Charles Mingus is among jazz’s greatest composers and perhaps its most talented bass player. During his lifetime he had a lot to say about the place of jazz in music history and American culture and much more. Mingus speaks, we listen.
Excerpted from Mingus Speaks by John F. Goodman (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2013 University of California Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Don’t take me for no
avant-garde, ready-born doctor.”
Many people have tried to explain Mingus to the world. Finally, it’s time for him to do the talking.
His music has been praised, anatomized, criticized, discographized. No longer jazz’s angry man, he has achieved prominence as one of the great jazz composers, largely through the efforts of his wife Sue, who has done so much since his death to keep three bands going and let the public hear his music. Mingus is in the composer pantheon with Duke Ellington and a very few others. Wynton Marsalis loves him; he’s part of the received jazz canon. Would he be proud of that? Dismissive? Both, probably.
For many critics and listeners, his music has been hard to fathom: is it traditional, free, or what? And yet, recent remarks of younger people in blogs, coming to his music for the first time, are revealing. (He always knew the kids would respond.) In The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, one person heard “images of creeping hobos, fawning sophisticates, domestic loneliness, and a mind on fire.” On YouTube, the audio track of “Solo Dancer” from Black Saint elicited this, among many comments: “So i’m 15 and this is the first time i heard this song and it’s FUCKING BRILLIANT. Can someone point me to a good place to start with Charles Mingus? Please?”
His music is among the most personal of expressions in jazz. Filled with recurring recombinations of source material of all kinds (gospel, Dixieland, concert music, Spanish music, bebop, swing, New Orleans, R&B, free jazz, circus and minstrel music), each piece is also a unique minibiography in sound. Not every one is fully realized, but each piece tells something about where Mingus has been. These are not generally Monkish or modernist-style compositions. They are personal statements.
For a man as verbal as Mingus was, a great frustration seemed to be his constant need to explain himself—in his music, to his audiences, in his book Beneath the Underdog, in his essays, and finally in his talk here. The rush of words, the abrupt shifts in subject (sometimes in mood) testify to this. I usually understood what he was talking about and shared much of his taste and affection for the music and its creators. We also came to share jokes, drinks, and the latest political outrage.
Still, talking with Mingus? It was sometimes intimidating and, depending on his mood, now and again fraught with dense pauses and occasional disconnects. After a time I learned not to try and fill the dead air. And it was just a great privilege to hear him light up on a topic—as you will hear too.
Mingus, I came to think, felt forever on the outside of a world he repudiated yet was very much part of. Outrage and joy were commonplace emotions with Charles; they enabled him to carry on, or to beat the devil. For all the critical analysis that has been directed at him, maybe the most plausible thing I can say is that while he put up with deprivation and scorn as a black man, he was clearly very privileged as an artist. Mingus under- stood how degrading the business of performing jazz often was, but he had no doubts about how good he was and what he had accomplished. That perceptual discord often made him angry: “If you’re going to be a physician or a finished artist in anything, like a surgeon, then you got to be able to retrace your steps and do it anytime you want to go forward, be more advanced. And if I’m a surgeon, am I going to cut you open ‘by heart,’ just free-form it, you know?”
The avant-garde pretenders made him crazy because they posed as “ready-born doctors.” Their pretensions put the lie to everything Mingus had worked and studied to do in music. A further dilemma was that he, by most critical accounts, was labeled an avant-gardist. Another thing to make you crazy. The audiences and critics sometimes made him crazy.
Mingus had other demons that pursued him. More than most jazz musicians, he was always critical of his output, always trying to discover how to get away from jazz and create some kind of ideal, eclectic music that could truly represent and fulfill him. His paranoia was legendary; his imaginary ramblings and distortions, especially at this period in his life, tested both his friends’ and an outsider’s credulity. Except for drugs (which he never got into), his life, like Bird’s, was in some way a testing of every limit of excess. It was all part of a spiritual quest that he couldn’t really identify.
I don’t want to defend or excuse the outrageous and hurtful things he did—and there were plenty of those. Jazz people have sometimes gotten off the hook for behaviors that would put the rest of us in jail. Bud Powell’s beating at the hands of Philadelphia cops is certainly the other side of that coin. But Mingus—because he was verbal, very smart, and loved the limelight—never hesitated to put forward that duality of race and art, outrage and joy, that made him such a unique voice in jazz.
