Blue Monday (Pork Pie Hat edition)

By a curious twist of fate,  saxophonist Lester Young is probably better known for inspiring a classic  tune, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” than for his own music. And the composer of the tune, Charles Mingus, is probably better known for this tribute to Young than for any of his other, more personal works. Such are the workings of fame and fate.

lester-youngOn the other hand, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” — named for Young’s favorite type of chapeau, as seen at left  — is simply one of the greatest tunes in the jazz catalogue, with a melody strong enough to resist the most determined hard bop deconstruction.  The plainest versions available from Mingus himself are on Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, but I couldn’t find any clips. So we turn to  master bassist Dave Holland, up top, chosen because his bare-bones version (a highlight of his 1993 disc One’s All) lets the spare beauty of the melody speak for itself.   

The mournful Mingus tune has enticed a surprising varity of rock musicians who keep a foot in the jazz world. Jeff Beck, for example:

John McLaughlin, another jazz-rock fusion flashmeister, is also fond of the song:

Joni Mitchell met Mingus in the mid-Seventies, when he contacted her about collaborating on an adaptation of some of T.S. Eliot’s poetry.  poetry. The meeting produced Mingus, released in 1979, one of the more curious items in Mitchell’s catalogue. Here she performs the song with guitarist Pat Metheny:

When Charlie speaks of Lester
You know someone great has gone
The sweetest swinging music man
Had a Porkie Pig hat on
A bright star
In a dark age
When the bandstands had a thousand ways
Of refusing a black man admission
Black musician
In those days they put him in an
Underdog position
Cellars and
chitlins’

When Lester took him a wife
Arm and arm went black and white
And some saw red
And drove them from their hotel bed
Love is never easy
It’s short of the hope we have for happiness
Bright and sweet
Love is never easy street!
Now we are black and white
Embracing out in the lunatic New York night
It’s very unlikely we’ll be driven out of town
Or be hung in a tree
That’s unlikely!

Tonight these crowds
Are happy and loud
Children are up dancing in the streets
In the sticky middle of the night
Summer serenade
Of taxi horns and fun arcades
Where right or wrong
Under neon
Every feeling goes on!
For you and me
The sidewalk is a history book
And a circus
Dangerous clowns
Balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions
They have been handed
Day by day
Generations on down

We came up from the subway
On the music midnight makes
To Charlie’s bass and Lester’s saxophone
In taxi horns and brakes
Now Charlie’s down in Mexico
With the healers
So the sidewalk leads us with music
To two little dancers
Dancing outside a black bar
There’s a sign up on the awning
It says “
Pork Pie Hat Bar”
And there’s black babies dancing
Tonight

And for a taste of Lester Young himself, here’s a clip from the old Jazz Party TV show I blogged about last week:

And finally, here’s Mingus himself leading a portion of a  1975 performance:

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2 thoughts on “Blue Monday (Pork Pie Hat edition)

  1. Rick Mac says:

    Steve, I not long ago found this site, arriving from your other site, the Daily Beast. This is now my favorite website. I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a treasure chest. I am a writer, a jazz lover, and big fan of the Middle ages. This site is an embarrasment of riches, and I’ve only just begun to explore! I love this Pork Pie Hat entry. Such an amazingly great tune, and wonderful examples linked to here. The Jeff Beck version (I have the LP) is mind blowing.

    I look forward too all the reading I’ll be doing!

  2. Steven Hart says:

    I’m overwhelmed. Thanks for the note.

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