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An Argument With Instruments: On Charles Mingus | The Nation

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An Argument With Instruments: On Charles Mingus

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When Sy Johnson, a jazz pianist and arranger, used to visit Charles Mingus at his apartment in the East Village in the 1960s, there was always a pot of soup on the stove, and Mingus—a gourmand who once interrupted a concert to eat a steak dinner on the bandstand—was constantly tasting it. “He would say—‘Needs another carrot.’” He would chop another carrot and taste it again, only to decide it needed an onion. The pot might simmer for a month before Mingus was satisfied with the seasoning. As Johnson tells John Goodman in Mingus Speaks, a book of interviews with Mingus and friends conducted in the early 1970s, Mingus’s music was a lot like his soup: a “huge cauldron of sounds” that was “always in a state of becoming something.”

Mingus Speaks
By John F. Goodman.
Buy this book

Beneath the Underdog
His World as Composed by Mingus.
By Charles Mingus.
Buy this book

The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964–65
Mosaic Records. 7 CDs. $119.

About the Author

Adam Shatz
Adam Shatz is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books and a former literary editor of The Nation. He has...

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Mingus rarely left his pieces alone when he took them on the road with his Jazz Workshop, as he began calling his bands in the mid-1950s. When the Workshop played “Fables of Faubus,” a dart of sarcasm aimed at Arkansas’s segregationist governor Orval Faubus, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the jaunty eight-minute tune swelled into a half-hour suite, punctuated by tart allusions to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “God Bless America” and a bass clarinet solo of blistering intensity by Eric Dolphy. (The performance is one of five concerts included in The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964–65, a seven-disc boxed set on Mosaic Records.) In the studio, Mingus was always splicing, dicing and overdubbing, enriching the texture of his music, increasing its density. He tinkered with titles, giving old pieces new and sometimes cryptic names: the tender portrait of a woman he loved, “Nouroog,” reappeared after their breakup as “I X Love”; “Better Get It in Your Soul,” a foot-stomping gospel tune that’s still played on jukeboxes, became “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul,” a message to junkies that they’d be better off with a boost from the Lord than one from the needle.

Mingus was always true to his ever-changing moods: he wanted to create music that, in his words, was “as varied as my feelings are, or the world is.” For sheer range of expression, his work has few equals in postwar American music: furious and tender, joyous and melancholy, grave and mischievous, ecstatic and introspective. It moves from the rapture of the church to the euphoria of the ballroom, from accusation to seduction, from a whisper to a growl, often by way of startling jump cuts and sudden changes in tempo. Vocal metaphors are irresistible when discussing Mingus. As Whitney Balliett remarked, music for him was “another way of talking.”

Though he wrote only a few songs with lyrics, his compositions—and his own bass playing, which revealed new dimensions of the instrument and helped liberate it from its traditional time-keeping role—were supremely vocal. He collaborated with poets in East Village coffeehouses and never hesitated to call out to his sidemen when the spirit caught him, as if he was leading a gospel choir. Each instrument in a Mingus tune evoked the voice, invariably in conversation with other voices; and each voice was an extension of his famously tempestuous personality. (“We don’t need a vocalist,” he told the trombonist Britt Woodman. “This band can have an argument with instruments.”) Philip Larkin was astonished by “how every Mingus band sounds like a great rabble of players, like some trick of Shakespearian production.” No matter how small the ensemble, he could create a sense of passionate, often combative dialogue: as one of his sidemen put it, Mingus “liked the sound of a struggle.” If his Workshop settled into a groove, he would suddenly change the time signature: he didn’t want anyone to get too comfortable. Struggle—against complacency, against the confinements of race and genre, against the record industry and the American government—inspired him; he depended on it to create. Though he dreamed of finding refuge on some “colorless island,” it wasn’t clear how he’d spend his time there. He needed something to fight against; his anger, in Geoff Dyer’s words, was “a form of energy, part of the fire sweeping through him.”

* * *

That fire, that irrepressible energy, made Mingus somewhat unfashionable in an era of cool. So did his unabashed maximalism as a composer. The limpid impressionism of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959), the funky vamps of hard bop and soul jazz, and the honky-tonk expressiveness of Ornette Coleman had little in common, but all were attempts at achieving a simpler, more immediate style than bebop with its bewildering velocity and jarring dissonances. Mingus understood the appeal of the new simplicity. He had anticipated the modal improvisation of Kind of Blue in his 1956 masterpiece Pithecanthropus Erectus. In 1959, years before soul jazz musicians learned how to play gospel licks in 6/8 time, he recorded “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” a master class on the music of the black church in which Mingus himself breaks into shouts and hollers.

It enraged him that Miles and the hard boppers had been given credit for his innovations. It enraged him even more when Ornette blew into town with his plastic yellow saxophone, pianoless quartet and ideology of collective improvisation, launching the free jazz revolution and attracting nearly as many imitators as Charlie Parker. Ornette and his followers, Mingus complained to Goodman, were like surgeons who couldn’t retrace their steps: “if I’m a surgeon, am I going to cut you open ‘by heart,’ just free-form it, you know?… I’m not avant-garde, no. I don’t throw rocks and stones, I don’t throw my paint.” Still, Mingus knew a good idea when he heard one. His 1960 session Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus features a pianoless quartet that ventured even further from Mingus’s melodies than Coleman did from his, as if Mingus were bent on proving that he was more modern than the avant-garde. Whatever moved Mingus ended up in his music, whether it was the mariachi he heard on his trips to brothels south of the border and included in Tijuana Moods, recorded in 1957, or the experimental tape music of his 1962 self-portrait “Passions of a Man,” in which he overdubbed himself mumbling in an unintelligible made-up language while his band invoked half-remembered fragments of other Mingus compositions, taking us deep inside the funhouse of his unconscious.

Mingus wasn’t afraid of the new, but he didn’t see why it should come at the expense of the past, as the slogans of the avant-garde seemed to imply. He was a rebel in defense of tradition. In his liner notes to Mingus Dynasty (1959)—on the cover of which he appeared in Chinese imperial robes, with a Fu Manchu mustache—he grumbled, “ten to fifteen year cycles in jazz are camouflages for insecure musicians who hide behind the current style.” (“Camouflage” was the ultimate insult for Mingus, for whom art was nothing without self-exposure.) Just as “sham copies” had dishonored Parker’s genius, so young jazz musicians were now “hanging on to a few of the rhythmic phrases Coleman has been able to create.” In 1959, the year Coleman announced The Shape of Jazz to Come, Mingus called one of his records Blues & Roots: black music, as he saw it, was a continuum, a bottomless source of renewal; you couldn’t move into the future without a thorough knowledge of the past. “Those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland,” he told Goodman, “are the same and as important as classical music styles are.” Gospel and blues, the New Orleans polyphony of Jelly Roll Morton and the urbane sophistication of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the stride piano of James P. Johnson and the dazzling harmonizations of Art Tatum: all went into the Mingus cauldron, seasoned with dashes of circus music, obscure pop tunes, B-movie scores, flamenco, scraps of Mozart and Richard Strauss. To listen to Mingus is to hear the black American musical tradition talking to itself. Jazz had always been an art of quotation and allusion, a palimpsest of commentaries on other musicians’ interpretations of the same material. But with Mingus, who came into his own as jazz reached middle age, it acquired a more acute sense of historicity, even if his own work—a one-man genre he called “Mingus music,” as expansive and restless as the man himself—seemed to defy periodization.

Mingus’s reverence for the tradition—and his mockery of free jazz musicians as unschooled dilettantes—made it easy to mistake him for a conservative: a “black Stan Kenton,” in the dismissive phrase of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), the high priest of black nationalist jazz critics. In fact, Mingus’s music was precisely the kind of vernacular modernism that Baraka had championed in his 1963 study Blues People, as well as a textbook illustration of his argument that black musical styles, however superficially divergent, were joined at the hip by a blues impulse that Baraka called “the changing same.” Like Baraka, Mingus viewed music as a surrogate church for black Americans. “James Brown was their church,” he told Goodman, “but they got a church in jazz, too. As long as there’s the blues.” Blues feeling saturates Mingus’s work: as Sy Johnson notes, “it’s always got its feet in the dirt.” His music immerses us in the blues rituals of black American life, while at the same time depicting them from a warm and playful distance.

* * *

Mingus spent nearly as much time talking about his music as he did performing it, as if he were running a permanent anti-establishment campaign. He regularly fired off letters to jazz magazines, jousting over reviews of his work. “Critics! How did they get here? I know. It’s Freudian,” he wrote. “I even know one who can hear. I mean he can actually hear the difference between a major triad and A minor…. And this man works while musicians who just play music are scuffling to pay rent or have their wives bury them in dirt with the few dollars the American Federation of Musicians calls insurance.” He even wrote to Eisenhower, demanding unemployment benefits for jazz musicians. Onstage, he was always sounding off about music, about racism, about the corruptions of the record industry—and about the audience, who learned that the twinkle in his eye could suddenly turn into a glare. “You don’t want to see your ugly selves,” he told one audience. “So you come to me, you sit in the front row, as noisy as can be. I listen to your millions of conversations, sometimes pulling them all up and putting them together and writing a symphony. But you never hear that symphony…. You’re here because jazz has publicity, jazz is popular, the word jazz, and you like to associate yourself with this sort of thing. But it doesn’t make you a connoisseur of the art because you follow it around. You’re dilettantes of style.”

These harangues weren’t prepared, but they were standards of the show. So were his outfits—a Mexican sombrero and serape one night, a kimono and headband the next. From the mid-1950s through the ’60s, a Mingus happening was as much a part of Village bohemia as Lenny Bruce’s stand-up or Norman Mailer’s drunken provocations. When Mingus came onstage, you never knew what he might do, except that he wouldn’t ignore you. If you applauded before a piece ended—or, worse, talked during the set—he might turn up at your table with a cleaver, kick your drink to the floor or smash his bass. (“I’m sorry but I’m neurotic,” he apologized after one such stunt. “My only defense is that I know it.”) But unlike Miles, Mingus never turned his back to the audience, even if he had an unusual way of engaging it. Members of the Workshop—some called it the Sweatshop—weren’t immune from his onstage antics. If he was disappointed with your playing, he might fire you in the middle of a set; if he was really disappointed, he’d fire the whole band, including himself. As Nat Hentoff wrote, “this huge cauldron of emotions at the center of a band can be taxing to a sideman.” It could also result in serious injury. Jimmy Knepper, Mingus’s longtime trombonist, lost an octave of range when Mingus punched him in the mouth and capped one of his teeth. When Knepper filed suit, Mingus sent him a package with a bag of heroin inside and no return address, then called the cops on him. Knepper eventually forgave him; everyone did. In the words of Bobby Jones, a white tenor saxophonist who played with Mingus in the early 1970s and was a frequent target of his screaming fits, “he’s the easiest person in the world to love.”

Mingus’s defenders often romanticized his outbursts as an expression of existential authenticity. Mingus, they said, wasn’t angry; he was misunderstood. One critic who misunderstood him, John S. Wilson of The New York Times, received a response from Mingus in the countercultural magazine Changes: “The title of this article should read ‘John Ass Wilson is full of shit.’ You stay away from my job and I’ll stay away from yours.” Wilson came back to hear him—with a newly grown beard. Mingus was a son of a bitch, but it was hard for critics to hate a man who called one of his pieces—an ingenious reworking of “All the Things You Are,” the Jerome Kern standard—“All the Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.” Mingus loved words as much as they did, and they recognized a kindred spirit.

In 1971, Mingus published his long-anticipated memoir, Beneath the Underdog, which he’d been writing on and off since the mid-1950s. (Jason Epstein considered publishing it at Random House, until Mingus insisted on white binding with gold letters so that it would look like the Bible.) Beneath the Underdog caused a splash for its lurid tales of pimping and group sex. Here, it seemed, was proof that jazz really was orgasm, as Mailer, a Mingus fan, had proposed in his 1957 essay “The White Negro.” But much of the memoir was fabricated in order to play on white fantasies about black sexuality. Mingus was never a pimp and was sexually rather shy as a young man. He was married four times, and by his own account in Mingus Speaks he much preferred monogamy. Still, Beneath the Underdog is interesting for other reasons, not least as a jazz bildungsroman. It opens with a boast that is also a confession: “In other words, I am three.” Like Philip Roth’s Portnoy, he’s talking to his psychiatrist, who deciphers the identities of Mingus One, Two and Three: “The man who watches and waits, the man who attacks because he’s afraid, and the man who wants to trust and love but retreats each time he finds himself betrayed.” Mingus’s psychiatrist, Dr. Edmund Pollock, contributed liner notes to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (“Mr. Mingus is not yet complete…. Hopefully the integration in society will keep pace with his”); it was the only time Mingus ever paid him for his services. The three Minguses never quite became one, but music allowed them to co-exist in a state of controlled turbulence. Mingus, who had himself committed to a mental hospital more than once, needed art to tame his demons—particularly the demons of race.

