Charles Mingus’ great musical eulogy for the saxophonist Lester Young shuffled across my iPod on my way to work this week. Although it is an elegy, it is a compelling piece of music, and has become something of a standard, covered by many musicians. Mingus, of course, is one of the towering figures of post-war jazz, and Mingus Ah Um, the record which featured Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was released in jazz’s ‘golden year’ of 1959.
I heard Pentangle’s version of the tune as a teenager before I really knew who Mingus was (they also did a fine cover of Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song) though I did know the name from the Merseybeat poet Adrian Henri. So I was primed, at least, when I saw a “cut out” copy of Mingus Ah Um going for a song in a discount jazz shop in Cambridge.
Anyway, the Pentangle version was built around a duet between their guitarists, John Renbourne and Bert Jansch, which they used to perform together before joining Pentangle:
A few years after that I came across what seemed an unlikely cover by Jeff Beck (on his record Wired). It seemed unlikely since Beck had only just finished with the hard rock power trio Beck, Bogert and Appice (think Cream: no, think Mountain) but again, although he plays it very differently from Jansch and Renbourn he brings something to the song (you’ll be redirected to youtube to watch this for copyright reasons):
And then there is Joni Mitchell. She wrote some plangent lyrics for a version of the song that was included on her record Mingus, which Mingus himself collaborated on. The record has a bizarre moment in which Mitchell and her band sing the jazz musician ‘happy birthday’ but can’t remember how old he is. The record is also blessed with the sublime playing of Mitchell’s sometime bass player Jaco Pastorius. Unfortunately there are no copies of this on youtube, but here’s the American singer, Lenora Helm, singing Joni’s words to Mingus’ tune: