Memories Of Mingus
One of the great things about selling the records on eBay is making contact with a wide group of people with varied experiences. One of the customers got into a riff about the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus, which brought me back 30 years, to the time when I was a young reporter for the Syracuse New Times and was asked to interview Mingus and review his concert a local club called Jabberwocky. I went through my files and dug up the article, from 1973, when I was just 20 years old. There’s something to be said for saving everything. Anyway, here it is, just the way it appeared 30 years ago, with just a couple of paragraphs deleted for brevity.
“The backstage door slowly opened as the trembling young reporter marched in, looking as if he were attending his own hanging. Rumor has it that Charles Mingus eats music critics for breakfast each morning.
Mingus was sitting in the back of the room, chair propped up against the wall, looking as if he’d spent the last few years living on the Bowery. He was huge (“I eat out of nerves”). His hair looked as if it hadn’t been touched in years, and his goatee was now more gray than black.
At 52, his face showed the lines of failure, of success, of racism, of bitterness, of booze, of police encounters, or marriages, of divorces. He wore baggy black pants with a matching baggy black shirt, which hung out over the pants and over his stomach. His muddied shoes may have been in style once upon a time, but not in recent memory.
The room was as crowded as a South Bronx morgue – and just as silent. Mingus’s group had just finished its first set and was unwinding. They sat on the edges of their seats, fidgeting and waiting for somebody to say something.
Charles Mingus thrives on tension. His music consists of contrasting themes, battling rhythms and shifting tempos. To fully appreciate it, a listener must be forever on his toes. In addition to being a superb bassist, Mingus is one of the finest composers in American history – four years ago he received a composition grant from the Guggenhem Foundation. In his best compositions a soft minor theme will gently caress your mind and you’ll peacefully melt into your seat. Then – bam – the tempo will shift, a sax will screech, and you’ll jump up again – only to have another shift push you back down. Up and down, up and down. Tension.
Mingus’s gospel numbers sound like releases of tension, as in a church revival meeting where everyone screams out, washing away whatever might be bothering them. A Mingus concert will often seem like a church meeting, with the audience calling out and the band responding.
The first music Mingus heard was gospel. His stepmother was a devout churchgoer and wouldn’t let him listen to anything else. He was eight years old before he heard his first jazz, and that was Duke Ellington, whom he still idolizes.
This night seemed like a bad one for him. Throughout the set he refused to look at the audience. He stood, center stage, bass in hand, puffing and sweating and playing his ass off. His band, though, was disappointing. Mingus played well, but was obviously unhappy. Twice he mumbled to the audience. Once to introduce the group members (two names were perceptible) and once to offer thanks. Nothing in between, and no encore for the screaming audience. When he spoke, he looked into the microphone.
He laughed once. Tenor sax player Goerge Adams, singing a partly ad-lib blues, threw in a chorus of “Mr. Bassman/He believes in making love.” Mingus, who considers himself a great romancer, liked that.
Mingus’s contempt, or at least apathy, was apparent as the young reporter was introduced by a Jabberwocky worker: “Charles, this fella works for a local paper. He’d like to interview you.”
“I ain’t gonna talk to him,” said Mingus, who seems to have rocks where most of us have vocal chords.
“Well, at least tell him the names of the guys in the band.” The worker shrugged and left the room.
Mingus shot at look at the reporter, leaving a visible scar. “I’ll only talk to you ‘bout this band,” he growled, “I gotta book comin’ out that’ll tell it all.”
“Is the book almost completed,” asked the reporter, trying to strike up a rapport.
Mingus’s previous book, Beneath The Underdog, was a successful autobiography. It was published in 1971, after sitting on the shelf for 10 years. No publishing house would touch it; it was too controversial. Mingus once said the book was written for black people and, in it, he attempted to upset whites. Our white reporter had read the book.
“I’m sorry,” said the reporter with cracking voice, “but I didn’t catch the names of the piano player and the baritone player.”
Mingus took a puff on his long black cigar, fingered it and stared at it. The reporter cleared his throat.
“The drummer’s named is Dannie Richmond.” Mingus paused, waiting for the reporter to write. “The drummer’s name is Dannie Richmond. D-A-N-N . . .
“Charles,” interrupted the reporter, “I know the drummer’s name.”
“The drummer’s name is Dannie Richmond. D-A-N-N-I-E. The baritone player is mmmffffff, the pianist is mmmmmfffffff.”
The reporter asked the musicians their names. They were more cooperative – barely.
Two more people entered the room as Mingus remained king, with silence his decree. Mingus did have a Louis XVI air about him as he sat on his metal folding-chair throne. Sure King Louis was not as fat as King Charles, nor could he have held more power over his subjects.
Mingus whispered with the new arrivals. “I gotta be careful what I say – I gotta book coming out . .. Yeah, maybe. Call me tomorrow.”
King Charles released those two subjects and went back to puffing the cigar and staring at the floor. Occasionally he would pick his head up, but never did he look at the reporter. The door opened and a young black woman’s head appeared, asking of no one in particular “Which one’s Mingus?”
Mingus looked up and frowned. He also noticed the reporter, standing near the door, poised for a quick exit, busily taking notes.
“Anything else you wanna know, man?” It was a threat. Charles Mingus could say “I love you” and make it sound like a threat.”
Mingus died on Jan. 4, 1979, about six years after this encounter took place. Despite the odd nature of our meeting and my less-than-flattering account, I really got a kick out of being backstage at the concert and being treated so contemptuously by Mingus. As a young journalist, I felt honored that Mingus thought enough of me to treat me as disrespectfully and rudely as he would have treated a more seasoned and able member of the press. And how fun it is to relive it 30 years later.