had little patience for jazz critics. They tried to
find a category, a convenient term, to describe him.
But, as he told me one day, "I am trying to play
the truth of what I am. The reason it's difficult
is because I'm changing all the time."
Mingus was not only the most powerfully original bassist
in jazz history, but he was one of the few legendary
soloists and band leaders to leave an utterly distinctive
body of continually unpredictable compositions. In
that respect, he was in the rare company of Jelly
Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
used to hear directly, sometimes early in the morning,
that he was indeed changing all the time. I'd pick
up the phone and hear not a voice, but music, music
I'd never heard before. After a few minutes, Mingus
would break in.
you think of that?" he'd say. It was a new work
time to time, Mingus would also change shape. Deciding
to lose weight, with characteristic determination,
he'd lose so much that he'd have to buy new clothes.
But then, after awhile, he'd tower over the bandstand
was so opposed to predictable, routine music that
in a nightclub, he would sometimes actually interrupt
a soloist in his group. "Don't play your usual
licks," he'd shout. "What do you want to
would never let us coast," one of his sidemen
Mingus was like Lester Young, who once said to an
interviewer about his continual evolution, "I'm
not a repeater pencil."
one conversation, Mingus told me how he became so
compelling a bassist that his solos could drive a
crowded room into rapt attention. "Way back,
I'd practice the hardest things incessantly. The third
finger is seldom used, so I used it all the time.
For awhile, I concentrated on speed and technique
almost as ends in themselves. I aimed at scaring all
the other bass players. There seemed to be no problems
I couldn't solve.
one night, when I was eighteen or nineteen, all this
changed. I began playing and didn't stop for a long
time. It was suddenly me, it wasn't
the bass any more. Now I'm not conscious of the instrument
as an instrument when I play. I'm up there trying
to express myself. It's like a preacher, in a sense.
And the instrument, any instrument, shouldn't get
in the way."
reason Mingus reached so many people around the world
was the depth—sometimes the explosive depth—of
his expressions, his emotions. My favorite memory
of how forcefully he could express himself is of one
night at a New York club. It was between sets, and
we were standing at the bar. I was telling Mingus
of music of another kind that probes so deeply into
the soul that you could hear the innermost life forces
of the performer. I meant the Jewish cantorial music
of my youth—the spiraling improvising of singers
who sounded sometimes as if they were arguing with
was interested, but as we spoke, a very black musician
started to continue what he had shouted at Mingus
during the previous set: "You're not black
enough to play the blues!"
was indeed not easily categorized by his color. His
skin was not deep blue, but it wasn't white. At the
bar, when the very black musician started up his indictment,
Mingus—about to conclude the argument with his
fists—suddenly thought better of it. He got
the bass and plunged into a bass solo that got so
deeply into the very core of the blues that his tormenter,
blown back as by a fierce wind, slunk out the door.
some of the younger players at the time, Mingus was
acutely conscious of his roots in black music.
the music I heard when I was a very young child,"
he told me, "was church music. My family went
to the Methodist church; in addition, my stepmother
would take me to the Holiness church and other such
blues was in the churches—moaning and riffs
and that sort of thing between the audience and the
penetrating influence on the young Mingus was the
utterly singular kaleidoscopic music of Duke Ellington.
I first heard Duke Ellington in person," Mingus
said, "I almost jumped out of the balcony. One
piece excited me so much that I screamed."
too, did not like to be categorized. Many years ago,
he went to Fletcher Henderson, leader of another influential
jazz orchestra, and suggested, "Why don't we
call what we do 'black music' instead of 'jazz'? That
way there'll be no confusion." Henderson wouldn't
also seldom used the word "jazz." "What
I do," he'd say, "is Mingus music."
he had great respect for the vintage jazz musicians.
He had worked as a young man, with Louis Armstrong
and Kid Ory, and he loved the driving intensity of
swing-era trumpeter Roy Eldridge whom some of the
young bop musicians considered an old-timer compared
to Dizzy Gillespie.
once recorded for the Candid label a session on which
both Mingus and Roy Eldridge played together for the
first time. When the session was over, Roy said to
Mingus, "I'm glad I made this. I wanted to find
out what bag you're in. Now I know you're in the right
bag. There are some people coming up who are so busy
being busy on their horns that they forget the basics.
