CULT CLASSIC: DUKE ELLINGTON, CHARLIE MINGUS, MAX ROACH-MONEY JUNGLE.
Cult Classic: Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach-Money Jungle.
On Monday, September the ‘17th’ 1962, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach made their way to Sound Makers Studio, in New York. The two friends were en route to a session where they would record an album with one of the giants of jazz, Duke Ellington and producer Alan Douglas. This album would become Money Jungle, which was recently reissued by Blue Note Records as part of their Tone Poet series. It’s an album whose roots can be traced to Paris, as the sixties dawned.
In the early sixties, producer Alan Douglas and Duke Ellington were both working in Paris, France. One day, the producer was helping the big band leader and pianist. It was the way Alan Douglas was, and he was only too pleased to help Duke Ellington. Little did he realise their paths would cross again in the not too distant future.
In 1962, Alan Douglas took charge of United Artists’ jazz division and moved to New York. One of the first albums he recorded was Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers’ Three Blind Mice. This was followed by trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s a quintet recording Matador, which also featured Jackie McLean and Bobby Timmons. Already, Alan Douglas had recorded two classic albums. Soon, two would become three. However, there’s two versions of how that third classic album came about.
According to Duke Ellington, as soon as Alan Douglas began his new role at United Artists’ jazz division he called the veteran pianist. During the call, Duke Ellington came up with the idea that he record an album with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. However, that is slightly different to Alan Douglas’ recollection of what happened in 1962, when he had an unexpected visit from a giant of jazz.
Alan Douglas’ visitor that day in 1962 was Duke Ellington, who by then, was sixty-three, and without a recording contract. The head of United Artists Jazz remembers it was Duke Ellington who suggested recording a piano-based album. As the two men spoke, Alan Douglas thought about a possible lineup. He suggested forty year old bassist Charles Mingus who was signed to United Artists, and had very briefly been part of Duke Ellington’s band.
That was in 1953, when Charles Mingus deputised for Duke Ellington’s double bassist. He had only been a member of the band for four days when he got into a fight with trombonist and composer Juan Tizol, who cowrote the jazz standards jazz standards Caravan. Charles Mingus was fired by Duke Ellington but they would be reunited nine years later. There was a but though.
Charles Mingus said he would play on the recording, but insisted that he was joined by thirty-eight year old drummer Max Roach. This was not up for negotiation. If Duke Ellington wasn’t willing to accept Max Roach as drummer the session wouldn’t happen. The veteran bandleader agreed. Without a recording contract he knew that Charles Mingus who was signed to United Artists Jazz was holding all the aces.
Duke Ellington knew Max Roach who had briefly been a member of his band in 1950, and a decade later played on his Paris Blues soundtrack. However, by the time of the Money Jungle sessions, Max Roach like Charles Mingus had stepped out of Duke Ellington’s shadow as they both forged successful careers.
The day before the recording, on Sunday, September the ‘16th’ 1962 the three men met and Duke Ellington who told them to: “Think of me as the poor man’s Bud Powell.” He also told Charles Mingus and Max Roach that he didn’t just want to play only his own compositions. This wasn’t true though.
The session at Sound Makers Studios, in New York, was due to begin at 1pm on Monday, September the ‘17th’ 1962. Max Roach arrived at the studio at midday to set his drums up and Duke Ellington was already there and writing out some material. That was when it became clear that despite what he had said the previous day, all the compositions that Duke Ellington wanted to use were his own.
Of the seven compositions that made it onto the album, Duke Ellington wrote Money Jungle, Fleurette Africaine (African Flower), Very Special, Warm Valley and Wig Wise. They were joined by Solitude which Duke Ellington wrote with Eddie DeLange and Irving Mills. Ironically the other track was Caravan, which Charles Mingus’ nemesis Juan Tizol cowrote with Duke Ellington and Irving Mills. When it came to recording the tracks Duke Ellington took an unusual approach.
When Max Roach was asked about the sessions in 1968 he remembered how Duke Ellington passed out: “a lead sheet that just gave the basic melody and harmony.” He also gave them a sheet of paper with a visual image. One said: “crawling around on the streets are serpents who have their heads up; these are agents and people who have exploited artists. Play that along with the music.”
Having looked at the lead sheet and read the visual images Charles Mingus and Max Roach declined the opportunity to rehearse. Instead, they decided to record straight to tape. This would be the first time that they had played the material together. It’s thought it wasn’t the easiest session.
There’s various versions of the clashes that allegedly took place during the session. According to Alan Douglas, Charles Mingus complained about Max Roach’s playing, and then picked up his bass and left the studio mid-session. Duke Ellington managed to catch up with him and after talking on the street outside, managed to persuade Charles Mingus to return. However, Duke Ellington’s version has one slight difference in that he persuaded him to return as they stood at the elevator. With at least four people in the room there’s other versions of what happened.
