WHEN IT COMES TO HARDCORE bebop bass cred, Charles Mingus is one tough cat to beat. A prodigious and adventurous composer, a bold and outspoken social critic and jazz iconoclast, and one hard-swinging mofo, Mingus first became a fixture following his early days touring with luminaries Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. He later formed famously tumultuous partnerships with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach, and ultimately formulated ruthlessly rigorous curricula in his legendary Jazz Workshops, forums that served as launching pads for countless young lions of jazz. Viewed by some as Duke Ellington’s heir-apparent, Mingus firmly embraced big-band settings, scoring and arranging with an eye towards collective improvisation (à la Dixieland), all while attempting to elevate the art of jazz to equal or surpass the status of European-derived classical music.
Recorded March 12, 1957, “Haitian Fight Song” stands out as one of Mingus’s most enduring contributions. Though the song was recorded with a humble 5-piece band (bass, drums, piano, saxophone, and trombone), Mingus’s clever round-like melody lines and masterful dynamic direction make it sound as if it were played by a much larger group.
Example 1 shows the exotic-sounding bass motif at the heart of the tune. To get your ears around the tonality, first play through a G Aeolian scale (G–A–Bb–C–D–Eb–F). Now raise the fourth scale degree (C) by a half step to form an Aeolian #4 scale: G–A–Bb–C# –D–Eb–F. That enlarged interval between the 3rd and 4th degrees, paired with the scrunched half-step intervals between C# , D, and Eb gives the scale its unique color.
After tapping out a tempo of 147 BPM and swinging hard for a few bars, you’re ready to tackle the tune. Take heed of all those ghost-note G’s and really lay back— that’s where the swing comes alive. And of course, there’s that sweet quarter-note triplet tag that rounds out the 12-bar form. The trick is to milk bar 12’s Bb slide for all it’s worth without missing the landing on beat three.
Of course, this bass hook barely scratches the surface of the 12-minute masterwork that is “Haitian Fight Song.” Take some time to study Mingus’s amazing solos, both at the beginning of the tune and in the middle, where he blows through a staggering nine 12-bar choruses. It’s a humbling lesson in soulful feel and technical agility.
HEAR IT ON
Charles Mingus, The Clown [Atlantic, 1957]
One of eight records released by Mingus in 1957, The Clown was the first to feature drummer Dannie Richmond, who would remain Mingus’s rhythmsection foil for the remainder of his career.
On his album Cachaito [Asylum, 2001], Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez uses “Haitian Fight Song” as the central motif in his “Tumbao No. 5 (Para Charlie Mingus).”
The joint project of Mingus and folk icon Joni Mitchell, Mitchell’s album Mingus [Asylum, 1979] was the last creative work to benefit from the bassist/composer’s personal involvement. (The disc features a phenomenal band including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, and Jaco Pastorius.) As Mitchell writes in the liner notes: “Charles Mingus, a musical mystic, died in Mexico, January 5, 1979 at the age of 56. He was cremated the next day. That same day, 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and were removed by fire. These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination.”