They don't get all the way down into the music. You
do, baby. It's good to know. There are very few of
us left out here."
was delighted. There was another time when he connected
with just the kind of listeners he wanted. "A
lot of what the kids get to hear," he said one
afternoon, "with rock music all over the place
is noise. It's so limited in how it expresses what
little it does have to say. But kids are able to hear
more, much more. Not long ago I played with my band
during one of the free concerts, for the Jazzmobile,
on the streets of Harlem.
we started to play, one of the guys with me said,
'Mingus, you can't play what you usually do for these
kids here. They don't dig it!' But I did play what
I usually do. And I did some more. I took the music
as far out as I could and they still liked it.
those kids," Mingus was smiling broadly, seeing
them again, "following the truck, wanting more.
Of course they wanted to hear it. It's their music,
man. It's their lives. It goes back so far and has
so much farther to go."
hear how far and deep Mingus went, I suggest the following
recordings:Charles Mingus: The Complete Mingus
Recordings 1956-1961 (Rhino); Cumbia
& Jazz Fusion (Rhino); New Tijuana
Moods (Bluebird); Mingus Ah Um
(Columbia); The Complete Candid Recordings,
the sessions I produced, (Mosaic); Let My Children
Hear Music (Columbia); Mingus Plays
resilience was never more evident than during the
bleakest part of his life. In the late 1960s, he rarely
appeared in public. Sometimes I'd see him on the street,
on the lower East Side of New York, and he seemed
subdued, so low in spirits that his usual lust for
life had gone.
didn't call me any more to talk passionately about
politics, the dynamics of race prejudice, the ignorance
of jazz critics, the cheating of players by club owners,
record companies and booking agents.
friend of his told me, "He'll never come back.
He just used himself all up."
after several years, there were signs that he was
coming back. He began making a new recording. I talked
to him in an editing room at Columbia Records to find
out where he'd been.
a bearded Buddha in black shirt, white tie and black
pants, was puffing at a large curved pipe.
about three years," he said, "I thought
I was finished. Sometimes I couldn't even get out
of bed. I wasn't asleep; I just lay there. But living
where I do, deep down on the lower East Side, I began
to learn about people, and that started me coming
that neighborhood, they didn't know me from the man
in the moon, but they took an interest in me. I'd
go to a bar, sit by myself, and I'd hear someone say,
'There's something wrong with this guy. He doesn't
come out of his house for four or five days at a time.'
And they'd invite me to join them.
got to know what friends are. Ukrainians, blacks,
Puerto Ricans—a house painter, a tailor, a woman
who owns a bar, her bartender, a maintenance man who
says, 'I'll walk you home tonight if you get drunk.
And if I get drunk, you walk me home.'
hell down there. I've been robbed four times. They
stole almost everything I had. So now I've got locks
on my doors, bars on my windows, and a baseball bat
near at hand. But I'm not going to move. Even with
the danger. I want to stay because it's family. We
all look out for each other. Not just against muggers
and robbers. There was a time when I had no money
left at all, but the tailor on the block made sure
I had enough to eat. I don't know if I could have
come out of the graveyard if it hadn't been for them."
came back to record many more albums, play concerts
in many countries, and he kept on composing. He composed
almost to the very end. Mingus became afflicted with
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease).
Eventually, he could no longer walk or play his bass,
but one afternoon, in his apartment, I watched as
he hummed a new melody, and accompanying parts, into
a tape recorder. Later, an arranger would orchestrate
the composition for a new Mingus recording.
last time I saw Mingus was at a jazz concert that
president Jimmy Carter hosted on the south lawn of
the White House. Carter clearly knew a lot about jazz,
having visited jazz clubs when he was in the Navy
and afterwards. And he said as he introduced the first
set, "It's long past time that a real tribute
was paid to jazz musicians here at the White House.
Jazz has never received the full recognition it deserves
in America—because of the racism in this country."
was seated in a wheel chair in the front row, next
to his wife, Sue, who has continued his legacy by
forming the Mingus Big Band which plays with his exultant
spirit. That afternoon at the White House, the president
came over to Mingus and hugged him. Mingus couldn't
move, but you could see the appreciation in his eyes—and
his desire to keep on living.
and Sue kept traveling in search of continued life
for him, but at last, he died in Cuernavaca, Mexico,
in 1979. He was 57.
all the conversations we had, I keep coming back to
not a question of color any more. It's getting deeper
than that. I mean it's getting more and more difficult
for a man or a woman to just love. People are getting
so fragmented, and part of that is that fewer and
fewer people are making a real effort any more to
find exactly who they are and to build on that knowledge.
people are forced to do things they don't want to
do most of the time, and so they get to the point
where they feel they no longer have any choice about
anything important, including who they are. We create
our own slavery.
I'm going to keep on getting through and finding out
the kind of man I am through my music. That's the
one place I can be free."