As composer and bandleader, Mingus seemed to have two models— Duke Ellington, of course, as many have noted and, to a lesser extent, Jelly Roll Morton. He had Morton’s swagger and some of Duke’s charm, though surely not his urbanity. His music was often Ellingtonian in concept, if not in execution, and like Morton, he found a way to bring what he called “spontaneous composition” to jazz. As a performer, Mingus brought supreme execution and brilliance to, of all things, the bass. No one in jazz has ever played that instrument with his musicality and skill.
Like many people who met and spent time with Charles, I was at first bowled over by his insights and humor, his knowledge of jazz, the jazz business and its people, and the quickness of his mind.
Never mind that I had trouble translating the staccato yet slurred speech that issued forth. It was like listening to the Source, the Buddha, the Wizard of Jazz. Eventually I found I could not only participate and engage with Charles but that we could converse. That has to be one of the great kicks of my life, and I must presume others who have had that experience would agree. Mingus wanted such exchanges, though he sometimes frustrated them by acting like a Toscanini.
Village Vanguard founder Max Gordon noted that there wasn’t a lot that was lovable about Mingus, but you could be his friend. In our talks, I some- times got the sense that Mingus was performing, but it was the performance of a man who believed in everything he was saying—for the moment and maybe forever. Moody, he could clam up and offer the most laconic answers, or he could spout like a geyser, and you soaked it up and followed his rush of words to the end—or the next jump in subject. Yes, it was like his bass solos. And if you were lucky, you could say something that advanced the conversation.
I’m still not sure why I got on with him so well that he chose to reveal some very personal and painful hurts and feelings—not to mention his sometimes brilliant musico-socio-cultural aperçus. Part of our association, brief as it was, hinged on my attempt to be totally open with the guy. I was also willing to engage with him in writing a book, and that effort seemed to him a way to set the record straight, to talk about the realities of his life in music beyond the stylized attitudes and limits of Beneath the Underdog.
Mingus’s health—mental and physical—came up frequently in the course of my talks with him and with those whom I interviewed in the course of doing this book. He was terribly concerned about it and mystified by the symptoms he experienced. Who can say how far he saw into the depth of his situation? In 1974, five years before he died from ALS, his physical appearance was far different from what it had been two years before.
In our lengthy 1974 interview with Sue (see commentaries in chapters 6 and 12), he sat on the floor while she and I did most of the talking, contributing little but listening to everything. He looked tired but there were flashes of the old Mingus, with talk about cigars and food. His music was still good but of a different quality than the music of two years earlier. This was the period of Changes One and Changes Two, with George Adams, Don Pullen, Jack Walrath, et al.
It was a time when Mingus and Sue seemed to have reached an equilibrium in their relationship, and perhaps he had resolved some of the tumultuous feelings of the past two years. But at best, it was Mingus in coasting mode. The second Friends concert on January 19, 1974 featured an exceptional reunion with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and in May we had a book proposal in to Doubleday, the one already mentioned that ultimately fizzled. In July he undertook a long, too-strenuous tour to South America, Europe, and Japan.
I saw Mingus one more time performing at a club in New York in 1977, and it was not a good evening. For someone who was more alive than anyone I’ve ever known, he looked drawn, the music was dispiriting and our reunion perfunctory.
But the reality of Mingus playing, talking, bitching, and dissecting the world around him remains totally unforgettable to me. When the man was energized and the creative force was flowing, when the words rushed out and his thoughts tumbled over one another, it was indeed a window opening on the process that made such extraordinary music.
After so many years, I continue to miss him.
After the first Mingus and Friends concert in February 1972, I came back to New York in May for my first real exposure to the man. He was scheduled to appear with the band on Julius Lester’s Free Time PBS-TV show. I drove in from Pennsylvania (where I then lived) to attend, wondering how Mingus would get on with the show’s host, Julius Lester—musician, writer, outspoken civil rights iconoclast.
Lester had been tied in with SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), had gone to Cuba with Stokely Carmichael, and had written a book that some of us read for its great title, Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! But word had it that he was changing his tune. At that point, I didn’t know what Mingus’s tune would be on such subjects.
