Mingus Speaks

John F. Goodman
Mingus with cigar, on his rooftop, 1974. Photo (partial) by © Sy Johnson.

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.

Jazz Is for a Progressive Black Man

INTERVIEWER: Well, as a matter of fact, you know, I heard an awful lot of black Americans speaking in terms of, we are acquiring a new sense of awareness, or something. Do you feel that music, and in particular, jazz, can help, you know, these people to better understand themselves?

MINGUS: Well, if good music could get to the minds or the subconscious of people, it could help everybody, not just racists. Music has been used as therapy, you know, in mental wards. I was told about a program on NBC television about using poetry with schizophrenics. When I was a child, in 1942, they were using music as a shock treatment to patients. For example, I think music was used to uplift people in the first Russian revolution. So you don’t even need me to answer that question.

If the people are separated from their music, they die. If the black people have a music, if jazz was their music—umm, although the masses of black people never went for jazz; they were segregated from it; they went for rhythm and blues. Not rock blues, rhythm and blues. That’s probably why they’re so confused and so separated, because they don’t have a religious music like the Jews, who never changed their music; the Greeks, who never changed their music; the Armenians; the Italians never changed their music. But the black people don’t have a music, actually, unless that is gonna be jazz. But I would say jazz is for a progressive black man; it’s not for the masses.

I still think that the black people like the blues—the original blues, the T-Bone Walker blues. I don’t think they’re growing out of that or ever should grow out of it, until the blues is killed, you know, until the reason for the blues has died away. It shouldn’t be a sudden change, it should be a gradual progress of society to rid itself of the things that causes the blues.

INTERVIEWER: You see, you as one of the most outstanding representatives of the jazz world, how do you view, how do you visualize, this new revamping of gospels and spirituals here in the States?

MINGUS: Revamping? It’s Madison Avenue doing that. Gospel went away in a sense, but it never went away for the people who liked it. They still bought the records and listened to Mahalia Jackson, things like that. And we haven’t lost any jazz fans, it just seemed that way [because jazz] wasn’t publicized. The concert I just gave at Philharmonic Hall proved we never lost anybody. We had three thousand people. (I give Bill Cosby five hundred because he wasn’t actually performing) and most people just came to hear the music. I’m saying that, uhh, I never lost any fans. I stopped recording, but the people never forgot, the ones who originally heard the music.

I’m not sure I could put it on a competitive basis because I don’t know if an artistic music is supposed to appeal to masses of people. The black masses didn’t go for our song; America went for it, but those were mainly white people. The black people still was for gospel music, and, uhh, blues, not rock. They used to call it race music, way back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Then they called it rhythm and blues. And later, country and folk which was for the white people. [To me:] Do you remember those days—were you around then?—country folk music?

And then one day they kind of amalgamated all of it—Madison Avenue did—because the thing was to sell to both black and white, and jazz would not have sold if they had kept on pressing rhythm and blues records. But you can’t beat the system. Right now if one company had enough guts to stay with the rhythm and blues and with the country and western—you got a lot of cowboys who still want country and western only. My mother used to listen to cowboy music, what they call country and western, and she wasn’t white.

INTERVIEWER: What part of the country was that?

MINGUS: I was born in Arizona and lived in Watts. And that’s why I know the Watts riot was a fake. Many of my friends were out there, and Peter Thompson and Dr. Ferguson—they don’t even mind their names being called—when they saw the riot happening, one of these guys was a doctor and he went to his roof to get his gun to protect himself from the people who were starting to riot.

It was strangers, black people breaking down doors of groceries and stores, and they disappeared immediately on a truck. It was very organized, like a strategic plan. And as soon as they got on the truck, three, four, five minutes later, in come the police shooting at everybody that was black. So, as I was gonna say, it was a Madison Avenue race riot in Watts. A few people would say Newark [1967] was the same way. . . .

