A Masterpiece of Disharmony


Arts & Culture

Most successful collaborations are celebrated for the near-magic synchronicity between the musicians. But when Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach shared a recording studio in 1962, the result was a monument to tension and friction.

The title track of Duke Ellington’s 1962 album Money Jungle opens with a jarring, metallic sound, something between a bison call and a buzz saw, bleating alone in tripping doubles, siren-tense. It is the bassist doing something unnatural to his instrument—running his fingernail against the strings, snapping them, making them percuss. A violent sound. Five seconds of the bass bleating and the drums burst, a crisp wave of sound from the hi-hat, a parade over the lowing of the bass, cresting and dipping in preparation for the piano, and after another five seconds the piano comes in loud, bursting, a chord played with all the pianist’s strength, as if he had thrown all his weight down onto those first keys. In the wake of this opening salvo the piano flits about the bass, weaving bright circles, like a bullfighter leaning tight to the bull and swaying just out of reach—in turn the doubles of the bass become a run, the opening figure played over and over again, obsessively, the bass stamping the ground, beating its head against the wall just to touch something. When the bass finally lets up, relaxes off its single note and dips, the piano dips right behind it—a bird snatching an insect off the ground. The album, in the first thirty seconds, is less a collaboration than a tug-of-war, a tangle of thrown gauntlets and cross-purposes. For the remaining five minutes of the song the piano is in control, jumping in front of and about the bass, staying just ahead of its push.

The track ends not in explosion but in exhaustion. The bass tries one last charge, snapping the same note over and over to the limit of endurance, and soon loses its proportion, slowing to something heavy and irregular, a wounded breathing. The piano slows too, but mechanically, like a wind-up toy at the end of its string—a few soft, low plinks, and gone, scattered over the dense body of the bass. After the track was recorded, it is said, the bassist attempted to walk out of the session. The album, in my estimation, is a masterpiece.

Money Jungle had been intended as a collaboration of styles and generations—Duke Ellington, sixty-three, big-band grandee, measured and smooth, a living legend albeit slightly passé, playing around with two emissaries of sweating, jagged, hard-driving bop—the drummer Max Roach, thirty-eight; and the bassist and composer Charles Mingus, forty, a man occasionally proclaimed to be the inheritor of Duke’s mantle, a musician who named “Duke and Church” as his two influences and a volcanic personality who had previously been fired from Duke’s 1953 European touring band after only four days for fighting a fellow musician. Mingus in concert, finally, with his idol. Duke embracing his descendants, bestowing his personal seal on their lineage. And Roach straddling both styles, yoking them together in rhythm—or at least, that was the plan. As Rick Mattingly writes in The Drummer’s Time: Conversations with the Great Drummers of Jazz, at Roach’s recollection of their sole prerecording meeting, Ellington had self-effacingly called himself “the poor man’s Bud Powell,” and had expressed a desire to play an assortment of compositions, not only his own. On the finished album, however, every track is Ellington’s.

At some point on the afternoon of September 17, 1962, at the only recording session for Money Jungle, in Sound Makers Studio on Fifty-Seventh Street, Midtown Manhattan, Charles Mingus pulled the cover over his double bass, sharp and rough, effortlessly lifted the hefty thing, and left the smoke-domed recording room, eyes on the floor and muttering to himself, cursing, stomping down the hallway toward the elevator and the canyon-intense late light pouring into Seventh Avenue. Reviewer Thomas Cunliffe theorizes that his exit must have come after the recording of the title track—the difference in tone between that and the following songs is simply too great. Maybe Max Roach, sitting at the drums in a silky green shirt, loose fit, had said something to Mingus, smiled horizon-flat and wide, rolled a jolly little trill on his snare drum, and Mingus stopped, covered the bass, and left. Maybe Roach slouched infinitesimally on his stool as Duke trailed Mingus out of the room, bemused but unruffled. Maybe Mingus, as the bassist Chris Wood heard, had been seething all day at Duke, watching and waiting as Duke played one after another of his own compositions, his own ideas, keeping the session entirely on his own terms. Maybe the songs Mingus had brought, expecting Duke to give them his inimitable marble lightness, were left crumpled and sweating in his pocket, and he struggled all day against the man he idolized.

There is disagreement even among the stories of the disagreement, as if the tension and disharmony of the session bled into collective memory. As producer Alan Douglas remembered to music critic Bill Milkowski, of the walkout, “That’s one of the visuals I will never forget. We were in the studio on Fifty-Seventh Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and I remember leaning out the window, looking up towards Seventh Avenue and seeing Duke Ellington chasing Charlie Mingus up the street.” Yet in Stuart Nicholson’s Reminiscing in Tempo : A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Duke remembers stopping Mingus at the elevator, and never going into the street, recounting years later—

A funny thing happened in the middle of the session. Mingus suddenly and without warning started to pack up his bass and when I inquired where he was going and what was the trouble, he said, “Man, I can’t play with that drummer.” I said, “Why? What’s wrong?” He said, “Duke, I’ve always loved you and what you’re doing in music but you’ll just have to get another bass player.” And I said, “You mean just like that in the middle of the date—come on man, it can’t be that serious.” But he kept packing and went out of the door to the elevator, I followed him to the elevator and after he rolled off a few more beefs, I slowly and quietly said, “Mingus, my man …”

Ever the strong, aloof father, Duke does not recall noticing the steady boil of Mingus’s frustration, frustration clearly audible on the record, and clearly directed at Duke and his piano. The only agreed-upon fact is that Mingus left, and Duke followed. The centerpiece of the album is strife, both in the recording and the music.

