Charles Mingus  
A musician beyond category
By Nat Hentoff

From Gadfly April 1999


Mingus 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."

Charles 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.

I 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.

"What'd you think of that?" he'd say. It was a new work in progress.

From 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 again.

Mingus 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 say now!"

"He would never let us coast," one of his sidemen told me.

And Mingus was like Lester Young, who once said to an interviewer about his continual evolution, "I'm not a repeater pencil."

During 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.

"Then 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."

The 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 God.

Mingus 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!"

Mingus 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.

Unlike some of the younger players at the time, Mingus was acutely conscious of his roots in black music.

"All 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 churches.

"The blues was in the churches—moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher."

Another penetrating influence on the young Mingus was the utterly singular kaleidoscopic music of Duke Ellington.

"When 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."

Ellington, 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 go along.

Mingus also seldom used the word "jazz." "What I do," he'd say, "is Mingus music."

But 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.

I 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."

Mingus 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.

"Before 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.

"All 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."

To 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 Piano (Impulse).

Mingus's 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.

He 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.

A friend of his told me, "He'll never come back. He just used himself all up."

Finally, 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.

Mingus, a bearded Buddha in black shirt, white tie and black pants, was puffing at a large curved pipe.

"For 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 back.

"In 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.

"I 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.'

"It's 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."

He 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.

The 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."

Mingus 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.

Mingus and Sue kept traveling in search of continued life for him, but at last, he died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1979. He was 57.

Of all the conversations we had, I keep coming back to this one:

"It's 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.

"Most 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.

"But 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."