* * *

No one in jazz went deeper than Mingus in his exploration of black Americana, or protested racism more fervently. Yet his relationship to black identity was anything but relaxed: it gave his music its stormy weather. Born in 1922 in the Arizona border town of Nogales, he grew up in a middle-class family in Watts, an ethnically mixed section of Los Angeles then on its way to becoming a black ghetto. His father, a former noncommissioned officer in the Army who worked in the post office, was a light-skinned biracial man with blue eyes; he looked down on darker-skinned blacks and warned his son not to play with “them little black nigger yaps.” Mingus’s mother, the daughter of a black woman from the West Indies and a Chinese man from Hong Kong, died five months after he was born: Mingus, who was raised by his stepmother, was always aware of “the chill of death”—the name of a Straussian tone poem he wrote when he was 17.

He first learned that he was black—at least by American definitions—when a group of Mexican kids assaulted him, calling him “nigger.” Among his black peers, however, “he was a kind of mongrel…not light enough to belong to the almost-white elite and not dark enough to belong with the beautiful elegant blacks,” he writes in his memoir. “There really was no skin color exactly like his.” (The book’s original title was Memoirs of a Half-Schitt-Colored Nigger.) His closest friends were “other mongrels”—Japanese, Mexicans, Jews, Greeks—and he sometimes passed as Latino. His first intellectual mentor was a beatnik painter named Farwell Taylor, whom he met on a trip to San Francisco in 1939. Taylor, a part–Native American refugee from Oklahoma, introduced him to modern art and Russian novels, Hinduism and Theosophy and The Interpretation of Dreams, which inspired his composition “Precognition.” (It was in San Francisco that Mingus had his first—and last—taste of heroin, which made him sick; he was one of the few jazz musicians of his generation who never got hooked.) Mingus would always be most at home in integrated settings like the interracial bohemia he helped pioneer in the East Village of the mid-1950s. Three of his four wives were strawberry blonds with college educations, WASPish families and the practical skills he lacked.

Mingus’s connection to blackness came mainly through music: first the gospel he heard as a boy in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and then—his single greatest influence—the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Yet his early ambition was to be a classical composer. He learned solfège and played cello in the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic. Then his friend, the saxophonist Buddy Collette, told him that if he planned to make a living as a musician, “you gotta play a Negro instrument. You can’t slap a cello, so you gotta learn to slap that bass, Charlie!” Mingus approached the bass with his usual ferocious diligence: he took lessons with a former bassist from the New York Philharmonic, and taped his index and middle fingers together in order to increase the dexterity of his ring finger.

By his late teens, Mingus was a star on Central Avenue, a strip of nightclubs in Watts where the best jazz musicians from the East Coast came to play. He sat in with everyone from Art Tatum to Louis Armstrong and wrote his first pieces for big band, strongly influenced by Ellington. Duke was his hero; he even adopted the stage name Baron Mingus. Yet he continued to pursue his education in classical music. He studied composition and theory at LA City College, took private lessons with an African-American acquaintance of Arnold Schoenberg, and wrote his first orchestral compositions. He hadn’t given up on his dream of becoming a composer, and he never did. Mingus’s involvement with jazz was, in part, a long-running quarrel with the limitations of jazz.

