Singing Mingus

Jazzschool instructor Ellen Johnson started writing her own lyrics to Charles Mingus tunes more than thirty years ago, building a new repertoire for his vocal music.

Although bassist Charles Mingus has been gone now for 34 years, having succumbed to cancer at age 56, his reputation as one of the major composers in the history of jazz continues to loom large. His music spilled over with emotion and often raged against racism, especially in the song “Fables of Faubus.” He first recorded the angry tune about Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who in 1957 dispatched the Arkansas National Guard to block nine black teenagers from integrating Little Rock Central High, but his record label, Columbia, refused to let him include his harshly satirical lyrics.

Mingus did on occasion write other lyrics, including “Eclipse,” a tune about an interracial romance he’d hoped Billie Holiday would record, though she didn’t. Shortly before his death, wheelchair-bound and no longer able to play bass, he collaborated with Joni Mitchell on material for her album Mingus. The album’s most enduring tune is “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ poignant tribute to tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Mitchell set lyrics to the melody, as did former Mingus saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk a few years earlier.

Both versions will be performed by Ellen Johnson at her concert of Mingus vocal music on Sunday, April 21, at the Jazzschool. A day before what would have been Mingus’ 91st birthday, Johnson will showcase her lyrics along with Mitchell, Kirk, and those by Mingus himself.

“[Kirk’s] is in a 4/4 feel,” said Johnson. “[Mitchell’s] is almost a cut-time feel. I do the feels exactly the way both of ’em are. They work together perfectly.”

Johnson, who has been teaching vocal performance classes at the Jazzschool since relocating to Concord from Southern California in July, started writing her own lyrics to Mingus tunes more than thirty years ago when she was a rising young voice on the San Diego jazz scene. The first was “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” and she subsequently recorded that song, “Noddlin’ Ya Head Blues,” and “Nostalgia in Times Square,” all with permission from Sue Mingus, the bassist’s widow.

“When I write lyrics, I get moved by the phrases,” explained the Chicago-born singer, now 58, while sitting in a Danville cafe. “I’m okay with wide intervals. To me it’s the way the phrases move and then the personality of the song. That’s what inspires me to write lyrics.”

Johnson studied at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music before heading west and receiving a master’s in vocal performance from San Diego State University. “What really moves me about Mingus’ music is this depth of harmony, melody, and rhythm,” said Johnson. “There’s an element of his music that has a lot of Western European classical connections, almost like a Third Stream-type of thing but carried a bit farther. That appeals to me. It’s deep. It’s rich.”

While most jazz vocalists stick to standards, Johnson has made an effort to expand her repertoire.

“I’d rather sing this type of music than just sing standards,” Johnson said. “I love standards. They’re beautiful, but it’s challenging to me to sing his music. Maybe because of my classical background, I’m looking for a broader spectrum and Mingus appeals to me that way.”

Sunday’s concert, which marks Johnson’s performing debut in the Bay Area, will also include “Eclipse” and “Weird Nightmare,” both with music and words by Mingus. She will be joined by pianist Jason Martineau, bassist Aaron Germain, and drummer Alan Hall, although Germain will supply sole support on some numbers, much in a manner associated with bassist Harvey S. and vocalist Sheila Jordan. Johnson and Jordan have become friends over the years, and Johnson is currently writing the 84-year-old singer’s biography.

“You get to use your imagination a lot,” Johnson said of working with bass-only support. “You get to allow the bass player to fill in the blanks. I hear all the rest of the parts. There is a freedom of movement to me and going places and not having clutter. It’s spacious. It’s fun for me. For some people I know, that’s very frightening.”

In addition to Sunday’s concert, Johnson will give a workshop titled “Mingus Sings” the following Sunday, April 28, at the Jazzschool. “I can get more in-depth about the songs, and people can actually sing along with us,” Johnson said of the workshop. “I really want people to hear this music, and I want other singers to sing it. It’s extraordinary music. It really needs to be heard ’cause I don’t think you hear very much of his vocal music at all.”

For Johnson, Sunday’s concert is both a culmination of her longtime passion for Mingus and her first opportunity to share it with the East Bay. “This is my debut, and I did that on purpose,” Johnson said. “I didn’t just want to do a gig. I wanted to do something that I felt would be worthy to the community, make a statement, and do something that’s very near and dear to my heart.”

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the previous version of this story incorrectly implied that Joni Mitchell’s version of “Goodbye Pork Hat” was instrumental; however, it contained lyrics written by Mitchell. This version has been corrected.

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