Forgotten Treasures

Forgotten Treasure: Charles Mingus “Scenes in the City” (1957)


As I walked 5 hours alone today in New York City with nothing than other than music in my headphones to accompany me, I thought of sharing with you a song that is quintessentially NYC.

Scenes in the City” released in 1957 by double bassist, composer and jazz legend Charlie Mingus is what came to my mind. A gripping 12 minute piece that is definitely one of the finest meetings of jazz and poetry ever released on wax. The song was later covered, quite effectively, by Branford Marsalis in the 80’s.

Mingus created this piece to represent the worries of the Urban Black Jazzman in the late 50’s, right in the middle of the African American Civil Rights Movement. The captivating text and music shifting from fast to slow just sucks you into the story, like you’re watching a movie. It includes narration performed by Mel Stewart and written by Lonne Elder and Langston Hughes.

Well here I am right back where I was yesterday
And the day before, and the day before that
Sitting on a high barstool
Holding my dreams up to the sound of Jazz music
I live uptown, where? I dont exactly know
Im always downtown
And it seems I’m always with the blues
I talk to myself in public places and hum Jazz tunes
I love Jazz
But soon I have to make it uptown
To that old furnished room of mine
I guess thats why I stall so long downtown
But I like the Cafe bars down here
Especially the ones across the street from theartres
I once wanted to be on the stage
But this is the closest I’ll ever get to one
I couldnt afford a seat next to the ceiling
That was Jazz music you heard blastin out
Now I got fifteen cents between me and starvation
I’ll prolly hafta walk all the way uptown
Cause I’m playin that music again
You see…..I love Jazz music

Doo do do dooooo (slow & sad muted trumpet)
Doooo da da di dooooo……..Daaaaaaaaaaa!

Thats pretty music boy
But it aint “really” pretty
It aint like girls in magazines
Its beautiful…..its terribly beautiful man
Say…like a woman you might of been with last night
Or say maybe an hour ago

Dooo da da di doooo ( Sad muted trumpet again)
Doooo da da dee daaa da!

Sad huh?
Sorta reminds me of that old building I live in
My room,…… looking out over lonely waters

Dooo dee dee da dooo( Trumpet picks up, cymbals & Bass start walking faster and faster louder and louder)

Now catch this!

( Cymbals crash)

( whole band comes in now with swing and gusto!)

Bada dee dee ba da da doo da!
Bada dee dee be da da doo da!

( band plays on for a little while….free but together)

Now here I am standing in this old building
It’s night time in the city
I sure wish I could just relax and be cool
But it’s just like my mother says
“Dont cause nuthin ya wish jack”
Now here comes Bob with a mouth full of jive
I know hes comin right here
” Yeah I hear ya talkin Jim, no company tonight man,
no man my record machine is in the pawn shop,
man stop talkin so loud, before you wake my land lady up and she remebers I havent paid my rent in three weeks”
“Oh man who cares” (yelling in the background)
“Go man go!” (landlady starts in to yelling about rent)
“Why dont everbody please stop that noise” ( pots, pans and cans crashing now)
“Please stop all the confusion” (Landlady,Bob, and the pots still being loud)
“Please just let me be cool man!!!” ( Noise is unbearable now)
“Please get away from my door!!!” (oh s***, gonna snap,,,any minute!!)
“Will you please go!!!” (Noise starts to recede…slowly)
“I just want to be cool man” ( finally quiet…again…fer now)

Man you oughta see this old room of mine
Every morning I wake up and look around me
And I keep thinkin
I must’ve died a hundred years during the night
And I wonder about that jack, yes I wonder
Like how I ever got here
Because I dont have any plans of dying that fast

I guess I’m the only man in the world who wakes up too Jazz music in the morning
I guess, i cant say exactly why
I guess I find it solemn…
Like a hymn
Ya know I had to prove that to my mother when I was living back home
I’d wake up to them sounds
Mom didnt dig, she just didnt go for it
Bird, Miles, Max… she just couldnt see it
Morning, afternoon, night or anytime
That is until I played her some monk one night,late
Round Midnight
I played her some monk
Thelonious that is
Now Mom spends many of her nights in tunisia

(Trumpet starts in again,un-muted, soaring and somber yet still swinging…slow)

( Now a sax comes in and starts conversating with a muted trumpet)

(Now everyone starts to walk and swing)

(Slow muted trumpets pauses all, says a few things here and there,no one listens)

Yeah! Early in the morning time, late in the night time
I’m with the blues
Sometimes Im laughing and having myself a ball
And thats why Bob keeps telling the blues aint all up there in my old room
But sometimes it dances and struts like a woman
Skips and hops like children playing ball
and maybe thats why I always manage to change once in a while
Even with the blues
And wether I like it or not I love the idea of living
But sometymes its tough man
And I dont mean tough like when Miles is grooving with his horn
I mean tough like when I cant make that morning meal
When I’m ducking the landlady
When everything I have is in hock
Like when I think of all the places I havent been
And wont ever likely get there
But I think maybe I will
Yes, thats the way I think
Like the song says
The sun will shine thru my back door someday
All the way down to the bottom of my stomach and back up again
Yes thats the way I feel

Doo da da da deeeeee ( slow muted trumpet again…sad)
Deee da da da dee daaaa

Pretty man
But not “real” pretty
Beautiful like a woman
A real woman



There is also a great version from 1984 by saxophonist Branford Marsalis, check it!



Montreal-based DJ and the founder (2007) and 24 Hours of Vinyl (2011).