Mingus’s confidence that he was cut out for something larger nearly caused him to miss out on the bebop revolution, led by self-assertive black musicians intent on establishing jazz as a high art form rather than nightclub entertainment. Bop was a rebellion against the swing Mingus loved: its thorny syncopation, challenging dissonances and chord substitutions were designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, to dance to. He was unimpressed by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when they came to Central Avenue in 1945. His own ideas about harmony, as he saw it, were more intricate, his compositions more sophisticated. He resented the idea that if he didn’t become a bopper he’d soon be a has-been—but he also knew it was true. He resisted fate until he arrived in New York in 1951 and his employer, the white vibraphonist Red Norvo, told him he couldn’t appear with the band on television because he was black. After a brief stint in the Ellington Orchestra that came to an abrupt end when he got into a knife fight onstage with Ellington’s trombonist Juan Tizol (a fight that, for once, he didn’t provoke), Mingus joined Parker’s band. He came to love Parker’s music and became a brilliant, if still reluctant, bopper. With Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, they made a classic record, Jazz at Massey Hall. Mingus and his second wife, Celia, produced it on Debut Records, the label they established with Roach after Bob Weinstock at Prestige offered to record Mingus for $10, a free lunch and a line of coke. Mingus wasn’t suited to run a business, but that never stopped him from trying—or from railing against men like Weinstock.

Mingus was second to no one in his admiration of Parker, who, as he wrote later, achieved “a primitive, mystic, supra-mind communication that I’d only heard in the late Beethoven quartets, and, even more, in Stravinsky.” But Mingus didn’t want to be a slave to bebop. He wanted to be known as a composer, not as a bass-slapping jazz man. In 1953, he set up the Jazz Composers Workshop, a revolving ensemble of musicians from both jazz and classical backgrounds who performed his early compositions, somewhat earnest jazz-meets-classical experiments that prefigured “Third Stream” music. But the results left him dissatisfied. Jazz musicians added their own inflections even when they played fully notated passages, while classical musicians couldn’t improvise or capture the blues feeling he wanted. “Tired modern paintings” was Miles Davis’s verdict on his new music. The insult stung.

* * *

Mingus’s disappointment led him away from the Third Stream and back to the traditions of the blues and the church. He wanted to recapture the sounds of his childhood, especially the “dirty timbres” close to the human voice that had been concealed by the finesse of so much modern jazz. His music became increasingly complex, yet he ceased to be a “pencil composer”; he relied instead on “mental score paper.” His sidemen were expected to do the same: Mingus sat down at the piano and taught them his music note by note, without scores or charts, so that, as he explained, “it would be in their ears, rather than on paper, so they’d play the compositional parts with as much spontaneity and soul as they’d play a solo.” Mingus chose musicians who could not only play his compositions but complete them in the heat of performance: the composed parts should sound improvised, the improvised parts composed. The newly conceived Jazz Workshop—“Composers” was dropped from its title—would dramatize the struggle between structure and improvisation, between collective discipline and individual spontaneity. Mingus would be its director, like Orson Welles in the Mercury Theatre or John Cassavetes, whose film Shadows (1959) he later scored.

The Workshop’s breakthrough came in 1956, when it recorded Pithecanthropus Erectus, which launched Mingus’s career as Ellington’s heir. In the title track—a tone poem about the first man to stand upright, who brings about his own downfall when he refuses to free his slaves—the alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and the tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose moaned, testified and shrieked together in the upper registers of their horns. The piece had civil rights echoes, but it was also a Hegelian allegory about the composer and his sidemen. By encouraging his musicians to forget about chord changes (“all notes are right,” he told McLean), Mingus extended new freedoms—or, more precisely, restored old ones. As Martin Williams wrote, Mingus had revived “the semi-improvised ensemble style, the thrilling collective spontaneity that has been missing in jazz since Dixieland.” He used that spontaneity, moreover, to achieve a variety of expressive effects, from the picturesque humor of “A Foggy Day (In San Francisco),”  with its symphony of whistles and police sirens, to the intense yearning of “Love Chant,” a fourteen-minute modal work structured around a simple, hypnotic figure performed by the brooding pianist Mal Waldron.