INTERVIEWER: An awful lot of black intellectuals say [musicians should] bring the African tunes, you know, from Africa. For example, I’m speaking in terms of a musician like Quincy Jones, like Ornette Coleman—they have gone to Africa and then they wrote some music stating their inspiration had been African, like Mataculari or something, it’s the name of one of the latest LPs [Gula Matari] by Quincy Jones. How credible is that supposed to be for you?

MINGUS: [Calmly, not provocatively] I don’t know what they’re talking about, but I’ve been exposed to African music for about forty years. I’m trying to think—l know they’ve got music of the Bushmen on records, but I was never there. But I found that they’re making a lot of these records right here in Harlem.

INTERVIEWER: Excuse me, where did you go to?

MINGUS: This was in California.

INTERVIEWER: No, no, I mean for the Bushmen music?

MINGUS: This was, I’m trying to think where it was, South Africa, Bushland. A friend of mine in Mill Valley named Farwell Taylor always used to play African music for many years. He had this huge drum that he used to sit on. It was kind of like a drum in the shape of a tree, and you blow into it. I used to know the names of the tribes of music, but it’s been so many years ago, I’ve forgotten.

INTERVIEWER: Bushmen Negroes in Jamaica, and in Surinam—

MINGUS: It’s nice that these guys are discovering the music, when it’s been there all the time. Hollywood has used it, you know, and Phil Moore did the score for a movie, The Road to Zanzibar. You can look it up in [Joseph] Schillinger and find most of the theories of African music. You can’t really learn how they send messages, and all that, from the music, but you can get the nucleus. There’s nothing new, there’s always been African music.

INTERVIEWER: Probably it is new for us, because we are not used to it. Now, how about going back to my second question that I proposed to you before. We would like to have a little bit of rundown on your past life.

MINGUS: Well, I don’t see why I gotta do that, cause you can get a book and read that. My whole life is in it.

INTERVIEWER: But if you say that to my audience, my audience may even believe that I’m shitting around, whereas if you do say that, and they hear that, from your very voice, then they probably, you know, really... would lend their attention.

MINGUS: Well, take an average record[‘s liner notes]: they tell you some history of a guy, when he’s born, April 22, 1922, Nogales, Arizona...

INTERVIEWER: No, I don’t want you to give me this kind of news. l would like, artistically speaking, you know—say, if you have changed from one style to the other style and how are you—

MINGUS: I don’t change styles. I’ve always been a musician, whatever kind you want to call it. I studied music in school, and I always did things to get a job—if I could get a job playing any kind of music, I would do that, you know, but I had one music in mind, as a goal, and there’s only one music. And that’s all music, you know. It may encompass a lot of other musics, but in the meantime I’m working in jazz, and I play in that medium. But my goal is much higher than that. Not that I think black music or African music or any kind of music is inferior—it’s just one kind of music, you know. I can’t say to myself there’s just one kind of music ‘cause I like all kinds of music, if it’s good. I like all kinds of music, particularly folk musics from different tribes of people.

* * *

I think Mingus looked at all music as basically deriving from folk music, and he certainly heard the folk forms in concert music, particularly in Bartók and Stravinsky. Disguising them, “revamping” them, putting them in stylistic boxes for sale, was a way to dilute, if not kill, the folk spirit.

The black blues for him was a way to reunite black people musically and spiritually. Avant-garde free jazz was simply an arcane way to deny the spirit because you could play it without being a musician (theme 3). You had to study and know the blues-in-jazz tradition to be any kind of serious jazz musician and play for the people.

This idea came up frequently in the course of our later talks.