In the Money Jungle session photos, Mingus is in short sleeves, suspenders, hatless and hulking and bottom-heavy behind his double bass, holding it delicately with thick fingers. Ellington is wearing a trilby and cardigan, trim mustache and bags under his eyes the shape of a coupe cocktail glass—the frail elegance of the newly elderly. Mingus is staring down and aslant in each photo, directly at Ellington sitting at the piano, the intensity of his gaze still alive.

A collaboration is generally assumed to be dependent on a unity between its participants—minds at least intending and attempting to move in the same direction. And indeed, one of the glories of collaborative music is listening as multiple people concurrently have the same idea, see the immediate future as a shared, coherent structure through which to communicate a path forward, extemporaneously building something complex and alive. It approaches the metaphysical, a reciprocal subsuming of egos to a larger gestalt comprising, alchemically, each player. Yet that collaborative beauty of music cannot rest on unity and harmony alone—for it to mean anything, there must be the possibility of conflict. Just as it is difficult to call a decision good if the possibility of a bad decision was not available—the category loses its meaning without the spectral presence and potential of its opposite—successful collaboration carries the shadow of its failure. It is the awareness that the player could have made a different choice, could have asserted their ego and lunged for control, that gives the moment of collaborative concordance its frisson and pleasure. If there is no residue of what has been overcome, no sense of an autonomy being renounced, the collaboration has no life.

If most great collaborations are the triumph of harmony, Money Jungle is a monument to disharmony—and it is a masterpiece for it. Mingus, throughout the session and climaxing in the recording of the title track, seems to be set on harrying Duke—bumping him, playing over him, trying to throw him off. And Duke, to the surprise of many listeners, pushes back, playing in an aggressive, angular style believed to be alien to him. In “Money Jungle: 50 Years After the Summit,” in Downbeat magazine, Bill Milkowski catches up with many of those originally involved in the production. About Mingus’s pushiness on the title track, Milkowski quotes the pianist Uri Caine as saying “Duke is being very fatherly to Mingus in the sense of saying, ‘I’m going to let you be obstreperous there; you can do your thing and I’m going to hold it down for you. Next time you do it, I’m going to go out, too.’ There’s a lot of psychology going on in this session.” Another pianist, Matthew Shipp, says of Duke’s playing on the album, “There’s nothing rote about any aspect of this album. It has none of that feel of when you’re throwing people together in the studio and you’re just going through the motions, because the tension was palpable. I find it an album of utter vitalism, unlike a lot of straightahead albums of that time.” And Milkowski quotes Don DeMichael’s contemporaneous review of the album in Downbeat in 1963: “I’ve never heard Ellington play as he does on this album; Mingus and Roach, especially Mingus, push him so strongly that one can almost hear Ellington show them who’s boss—and he dominates both of them, which is no mean accomplishment.” It is a roused, rejuvenated Duke Ellington playing on Money Jungle, no longer cocooned by his stature, no longer playing in a void scaffolded by his legend. And Mingus is peculiarly rejuvenated as well, briefly returned to the adolescent stance in which every idea is fought for. The tension is the vitality.

And yet, to fight and claw coherently with another musician for an entire album requires a deep, rooted connection, a fundamental commonality in the way each sees and moves within music. The feeling of Money Jungle is that of a chess match—when Ellington and Mingus grapple, it betrays not misunderstanding but an understanding so ambient and encompassing it allows the player to see what the other is doing and consciously work against it. One begins to marvel both at the energy of the music and at the players’ ability to maintain this high-wire act, to undermine each other without falling into total disarray. Every cacophony produced is set against the euphony the musicians know they could choose and are renouncing. A multitude of possible harmonies, possible concordances, are produced like sparks from the friction of their strikes against each other, shading the music, creating an optical illusion with an absent, suggested richness. Money Jungle is a rare in vivo demonstration of collaboration—as each element of cooperation is spurned, it is made audible—and an exploration of the dissonant regions reachable by musicians who truly understand each other. Mingus storming out after the death struggle of the title track was the capstone of the session’s collaborative logic, his recognition of its completion, and his instinctual contribution to one of the central pillars of music—its end. It was his last lunge, and it was perfect.

Eventually Duke did persuade Mingus to return, and they finished the final tracks—perfectly competent, and less contentious. “Picked up the bass, came back into the studio and we recorded very happily ever after till the album was done,” Ellington recalled. Yet they had already, in the grip of the boiling disharmony, recorded the two most remarkable tracks they would play that session. The album opens with one, the title track, the apex of their disunity, and follows with the other, a demonstration of their connection—“Fleurette Africaine,” a hushed, achingly lovely song built around a simple piano figure, almost a lullaby. As Duke describes it:

One number in particular was as close to spontaneity as you can get, I believe. I explained what we were going to do, with no thought as to what they were going to do. I said, “Now we are in the center of a jungle, and for two hundred miles in any direction, no man has ever been. And right in the center of this jungle, put in the deep moss, there’s a tiny little flower growing, the most fragile thing that’s ever grown. It’s God-made and untouched and this is going to be ‘The Little African Flower.’” I started to play, and we played to the end and that was it.

The song ends with Duke’s piano repeating the figure, softer and softer, as Mingus rolls and rubs his fingers pleasantly over the bass, purring—a sound near to the anguished yelp of the title track, rotated minutely into harmony.


For more on the making of the album, The Paris Review recommends Bill Milkowski’s “Money Jungle: 50 Years After the Summit

Matt Levin is a writer living in Uganda.