Shortly after Pithecanthropus Erectus, Mingus met his “heartbeat”: Dannie Richmond, a gaunt, fastidiously dressed former tenor player whom Mingus taught to play drums with the elastic sense of time his music required. (“We find a beat that’s in the air, and just take it out of the air when we want it,” Richmond explained.) Richmond never left his side. Mingus took him to Tijuana to sample the mariachi bands, tequila and whores, a demimonde he attempted to re-create in Tijuana Moods, recorded for RCA Victor in 1957. It was the first in a string of classic records made over the next six years, including Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and—his most fully realized work yet—The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a grand, bustling, propulsive piece of “ethnic folk-dance music” for reeds, brass and flamenco guitar that looked back to the Ellington Orchestra and forward to the incendiary free-blowing of Coltrane’s Ascension.

Works of gut-bucket modernism, reverberating with earthy sophistication and wit, Mingus’s great records always were, as their titles often suggested, advertisements for himself. He was using music to establish his lineage, often by way of striking musical “portraits” like his slow, noir eulogy for Lester Young, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” He also used it to settle old scores. Mingus paid tribute to Charlie Parker in pieces like “Bird Calls,” but he also gave one of his most audacious projects, a recording of orchestral works he’d written in his teens, the title Pre-Bird, as if he were digging for treasures the beboppers had hidden away. Mingus, who was late to Parker’s table and felt that his imitators had condescended to the older styles he loved, continued to nurse a grudge against him. (“I should have come before [Parker] because I had this whole new thing that had the weight and had to do with waltzes and religious music,” he told Goodman. “But instead they completely ignored me and I had to go play Bird’s music.”)

As his fame grew, so did his urge to make himself heard: like Mailer, he wanted to impose his tumultuous, overbearing personality on the dramas of postwar American life. He was too shambolic, and too light-skinned, to become a symbol of militant negritude like Miles or Coltrane, but he made news by organizing the Newport Rebels’ counter-festival, a 1960 protest against the Newport Jazz Festival for underpaying black musicians. He wrote a “Prayer for Passive Resistance” in honor of the sit-ins down South; he wrote a blues ditty called “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” and sang it himself, doing his best Ray Charles impression. But his signal achievement as a political composer was “Meditations on Integration,” the centerpiece of the Mosaic boxed set, which includes three performances of the piece. A nearly half-hour suite in multiple sections, shifting between written and improvised passages, it powerfully fuses the confessional and epic dimensions of Mingus’s music.

* * *

“Meditations” was premiered in April 1964 at a civil rights benefit at New York City’s Town Hall, by one of the finest bands Mingus ever assembled. Along with Richmond on drums, it featured the pianist Jaki Byard, a musician of wit, invention and unerring blues feeling, as well versed as Mingus in old-school styles like stride piano; and the horn section of tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Johnny Coles and multi-reedist Eric Dolphy, who grew up with Mingus in Los Angeles. Dolphy, who alternates between flute and bass clarinet on “Meditations,” died in Europe that summer of undiagnosed diabetes, at 36. Mingus retitled “Meditations” “Praying With Eric” when the Town Hall concert was first released by Charles Mingus Enterprises, a mail-order distribution company he set up in fall 1964 with his manager and future wife Sue Graham Ungaro, a writer he’d met at the Five Spot a few days after Dolphy died. In Mingus’s mind, “Meditations” belonged as much to Dolphy as it did to him. “Eric Dolphy explained to me that there was something similar to the concentration camps once in Germany now down South,” he said at Town Hall, “and the only difference between the electric barbed wire is that they don’t have gas chambers and hot stoves to cook us in yet. So I wrote a piece called ‘Meditations’ as to how to get some wire cutters before someone gets some guns to us.”

Nowhere is Mingus’s emotional range on such brilliant display as in “Meditations.” Integration had been his own struggle since his childhood in Watts. The destruction of segregation was unfinished business, and it was violent. The more extreme, cacophonous parts of his piece should sound like “organized chaos,” he told the Workshop. He asked them to reimagine the sounds that the slave ships must have made during the Middle Passage; he spoke to them as if they were actors. “You’re…like a minister in church or a Jewish rabbi,” he told the trumpeter Bobby Bryant in Monterey. “Everybody’s shouting at you. You have to chant to them and put them back in condition.” In the Town Hall performance, Mingus exploits almost every possible combination in his sextet. In the first ten minutes alone, the full sextet gives way to ruminative unaccompanied piano; then to a somber duet for piano and bowed bass; then back to unaccompanied piano; and finally to a sorrowful adagio passage for piano, bass and Dolphy’s flute, before the horn section erupts again with volcanic force.