* * *

MINGUS: As I’m sayin’, the black people of America don’t have a folk music, unless it be church, which is pretty corny, or the blues. Joe Turner is closer to it and T-Bone Walker’s closer to it than some of the people they have today [that] they call blues singers. But the spirit of Billie Holliday, she has the blues spirit; so did, uhh, who else? Sorry, she’s the only one I know that’s got a jazz, a pure blues spirit, which is religiously involved without the Christian tones. [Pause]

I don’t know how to say it, man—[whatever] music the black people would adopt would have to give them a chance to hear all kinds of music and then find what they like. I find certain types of black people like, still dig, Charlie Parker. They took that as an awakening to them. There’s a certain type or class of person who still digs Bird. They’ll always dig Bird, or an extension of Bird. They like Charlie McPherson and the way he plays ‘cause it reminds them of Charlie Parker.

Bird’s music is a very hip thing, but, uhh, I find there’s something lacking in it for me. It’s not enough. There’s not enough complex harmony, theoretically, for me. I enjoy more complex harmonies, or no harmonies. I don’t particularly like chord changes all the time. I like many melodies at once, created without a chord in mind, that may form a harmonic chord, you know? I can tell, usually, if it comes from one man’s mind, or if it’s mechanically done, or if he heard all these melodies at once. I feel that if a man writes four melodies at once, he’s got to play them at once, and he hears them at once. If he expects people to listen to those four melodies at once—or five, like a Bach fugue—then he must conceive these all at once. Not mechanically put them together because he has a theory that says it will work.

I’ve been working—rather than doing written compositions—to do spontaneous compositions where I’ll do some string quartets, some of ‘em by meditating and playing, some composing from the piano. “Adagio ma non troppo” from my latest album on Columbia, well, that was a spontaneous composition. It had about two or three melodies going at once. It’s not that complex, it’s a lot of feeling and emotion, but it’s not meant to be intellectual, or anything like that. I don’t know any intellectual niggers—what’s an intellectual black? Is it that intellectual blacks are going back for African music?

INTERVIEWER: Yes, as a matter of fact, you know, an awful lot of them do. I’m not speaking only in terms of musicians, but even of playwrights, writers, artists, visual artists, or performing artists. There is a tendency now, you know, which strangely relates well to the first Harlem Renaissance, that politically was probably reflected by Julius Garvey and Booker T. Washington, this kind of back-to-Africa movement.

MINGUS: You mean Marcus Garvey?

INTERVIEWER: Marcus Garvey, that’s right. So I was wondering whether you too were on to this, cognizant of that.

MINGUS: See, I don’t know how to deal in terms, like you say, this guy’s avant-garde, or this guy’s intellectual. I don’t know how to be any of those things. I’m just me, man. I don’t see how you could possibly be in these 140 years a black intellectual. A black intellectual means you should be able to cope with Einstein, a guy goin’ to the moon, plus cope and communicate with the guys in the Bowery. That’s what a black intellectual means to me. But he don’t exist—[someone who will] go down where the bums hang out—and so anybody who’s been sittin’ in front of a television set claiming to be a black intellectual to me is a phony. I haven’t met one yet, ‘cause he doesn’t know the people.

I been tryin’ to get to be—I didn’t force myself, but by being kicked out of my position, my financial position and everything else, for the last six years—I got to become a bum, and live with people who were poor. And [to] even like them more than people who were successful, and not want to move away from them, because they were more for real than the rich people I’ve been around before, or the half-assed rich black people, you know, the ones who are satisfied with selling their own people out for a few more write-ups and a few more dollars.

[Pause.] What else? 

* * *

End of solo. One of the reasons you have to love Mingus is his capacity to demolish such concepts as “black intellectuals.”

* * *

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, well, what else now? I just would like to go back to your music, you know, if you don’t mind. You mentioned your latest record on Columbia—are you now working on a new album?

MINGUS: Well, it probably will be an album because George Wein’s people always record at Newport [in New York], and some way I’ll have a big band there, and a couple of weeks before that I’m going to be at a theater. If everybody comes from Italy, tell them to come to the Mercer Arts Theater.7 I’ll be working the band out there, plus I’ll have a string quartet, not the usual—I’ll have two cellos, a viola, and violin. And I’m going to write some music for that. It’ll be at the foot of the program; we’ll do Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, too.

* * *

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