Making Cents Of It All: Jazz Enters The Money Jungle
Is money the root of all evil? I, of course, can't answer that, but anybody with access to a newspaper, television and/or the internet knows that it's at the heart of many debates these days. As I sit here writing this column on a cloudy day in early April, I can't help but think that the weather is a current reflection of the financial climate in the United States. Tax day looms heavy on the horizon, as millions of Americans rush to complete their forms, eager to receive desperately needed refunds or angry to part with their hard earned dollars if they owe some cash to the government.
At the same time, the government seems to be mudslinging over money like never before. With a near-shutdown of the federal government averted at the buzzer, and arguments over everything from military spending and public services to Planned Parenthood and the Bush-era tax cuts, it's a wonder that anybody can reach an agreement on anything these days! While no two people see the situation the same way, nearly everybody seems to have the deficit blues these days and a great depressionnot the great depressioncertainly hangs over many heads. With these thoughts in mind, this edition of Old, New, Borrowed and Blue will focus on money-related material of a musical nature.
While the famed collaboration between Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Money Jungle (Blue Note, 1962), was recorded nearly a half a century ago as of this writing, the music doesn't show its age, and the title resonates strongly with the current climate. While Mingus and Roach were both established leaders and composers at the time of this recording, every piece on the album comes from Ellington's world. Ellington mixed old favorites, like "Caravan" and "Solitude," with new numbers, like "Fleurette Africaine," which placed Ellington's mournful piano lines atop Mingus' fluttery bass and Roach's understated tom-tom work, and the occasionally Monk-ish "Wig Wise."
The title track begins with Mingus' springy and insistent bass, but Roach quickly joins the fray with some propulsive ride cymbal work. Ellington and Mingus shout back and forth with one another in a remarkably open manner that shows the hidden, outside tendencies in Ellington's work. Fortunately, Duke also mixes bluesy sensibilities into the music and Mingus' second round of jabs run smack into a more straightforward sound. When the song eventually winds down, so do the musicians. As the track nears its end, Mingus' exhortations and Roach's drumming start to peter out and sputter, eventually grinding down to a conclusive halt. "Money Jungle" is rightly viewed as a classic by most accounts, but it should also be appreciated for the strikingly modern view that Ellington took with the majority of his performances. This song, and a good part of the album, actually marries the essence of bop, post bop, avant-garde, honky tonk and the blues in such a natural way that it almost seems to belong to all of these schools and none of these schools at the same time.
My earlier reference to the great depression was no accident. While people still argue about whether the current recession is or isn't over, unemployment is here like a modern day plague, the price at the pump is hurting everybody and plenty of people are down in the dumps over it. When the United States was suffering through the Great Depression, plenty of songwriters tried to take peoples' minds off of their hard times by writing songs of a positive nature, but some pieces presented a more realistic outlook and captured the tenor of the times.
"Brother, Can You Spare Dime?," written by composer Jay Gorney and lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, is often recognized as the beacon of musical truth and reality from this era, and it has continued to resonate with the masses over the past 75-plus years. From its minor key beginnings and memories of past glories, to its realistic understanding of the current state of gloom, the song strikes a chord like few others did during that period (or do today).
While Bing Crosby was, and still is, recognized as the chief vocal delivery man of this song, other jazz singers have taken their crack at this one in more recent times. Abbey Lincoln delivered an appropriately sad version of the piece during her early '90s renaissance, and vocalist Andy Bey took a completely different approach with this piece on Ain't Necessarily So (12th Street Records, 2007).