Finally off the plane from Boston, Charles walked into the WNET studio in a long leather coat, carrying an enormous shopping bag of bagels, salmon, pickles, peppers, and cream cheese. Sue and I and the band were already there and, before anything else happened, the bag was opened and the contents set out for all to share. The rehearsal went well, as Mingus felt calm and in charge. He and Lester got on famously, and the show was mostly music (as I recall it) with a minimum of talk.
The band was his regular group at the time (May–June 1972): Charles McPherson, alto; Bobby Jones, tenor; Lonnie Hillyer, trumpet; John Foster, piano; Roy Brooks, drums; and the leader was starting to play like the Mingus of old. Joe Gardner might have substituted for Hillyer in the group playing on the recording I made in Philadelphia in June. I can’t be sure.
The first extended interview we did was over a kitchen table (Mingus was never far from food) at Sue’s place on East Tenth Street—as it happened, about a block from where I used to live (from 1965 to 1971), and it felt good to be back on that familiar turf.
A young man from some Italian publication had come to interview Mingus too, so he went first and I was happy to sit in and tape the proceedings, after which Charles and I would talk alone. Sue was also present and made an occasional comment.
What followed was about an hour of vintage Mingus, an interview which opened up many of the themes he and I would subsequently pursue over the next three years. It was also remarkable in showing the mixture of deference and disdain that Mingus could muster in the face of some remark- ably stupid questions—even allowing for the language problem.
The interview covered many of the topics we would discuss later on:
• Watts, race, and politics;
• ethnic music for the people;
• phony African music, black intellectuals;
• Mingus music, as it comprehends all music;
• electronics in music;
• tradition and study;
• jazz audiences.
The session was typical of the way Mingus intertwined his thinking on race, politics, economics, and music and thus can set the scene for what follows in this book. I’ll interrupt occasionally to add a gloss or two.
* * *
INTERVIEWER: And how do you sympathize with the view that music, and most of all, jazz, reflects a state of mind or a human condition?
MINGUS: Man, will you rewind that statement again—rerun that?
INTERVIEWER: Yes. Jazz is a very old form of music that started a long time ago. I don’t know exactly when it came to life, but anyhow, we are now in 1972, and many things have happened. Does 1972 jazz reflect what has happened during this last part of, uh...
MINGUS: No, of course not, ‘cause nobody knows what happened. How’s the music’s gonna say what happened, when nobody knows what’s happened [anywhere] in the last seven years?2 There’s been a camouflage by the government to make it look like there was some black race riots when there wasn’t any at all. They probably hired people to do it; I can’t figure it out for sure—I’m trying to look at it from the people I knew on the inside who were involved, who lived in Watts. It could be the Communist government or the Nazis or even the American government, or it could be the Southerners. I don’t know who, but somebody set it up. The police department, maybe, I’m not sure.3
Do you know what I’m sayin’? I want to be sure you understand what I’m sayin’. I think they hired a few people . . . that camouflaged a revolution, the black revolution. But the real one is about to begin, ha ha.
INTERVIEWER: You see, our audience knows you very well. However, I wish you could give, you know, for our audience, a sort of little rundown on how you started, from the very beginning. It has to be brief, you know, but I really would like to start there.
MINGUS: I’ll do that for you, only be sure I answer the question, the first question. You said, you know, does the music reflect what is happening or what did happen. And I say again, it can’t because no one, no black man, knows what happened yet. Maybe me, maybe a couple of others, I’m talkin’ about musicians that know. I’m not too sure of that—McPherson [Mingus’s alto player] said he thought the riot was a fake, looked fake to him.
* * *
In typical Mingus fashion, he leads off by throwing a bomb at the inter- viewer. His point of view about such things was generally to take the inside track from his own experience, whether the subject was politics, music, or social concerns. It’s no wonder that he and the poor Italian guy were often at cross purposes. This happened frequently in his other interviews too, and sometimes Mingus would deliberately exploit the disconnect. Later, Bobby Jones would tell me that this was a trick to throw the interviewer off the track.
Watts and race (theme 1) would reappear shortly. Now he was getting into music as food for the spirit (theme 2), a favorite topic.
* * *