Week 238: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus


Whatever happened to hats?

I mean, people still wear hats. But these days, most hats are worn either to keep the owner’s head warm, or to advertise the owner’s favourite sports team.

It didn’t use to be this way. Hats used to be an essential part of any person’s outfit, and leaving the house without a hat would be as strange as leaving the house without a shirt. Look up old photos of crowd shots, like this one, from the World’s Fair of 1893, and you’ll get an idea of the sea of hats that once formed wherever people gathered. Or how about this photo of fans at a baseball game from the 1950s. People used to dress up to go to the game. Clearly, we used to be a very dapper people.

Even the names of old-timey hats were awesome; the Bowler, the Cartwheel, the Homburg…and my personal favourite, the Pork Pie hat.

It was the Pork Pie hat that saxophone legend Lester Young wore, and it was for Lester Young that Charles Mingus wrote this gorgeous song, after Young’s death in 1959. But when I listen to this track, I can’t help but think of it as an elegy not only for Lester Young, but for the hat itself. I’m not sure when the hat died out, but it probably wasn’t long after 1959.

But hey, fashion is cyclical, right? So maybe in a decade or two we’ll be back to the days of cranial classiness evident in those photos.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The melody that opens and closes the song is played by two saxophones, one panned left and one panned right. It gives an interesting stereo effect.

2. The sax soloist does something cool at 2:43. I’m sure there’s a name for the technique, but I don’t know what it is…it sounds like the saxophonist suddenly gets the shivers.

3. The whole thing has a really lazy, slightly-behind-the-beat feeling. If I was cool enough to own a classy hat, I would tilt it down over my eyes whenever I listened to this song.

Recommended listening activity:

Tipping your hat to someone.

Buy it here.