Deconstructing Money Jungle

Graham E Peterson By

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Duke Ellington was born at the turn of the century. Because his career stretched from the roaring twenties to just after the Nixon scandal, and because of the large breathe of his work he has been a household name for decades. Most individuals know Ellington for his work pioneering big band music, as a bandleader, composer, and brilliant improviser. Few ever reference Ellington's solo piano music or small ensemble work; mainly because he did not make many recordings of this nature. A session such as Money Jungle (1962) reveals a side of Ellington that was not often seen, and is an introduction to Ellington's continued growth and innovation even in his later years. It was a more intimate departure from the blaring big band sound that he pioneered playing in Harlem at the Cotton Club. Rather than playing intense and challenging arrangements for a dance audience, the Money Jungle trio focuses more on creating and developing motivic ideas and listening to one another. Improvisation in this setting becomes more of a group effort rather than one soloist at a time.

On September 17, 1962, Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus got together with no rehearsals for a recording session of trio music. All that the sidemen were given before playing were lead sheets with written melody and chords, and a visual description of the meaning of the piece. For the title track, Ellington told his sidemen to visualize that "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." Charles Mingus had been a long time admirer of Ellington and although he may have been excited to have been asked to play with his longtime hero, he did not show any sign of it; stating that he would only play the date if they would hire Max Roach to play drums. This recording represents the coming together of the older tradition and the younger bop schooled musicians who had moved away from what many of them considered to be "Uncle Tom" music. Mingus and Roach played music for musicians; Ellington was an entertainer who played dance music. Ellington's music was being performed in dance halls and his larger more artistic compositions were reserved for concert halls while the beboppers were still in smoke filled clubs with no dance floors. This recording session was the summit of two generations that bridged the gap between swing and bop. It was the arrival of the avant-garde that would define the turmoil of the middle and late sixties. In this session Duke Ellington collaborated with Charles Mingus and Max Roach to create on of the most important jazz albums of not just the decade but also the entire century. By collaborating with younger pioneers of more modern music, Duke allowed himself to be pulled into new harmonic, rhythmic and melodic ideas while Mingus and Roach were able to gain the experience of playing with a master of their art. This recording session marked a new sound in music that helped to shape the developing avant-garde jazz movement.

The album Money Jungle was officially released in February of 1963, just three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy marked the plunge into the chaos that was the middle and late sixties. Bringing together Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach was not just recording three excellent and genius musicians; it also brought together three of the most radical civil rights activists in jazz. From the 1940's to the beginning of the 60's each one of these musicians released a work directly related to issues of civil rights. Max Roach's We Insist! (Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite) was first released in 1960, following Mingus' Mingus Ah Um which features the piece "Fables of Faubus," a direct reaction to Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus calling in the national guard to prevent nine African American children from entering an all white school. Mingus originally wrote lyrics to this piece that Columbia Records refused to record, as they were too controversial, and it would be another year before Charles Mingus would record a version with his original lyrics. Inspiring all of this was Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige, an extended composition that tracked the roots of the African American from the days of slavery to the very beginning of the civil rights movement that his consciousness-raising work would help to ignite.

Ellington, Mingus and Roach all had very different interpretations of the 20th century struggle that black men and women had to deal with. Ellington was more reflective with a historical approach, but Mingus and Roach were aggressive. Roach's title We Insist! says it all. These are individuals who have become aggressive through years of oppression, and are ready for the leadership of figures like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This aggression comes through in Mingus' bass playing and string bending on Money Jungle and Backward Country Boy Blues, and in Max Roach's intense, driving bop and hard bop technique that he pioneered. These musicians were doing more than just playing on this day in 1962; they were expressing their dissatisfaction with a society that did not value their very existence. This recording takes the listener on an existential journey for meaning through the medium of the avant-garde.

Ellington was one of the most pioneering American composers in the 20th century in regards to harmonic structure, rhythm, and arranging. He created the paradigm of American music that Mingus and Roach were working to shift. Despite all of Duke Ellington's amazing innovations in compositions and in music, it is important to note that until this point his music was primarily dance music. Jazz had strayed far from "Jungle Nights in Harlem" and was now reserved for smaller clubs that hosted quintets with no room for dance. Hipsters, beats, and poets who were into liberal experimentation with sex, drug use and improvisatory art, were replacing well-dressed upper class patrons looking for an evening of big band swing. This new direction drags Ellington into new treatments of dissonance and motivic ideas. The title track Money Jungle in its most basic form is just a 12 bar blues. Mingus' aggressive bass style grouped with Ellington stretching into more altered and unresolved chord tensions and Max Roach's fiery drumming, creates a completely different approach to playing a blues. Where most jazz basses would walk, Mingus moves to the upper end of his range digging into one note so aggressively on one motivic theme that he bends the pitch. He rarely plays a straight walking bass line for even an entire chorus. This alteration in style for Ellington led to players altering forms entirely and even throwing them away to create more avant-garde music.
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