Top 10: Money Jungle

Recently I was tagged on Facebook for one of those things where you post favourite albums

This album brings together a couple of my favourite jazz musicians and captures in their music a fierce inter-generational argument.

Let me set the scene by explaining a bit about the personalities involved.

In 1917 when 'Duke' Ellington was eighteen, he'd wanted to become a painter.

In the decades that followed, Ellington remained a painter although it was in the guise of a prolific jazz composer.

In my mind he is one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century.

In conducting his orchestra Ellington arranged music as though it were colour on a canvas, with deft movements of his hand (the piano his brush) he would sketch outlines for sonic landscapes and illustrate a path for the other musicians.

Yet Ellington should not be viewed as a maestro in the mould of European composers like Mozart; the Duke's talent was to recognise and arrange melodies that were created through the improvisation of his band.

I’s a model that performers like James Brown and Frank Zappa later used to great effect too, and probably akin to managing racehorses in pairing personalities for performance.

It was with wily leadership skills that Ellington stamped his ideas onto his musicians and, while he developed their talents, this leadership is his claim to authorship of so many jazz standards.

Money Jungle captures a lot of this stamping and more.

Ellington was 63 and, like Hollywood actors who’d fallen out of favour with movie studios or audiences, he was in the wilderness between bookings.

It would be a few years before he was celebrated again near the end of his life and there’s a painful story in Zappa’s book that Ellington would be reduced to visiting his manager and begging for money to survive.

For this album Ellington was paired with a couple of jazz giants from the next generation, 40-year old bassist Charles Mingus and 38-year old drummer Max Roach.

Mingus was so forceful that, despite being a bassist, he became a bandleader.

He had a reputation for being hot-headed and there are accounts from his students of leaving lessons with bruises from being punched.

There are also various stories as to why the recording sessions that became Money Jungle ended abruptly.

It was unusual for Ellington to record a piano-based album and it was Mingus who was signed to the record label, so the power dynamic was clearly tilted against the elder maestro.

And I’m amused to read just now that:
“according to Roach, he and Mingus were given "a lead sheet that just gave the basic melody and harmony", plus a visual image described by the pianist: one example was, "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".”

I’d guess it’s the kind of approach that mightn’t have amused Mingus.

The album contains versions of a couple of Ellington standards.

‘Caravan’ was written by Ellington’s longtime band member Juan Tizol, who Mingus reportedly had fought with during his brief stint in the Duke’s band.

There are some wild versions of ‘Caravan’ that have been recorded since and it’s usually a song performed with a jazz orchestra but on Money Jungle you can hear Mingus playing a number of parts and making his mark with his remarkable bass playing.

Money Jungle isn’t the greatest album but it’s one that provides insights into how turbulent music can be when you mix strong personalities and musicians with different styles.