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Deconstructing Money Jungle

Graham E Peterson By

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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.

Charles Mingus and Max Roach came from the Charlie Parker school of thought in terms of improvisation, and the Thelonious Monk school in regards to space, treatment of dissonance and from both they take logic. The beboppers were very logical yet very chaotic musicians. Their music involved playing long runs of swung eighth notes that sounded like Jackson Pollock splashing you with a paint can, yet each line was focused. Every downbeat was a chord tone, and all scale tones or chromatic tones happened on the offbeat. No matter how chaotic this music got it always had focus. Every musical phrase or idea was going somewhere, and it was never just floating off into the ether. They had more enlightened views on syncopation and harmony (particularly suspended dissonance). Just as Ellington's earlier records influenced them, these two musicians took Ellington down a road of more modern possibilities. While Ellington wrote the majority of the music for this album, Mingus and Roach bring an unperceived dimension to the music; such as Mingus insistently hitting the same high notes continuously even if they may not be rhythmically or harmonically functional in a traditional bass function. Rather than playing the role of a bassist for a piano trio, Mingus insists on being on the forefront and playing more compositional lines. When Ellington hears this he at first just fills in the blanks for Mingus' odd playing. By the time they get to Money Jungle, rather than playing more traditionally, Ellington is right behind Mingus; diving deeper into the abyss while Roach keeps everything together with his polyrhythmic style.

The intensity grew thick as the session went on. Mingus and Ellington had had falling-outs in the past but if they have any residual issues with one another neither of them had shown it. The real conflict was between Mingus and his contemporary: Max Roach. Among jazz musicians, and especially beboppers, there has always been a tendency to try and out do one another. Mingus had criticized some of Roach's playing that day and the producer of the album Alan Douglas recalls the boiling point of the session.

Mingus started to complain about what Max was playing. Mingus was getting louder and louder as the session went on. I forget what song they were doing, but in the middle of it Max kind of looked up at Mingus and smiled and said something. And at that point, Mingus picked the bass up, put the cover on it and just stomped out of the studio.

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