on an adaption of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets…Joni thought the idea was quite original, but after reading Eliot's work, she nixed the project, saying that she'd much rather condense the Bible. A few weeks later, Mingus called and told her he'd written six melodies especially for her, and he wanted her to write lyrics to the tunes he'd named Joni I-VI."
Mitchell states that at their first meeting, Mingus’ face “…shone up at me with a joyous mischief. I liked him immediately. I had come to New York to hear six new songs he had written for me. I was honored! I was curious! It was as if I had been standing by a river – one toe in the water – feeling it out – an Charlie came by and pushed me in – ‘sink or swim’ – him laughing at me dog paddling around in the currents of Black classical music.”
The process of musical collaboration is fascinating to me. It’s no doubt a painstaking combination of inspiration and compromise. In the early days, Lennon and McCartney composed together, eyeball to eyeball. Taupin sent lyrics by mail to John, who composed melodies and sent them back to the author for review. And composer friends have told me that when they write, they’re never quite sure when to call a song “finished.” They fuss over a lyric, a chord change, or they completely scrap an idea and start over. Composers make choices, but sometimes circumstances create a condition where choices are made for them, like in the instance of a looming deadline. Decisions have to be made. The work has to be completed and turned-in.
And for this album, time was of essence, as Mingus’ health was quickly deteriorating in 1978, as he was immobilized from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and Mitchell worked earnestly, composing words to Mingus’ melodies, hoping to complete them while he could hear the end results. “Time never ticked so loudly for me as it did this last year,” stated Mitchell. “I wanted Charlie to witness the project’s completion.” And Mitchell almost succeeded, playing for Mingus all but one finished song, the exuberant, “God Must Be A Boogie Man,” which was based upon his autobiography and was a song Mitchell suggested Mingus would have found hilarious.
Featuring only six songs (plus five tape recorded conversations with Mingus, or “raps” to provide filler) and only three of the melodies Mingus provided to Mitchell, as the other three songs on Mingus, including, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and “The Wolf That Lives In Lindsay,” are older compositions by Mingus (to which Mitchell wrote new lyrics) and Mitchell, respectively. “God Must Be ABoogie Man” was composed by Mitchell and inspired by the first few pages of Mingus’ autobiography. It was long rumored that Mitchell’s experimentations with the other two new Mingus melodies were put down on tape, but deemed insufficient for the final release. Those recordings, reported either “lost” or “destroyed,” began surfacing online and remain rare collectibles for fans of both Mingus and Mitchell.
The experimental album contains just over 30 minutes of actual music. Mitchell calls the songs on Mingus, “audio paintings,” claiming, at the album’s release, to be satisfied with the final product (as well she should have been). On this album, more than any other of Mitchell’s previous, jazz-informed work, she used her voice like an instrument itself, blending her scatting with horns, bass, spare acoustic guitar, keyboards, cymbals and snares. Mingus received dismal reviews upon release, and even over time it seems to be one of Mitchell’s least appreciated albums, with Pitchfork even referring to the groundbreaking artist as, ”jazz dilatant.”
But I find Mingus enigmatic and enduring and return to it often, with my own “Mingus: Expanded Edition” compiled in Spotify, including Mingus’ original instrumental, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” as well as other Mitchell tunes reminiscent of the era and of the album’s mood (“Jericho” and “Overture/Cotton Avenue,” from Don Juan’s RecklessDaughter). I also can’t help but also recognize the time capsule that was the album, as un-commercial as it may have been, it was not completely a fish out of water in the late 70’s pop music landscape, as it reflected the musical zeitgeist of a major musical movement in 1979: jazzy, R&B-inflected pop music (e.g., Boz Skaggs, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Rickie Lee Jones, Chuck Mangione, Gerry Rafferty, etc.).
The Mingus album ended a bout of writer’s block Mitchell had suffered for the previous year and was a suitable comma at the end of her 1970’s stanza. The album also ended Mitchell’s period of overtly jazzy studio albums, as the 1980’s and 1990’s would find her trying out rock-and-roll, synthesizers, adult-oriented pop, and returning to acoustic guitar basics. Mingus is full of unfinished fragments, unexpected musical turns, and mystery. Mitchell writes in her liner notes for the album, “Charles Mingus, a musical mystic, died in Mexico, January 5, 1979, at the age of 56. He was cremated the next day. The same day 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and were removed by fire. These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination.” Thrilling, indeed.