The 10 best covers of Charles Mingus songs

Charles Mingus, Jazz bass player.
(Image credit: Bettmann)

"He had some serious attitude and it's all there in his bass playing," said Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones when asked about Charles Mingus. "He really thought the bass was important, and the way he worked with a drummer was fantastic."

Beyond his brilliance as a bass player, Mingus was one of the most commanding bandleaders in jazz history. "A lot of people wanted jazz musicians to be reserved and stately,” said saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who recorded Mingus’ Scenes in the City in 1984. "But Mingus was wild. That’s what I love about him."

Mingus died on January 5th, 1979, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and having penned tributes to his own musical heroes throughout his career (Reincarnation of a Lovebird for Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll for Jelly Roll Morton, Goodbye, Porkpie Hat for Lester Young), his influence has remained evident in the work of musicians as diverse as Keith Richards, Charlie Hunter and, of course, the Mingus Big Band.

Here’s our compilation of the 10 best covers of classic Mingus compositions.

1. Joni Mitchell – Good Bye Pork Pie Hat (1979)

Originally a tribute to tenor sax player Lester Young, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is also the closing track from the unique collaboration between Mingus and Joni Mitchell. Mitchell’s lyrics were based on John Handy’s original sax solo, as well as the melody. The bass playing is unmistakably that of the great Jaco Pastorius.

“Charles Mingus died in Mexico, January 5, 1979 at the age of 56. He was cremated the next day. That same day 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and were removed by fire. These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination.” So read Joni Mitchell’s liner notes on the LP, which was released five months following his death.

2. Maceo Parker – Better Git It In Your Soul (1990)

Better Git It In Your Soul was written as an homage to the church music that Mingus grew up with, and was a perfect fit for Maceo Parker’s own hard-swinging salute to the ‘50s and ‘60s. The alto saxophonist recruited fellow J.B.’s alumni Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis, while Bootsy Collins takes up the bass chair. This is a straight-ahead run through of one of Mingus’ most popular numbers, with Maceo doing most of the soloing. 

3. Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and the Uptown Horns – Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me (1992)

Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me was first recorded by Mingus on November 6, 1961, but this version is taken from Hal Willner’s 1992 tribute album, which Willner called Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus. The album also featured the likes of Elvis Costello, Dr John and Leonard Cohen. “Mingus was the hippest thing to listen to when I was a kid,” says Charlie Watts in the video. “His music was very logical, but he was a sort of an edge player. It was almost a cacophony.”

4. Charlie Hunter Trio – Fables of Faubus  (1993)

Charlie Hunter's solo guitar arrangement of Fables of Faubus was released in 1993 by Prawn Song records, a label owned by Les Claypool, who also produced the subsequent album. For the recording, Hunter manhandled a specially-made 8-string guitar that allowed him to play rhythm and melody simultaneously.

5. Andy Summers – Remember Rockefeller at Attica (1999)

Following the demise of The Police in the late 80s, Andy Summers recorded tributes to Thelonious Monk (Green Chimneys) and Charles Mingus (Peggy’s Blue Skylight), which featured this latin take on Remember Rockefeller at Attica, complete with Alison Wedding’s vocalization of the melody. Listen out for her echo of the Star Trek TV theme.

6. Marcus Miller – Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (2001)

Following his acclaimed solo albums The Sun Don’t Lie and Tales, Marcus Miller released M2 (‘M-Squared’) in 2001 and won his second Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. One of the album’s highlights is this sensitive reading of Goodbye Porkpie Hat, with Miller out front on his remarkably fluid fretless bass and Herbie Hancock contributing some equally delicate piano work.

7. No BS! Brass – Haitian Fight Song (2001)

This compilation wouldn’t be complete without a contribution from No BS! The Mingus credits in their repertoire range from Boogie Stop Shuffle to Nostalgia in Times Square, and in this clip they stretch out on the 1959 classic, Haitian Fight Song. Written as an ode to the triumph of freedom in the face of persecution, it was originally recorded for The Clown in 1957.

8. Chrissie Hynde – Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters (2019)

Inspired by Eric Dolphy and his thoughts on slavery, the original release of Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters lasts up to 31 minutes depending on which recording you track down. This clever reinterpretation by Chrissie Hynde is about 3 minutes long and features on her 2019 Valve Bone Woe album. It’s essentially an instrumental, with Hynde humming a few bars deep in the mix.

9. Kyle Eastwood – Boogie Stop Shuffle (2017)

A staple in the book of the Mingus Big Band, Boogie Stop Shuffle is a 12-bar blues that Kyle Eastwood (revered jazz bassist and eldest son of Hollywood star Clint) made the closer on his 2017 album, In Transit. Eastwood’s ultra rhythmic arrangement is ushered in by solo bass before the band hit their collective romping stride.

10. Mingus Big Band – Meditation for Moses (2022)

The most recent of all the recordings in this list, Meditation for Moses appears on The Charles Mingus Centennial Sessions, which was released in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Mingus’ birthday. The album includes new arrangements, as well as narrations by Charles’s son Eric Mingus. Co-leader and bassist Boris Koslov arranged several of the tracks including this one, which features a seriously impressive bowed bass solo at 05:37.

The Charles Mingus Centennial Sessions is available digitally through iTunes and Amazon. For more on Mingus’s legacy, visit charlesmingus.com

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Nick Wells
Writer

Nick Wells was the Editor of Bass Guitar magazine from 2009 to 2011, before making strides into the world of Artist Relations with Sheldon Dingwall and Dingwall Guitars. He's also the producer of bass-centric documentaries, Walking the Changes and Beneath the Bassline, as well as Production Manager and Artist Liaison for ScottsBassLessons. In his free time, you'll find him jumping around his bedroom to Kool & The Gang while hammering the life out of his P-Bass.