When the Workshop set off for Holland after the Town Hall concert, Dolphy told Mingus that he planned to stay in Europe rather than return to the United States with the group. Mingus pleaded with him not to; he even wrote a tune called “So Long, Eric,” hoping that Dolphy might change his mind. In late June, Dolphy died. Mingus was crushed. “One thing that can still make Mingus cry is thinking about Eric,” the jazz historian Dan Morgenstern told Goodman. Mingus turned in some of his most relaxed, lyrical playing in the Workshop’s concerts in Monterey in 1964 and 1965 and in Minneapolis in May 1965 (the last three discs of the Mosaic set), and his new horn section, consisting of the alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and the trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer, was magnificent in the medleys of Ellington and Parker tunes. But without Dolphy, there is a slight falling off in urgency, and in the performance of “Meditations” in Monterey, he is conspicuous by his absence.

The bands on the Mosaic set never went into the studio. Mingus’s relationship with the major labels, always stormy at best, had never been worse. Months before the Workshop went on tour, Impulse! Records, for which he’d just made his majestic The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, reneged on its promise to increase his weekly retainer fee because of poor sales. Mingus refused to bend and burned his last bridge. Bob Thiele, his producer, arrived at work to find a knife stabbed into his chair, with a note: “Where the fuck is my money? Mingus.” (Thiele was lucky; Mingus once showed up at the accounting department of Columbia Records with a helmet and shotgun.) By the time Mingus began his European tour, he was so fed up with the industry that he instructed his audiences not to buy any of his records on Columbia, Atlantic and Impulse! (He made an exception for RCA Victor, “the only company for some reason that pays the royalties properly. I imagine it’s because they make enough money from the atomic bomb that they don’t have to worry about cheating jazz musicians.”) The 1964–65 concerts were released by Charles Mingus Enterprises, but not in their entirety: the company shut down in 1966, leaving a lot of great music to languish in the vaults for nearly four decades. It has been restored to glorious effect by Mosaic in cooperation with his widow Sue. The mike breaks are nearly as delicious as the music, with Mingus joking about how much he’s stolen from Ellington, or telling a woman in the audience that she’s dropped her pearls. For once, he seems at peace with himself.

* * *

In fact, he was coming apart: Dolphy’s loss hit Mingus harder than even he understood, and after the show in Minneapolis his demons returned with a vengeance. Dannie Richmond stood by him, but Jaki Byard quit the Workshop after Mingus threatened him with an ax during a set at the Village Vanguard. For the next five years, Mingus was sunk in gloom. The young people who’d followed him at the Five Spot had moved on to the wilder shores of free jazz and rock, and he felt abandoned. He stopped recording and hardly touched his bass. He became a photographer, wandering around the Village on a bicycle with a dozen cameras strapped to his chest. The amphetamines and diet pills he relied on to keep his spirits up and his weight down didn’t seem to work anymore: he grew fatter and more depressed. He kept tear-gas bombs and shotguns in his studio, fired holes into the ceiling, and spoke of plots against him by the government and the mob. He pissed into juice bottles rather than the toilet, in case the authorities were investigating his urine for signs of drug use. The owner of his flat, which was an illegal sublet, tried to evict him. When Mingus withheld his rent in protest, the police came to kick him out. “I hope the Communists blow you people up,” he said as they took him away, his eyes welling with tears.

Mingus’s disintegration and eviction are depicted, in vivid and often depressing detail, in Thomas Reichman’s 1966 documentary Mingus. Reichman told Goodman that when they first met, Mingus suggested that they have lunch at a steakhouse. Three years ago, he’d ordered three lamb chops there but had only gotten two; now he wanted to return for the third. Reichman loved the idea and showed up at Mingus’s place with his crew. But Mingus led them instead to his lawyer’s office, where Sue had been writing up a contract designed to deprive Reichman of the rights to his own film. Reichman broke down crying. When he saw Mingus later that day, Mingus had shaved off all his hair and painted his head blue. “Man, I’m really sorry,” he said. “Let’s go have some Chinese food. I look like Buddha.” In Reichman’s film, Mingus played himself as a black musician persecuted by White America. “I pledge allegiance to the flag, the white flag,” he says, “not because I have to, but just for the hell of it…. I pledge allegiance so that one day they will look to their promises to the victims they call citizens. Not just the black ghettos but the white ghettos and the Japanese ghettos, the Chinese ghettos, all the ghettos of the world.” He winks at the camera, pipe in mouth. “Oh, I pledge allegiance all right, I could pledge a whole lot of allegiances.” It was a star turn, and it was nearly his last.

