“What was it like to work with all those different jazz personalities?” “Who were your favorites?” “Was __________ as bad as everyone said he was?” “Did you encounter any performer who just blew you off?”
Over my years of covering so many of our jazz greats, a fairly common theme raised by friends and acquaintances of mine centered around their perceived impressions of a certain musician’s reported bad behavior.
One such individual, recognized for his tempestuous personality, was bassist Charles Mingus. My initial exposure to the prolific composer/arranger and bandleader occurred at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival.
After doing just two numbers, he marched off the stage playing, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It was only later when I learned about the contract dispute Mingus had that day with MJF Founder Jimmy Lyons. Before he would honor their agreement and perform, the volatile big man demanded that the impresario get down on his knees and beg.
At times, it was hard to fathom some of the reports of his utter lack of decorum. From his early childhood days, Mingus revered Duke Ellington; indeed, he openly named the Maestro as one of his primary influences, and during his career was fond of recording his own stellar interpretations of Ellington’s works. So I was particularly dumbfounded to learn about his inexplicable treatment of
Duke during a 1962 United Artists trio record date, Money Jungle, that also included drummer Max Roach.
In his revealing memoirs, Music Is My Mistress, Ellington wrote about the strange turn of events during that recording session. He had composed, but not written, the tunes and simply ran through a series of demonstrations at the piano to give them a feel of what he had in mind. On one number he described the beauty of an untouched little African flower deep in the forest, announced the key signature and the two nodded in agreement.
He wrote, “Roach’s rhythmic embellishments could not have been more fitting, nor have sounded more authentic, while Mingus, with his eyes closed, fell into each and every harmonic groove, adding countermelodies as though he had been playing the number all his life. It was one of those mystic moments when our three muses were one and the same. There was just one take and I was thrilled.”
But then in the middle of that session, Mingus started packing up his bass, getting ready to leave. Ellington asked him where he was going.
“Man, I can’t play with that drummer.”
“Why, what’s wrong.”
”Duke, I have always loved you and what you’re doing in music, but you’ll have to get another bass player.”
“What, you mean just like that, in the middle of a date? Come on, man, it can’t be that serious!”
But Charles continued packing up, heading out to the elevator door. Ever the professional, Duke followed him to the elevator where he said simply, “Mingus, my man, United Artists gave you a full-page ad in the Christmas Billboard. It was beautiful.
“You know,” he continued, “if Columbia Records had spent that kind of money on promoting me, I would still be with them today.”
Mingus picked up his bass, returned to the studio and the three of them recorded very happily until the album was completed.
For me, during the different times I was in his midst as a photographer, Charles Mingus was all business, but gentle and easy to be around. He was in a particularly buoyant mood one spring night at the 1976 Berkeley Jazz Festival surrounded by an eclectic group of leaders in their own right, including trumpeter Nat Adderley, the then-youthful trombonist/conch shell specialist Steve Turre, and a reunited Mingus alum, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who amazingly was back in the spotlight only six months after suffering a massive stroke that paralyzed his entire right side. It was a momentous night for Mingus’s crew and their delirious fans.
The year 2019 marks the 40th anniversary since the passing of Charles Mingus. Despite all his peccadillos and downright explosive episodes, no one can minimize the man’s considerable contributions to the jazz canon and his lofty position in the music’s hierarchy.
As a player, he possessed an enticingly rich tone, amazing technique, plus a deep understanding of rhythmic and metric changes that literally challenged his bandmates to achieve the utmost in collective improvisation. As a leader, his bands served as training grounds for dozens of uncompromising and future stars, ranging from Jaki Byard and Eric Dolphy to Don Pullen and George Adams. And his voluminous compositions and arrangements – capped off with the masterpiece, “Epitaph,” a monumental two-and-a-half hour long suite first performed a decade after his death – represent a virtual goldmine of creative genius.
Mingus: The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady (Impulse: 1963)
Charles Mingus - bass, piano, composer; Jerome Richardson - soprano and baritone saxophones, flute; Charlie Mariano - alto saxophone; Dick Hafer - tenor saxophone, flute; Rolf Ericson - trumpet; Richard Williams - trumpet; Quentin Jackson - trombone; Don Butterfield - tuba, contrabass trombone; Jaki Byard - piano; Jay Berliner - acoustic guitar; Dannie Richmond - drums