What an assignment this must have been. For singer Joni Mitchell to honor the request of one of the great giants of jazz – Charles Mingus – and put lyrics to some of his classic pieces before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease would have been beyond the scope of most writers. But not Mitchell.
The album she released after the legendary bassist/composer’s death, Mingus, contained versions of several songs that, in some ways, were even more jazzy and avant-garde than Mingus’ own original works, with musicians like Jaco Pastorius and Herbie Hancock supporting her instantly-recognizable voice. One of those songs was “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”
The song was originally composed by Mingus as a tribute to his friend, the great tenor sax player Lester Young, “The Prez.” Mitchell created a lyrical tribute to Young that addressed racism and the New York night life, as she explained to then-Rolling Stone writer, and later screenwriter, Cameron Crowe in a rare interview.
“We went through some of the old songs. ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ was the one we decided on immediately … I had to find my own phrasing for the notes … I had a block for three months. It’s hard for me to take someone else’s story and tell only his story in a song.”
“Charlie assailed me with historical information about Lester Young and his family background, concerning his early playing days. He used to tap dance in his family band with his father and mother. He was married to a white woman, traveling through the South in a time when that was just taboo. A lot of the great black musicians were forced into cellars or the chitlin circuit. So I had all these details, but I still couldn’t, with any conscience, simply write a historical song.
Then something very magical happened. One night Don Alias and I – he plays congas on the album – were on the subway, and we got off, I don’t know why, two stops early … Two blocks ahead of us, under these orangeish New York lights, we see a crowd gathered.”
“So we head toward the crowd. When we get up on it, it’s a group of black men surrounding two small black boys. It’s about midnight, and the two boys are dancing this very robotlike mime dance … They were dancing under one of those cloth awnings that goes out to the curb of a bar. I look up – and the name of the bar is the Pork Pie Hat. The music they were dancing to was jazz coming off of the jukebox inside. There were big blown-up pictures of Lester Young all around the place. It was wild.”
“So that became the last verse of the song. In my mind, that filled in a piece of the puzzle. I had the past and the present, and the two boys represented the future, the next generation. To me, the song then had a life of its own.”
As an instrumental, the song has been covered by numerous artists as important in their own rights as Mingus himself, including guitarists Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin and Stefan Grossman. And others have written lyrics to the music as well, including jazz guitarist/singer Vin d’Onofrio (whose version was recorded by the Japanese singer and pianist, Chie Ayado) and the New York-based jazz vocalist and composer Lauren Hooker. And as with all her music, Mitchell proved once again that, like Mingus himself, she was an original.