Mingus made a comeback in the early 1970s, when Goodman, then a writer for Playboy, began interviewing him and the people who knew him best, for a book that never came together until now. He’d been restored to something like health, in no small part thanks to Sue. As things turned out, Mingus had only a few more years left—he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1977 and died two years later in Cuernavaca, where he drank iguana blood as part of an experimental treatment—but they were mostly good ones. Beneath the Underdog was finally published, and Mingus got his first Grammy nomination—for his liner notes, not his music. He finally moved in with Sue, who had kept a separate apartment after they married, and mellowed a bit, though the rages never quite subsided and he remained as irascible as ever. In her memoir Tonight at Noon (2002), Sue remembers being “mesmerized by his excesses,” but she also knew how to hold them in check and to keep him in line. He renewed his friendships with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary and turned up at benefits for the Black Panthers, where he was received as an elder statesman of Village bohemia. He recorded a late masterpiece, Let My Children Hear Music (1972), an album of eloquent, sometimes ravishing orchestral compositions, and wrote a score for Elio Petri’s Todo Modo (1976). And Mingus’s children were finally hearing his music. The most original jazz composers of the 1970s—Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Julius Hemphill—were his heirs in their excavation of older jazz styles, and in their attempts to infuse advanced composition with blues and roots feeling. Mingus also had a growing following among adventurous pop artists like Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart and Joni Mitchell, who collaborated with him on an album of his tunes—his last session—and visited him in Mexico just before his death. He made more money than he ever had on tour and spent it on beautiful cars, Cuban cigars and cocaine.

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Yet he continued to feel underappreciated and unfulfilled. He complained at garrulous length to Goodman about the avant-garde, sore as ever about being overshadowed in the eyes of the critical establishment. He was still striving and struggling, even from the wheelchair to which he was confined in his last few years. “I still haven’t written the music I want to write,” he told Goodman; he had three, four symphonies in him. A part of him had always felt that jazz had been a detour, and an imposed one at that. Although he had done more than anyone other than Ellington and Monk to set jazz on an equal footing with European art music, jazz was the music that he’d been forced to play when the doors to the concert hall were shut: even the word reminded him of that original exclusion. Jazz, he told Goodman, “is just one little stupid language hanging out there as a sign of unfair employment. Jazz means ‘nigger.’”

“My identity is mixed together with Beethoven, Bach and Brahms,” he told Sue; it pained him somewhat to be described as a jazz musician. In Beneath the Underdog, he reprinted a touching letter he wrote from Bellevue mental hospital to Nat Hentoff in 1958. He’d been listening to the Juilliard String Quartet’s recording of Bartok, marveling at how they could “transform in a second a listener’s soul and make it throb with love and beauty—just by following the scratches of a pen on a scroll.” It reminded him of his “original goal,” he said, but “a thing called ‘jazz’” took him far off his path, and he didn’t know if he’d ever get back.

Selected Discography

Mingus at the Bohemia (Debut, 1955)
Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic, 1956)
The Clown (Atlantic, 1957)
Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959)
Mingus Dynasty (Columbia, 1959)
Blues & Roots (Atlantic, 1960)
Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid, 1960)
Pre-Bird (Mercury, 1960)
Oh Yeah (Atlantic, 1960)
Tijuana Moods (RCA Victor, 1962)
The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!, 1963)
Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (Impulse!, 1963)
Mingus Plays Piano (Impulse!, 1963)
The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (America, 1964)
Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia, 1972)
Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic, 1976)
At UCLA 1965 (Sunny Side, 2006)
Cornell 1964 (Blue Note, 2007)

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