Another version was that Charles Mingus was unhappy that none of his compositions were used during the Money Jungle sessions. There was certainly tension in the air during the recording session and that can be heard from the opening track.
The tracks were recorded in the same order as they appeared on the album, and the tension builds during the uptempo tracks. It’s thought that Charles Mingus left after they recorded the album opener Money Jungle. By then the tension is palpable and is apparent the way he plucks the strings with his fingernails. It’s a mixture of power and frustration as they seesaw and he ensures the track swings. Meanwhile, Max Roach plays pounding polyrhythms as Duke Ellington pounds, stabs and jabs the piano and as he improvises playing dissonant chords. It was after that it’s thought Charles Mingus picked up his bass and left the studio.
After Charles Mingus returns, they record the ballad Fleurette Africaine (African Flower) which unfolds and emerge from what’s essentially a simple melody. It’s followed by Very Special, another twelve-bar blues, and then Warm Valley which veers between melancholy to dramatic as Duke Ellington’s piano takes centre-stage.
The tempo rises on Wig Wise, a jaunty, uptempo track where the piano and then bass take the lead. When Charles Mingus’ bass takes the lead this seems to spur Duke Ellington on to greater heights. He has the same effect on Charles Mingus Throughout the rest of the track they drive each other to even greater heights. There’s no stopping the trio and the tempo continues to rise on Caravan where Duke Ellington’s fingers dance across the keyboard as the rhythm section propel the arrangement along and play with a freedom and invention. Again, Duke Ellington jabs and stabs the keyboard which then twinkles and sparkles before becoming dark and dramatic as the track closes and the tension seems to build. Closing Money Jungle is Solitude, a beautiful standard which offers the chance to reflect and ruminate. Sadly, by then the relationship between the three giants of jazz was fractured despite having recorded what would later be regarded as a classic album of post bop.
After the session, the trio who had a two album deal with United Artists Jazz couldn’t be persuaded to play together. It was the end of the line for this short-lived collaboration. At the time, Duke Ellington was the biggest loser, as he didn’t have a recording deal. Meanwhile, Charles Mingus and Max Roach stars were in the ascendancy, and were both regarded as pioneering jazz musicians. When Money Jungle was released by United Artists Jazz it was further proof of this.
Money Jungle was released in mono and stereo in February 1963 and the reviews were mostly favourable. Much of the plaudits were reserved for Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Down Beat magazine’s Don DeMicheal called them: “some of the fastest company around.” They were also praised for taking Duke Ellington out of comfort zone and taking him in a new direction musically and he needs to improvise like he’s never done before. He rises to challenge and thrives on an album that has been called everything from “memorable” to a “masterpiece.” Despite that, many critics felt that Charles Mingus stole the show during Money Jungle which was the only album featuring three members of jazz royalty.
This meant that Money Jungle was a historical recording. However, there was a problem with the standard of the original stereo recording of Money Jungle. When the instruments were setup, the piano was at the front and in centre with the double bass panned right and the drums in the left channel behind the piano. Some critics described the recording as sounding “wooly” with instances of distortion emanating from the piano microphone. This was disappointing given the importance of the album.
Critics realised when they heard Money Jungle that despite their different backgrounds and what had happened during the session that the three giants of jazz had recorded what was a classic album. The critics knew that Charles Mingus and Max Roach were capable of this, as they regularly recorded albums of groundbreaking music. The same critics doubted that Duke Ellington would ever record another classic album.
By 1963, when Money Jungle was released the veteran bandleader and pianist was sixty-four. Duke Ellington was born in 1899, and was regarded by some critics as yesterday’s man and part of jazz’s establishment. He was very different to his collaborators on Money Jungle.
Charles Mingus and Max Roach were both modernest musicians and were regarded by critics as musical revolutionaries. Critics hailed their modernist sound as the future of jazz. Despite that, they respected Duke Ellington and his music had influenced both men. However, when they joined forces in 1962 they seemed unlikely collaborators.
Despite what happened during the session Duke Ellington was spurred on by the two younger men. They brought out the best in the legendary bandleader and encouraged him to improvise like he had never improvised before. There was a chemistry between the three men who poured a roller coaster of emotions into the music. Sometimes, frustration and anger can be heard, other happiness and joy, and at other times a sense sadness and melancholy. For much of Money Jungle there’s a sense of tension and that’s apparent as the tempo rises, until the closing track Solitude, where the trio seem to reflect on what’s gone before. It was the perfect way to close the Money Jungle.
It’s a landmark album where sparks fly and Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach, who were three giants of jazz, and make musical history on Money Jungle, a post bop classic that is a must have album for anyone who loves and is passionate about jazz.
Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach-Money Jungle.