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 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.”