Today — 22 April 2022 — is the centenary of Charles Mingus’s birth. He was 50 when I interviewed him in London in the summer of 1972. The great composer, bassist and bandleader had been a hero of mine since I bought Blues & Roots as a schoolboy, a dozen years earlier. Since then I’d seen gigs that represented his highs and lows. It was the sort of encounter you don’t forget.
Charles Mingus was late. The hotel switchboard, he said, had forgotten his wake-up call. It was getting on for two o’clock in the afternoon and he’d been playing until three the previous night with his band at Ronnie Scott’s Club and now he was hungry. Wearing a blue and white striped seersucker blazer, patterned black velvet trousers and a carefully knotted green cravat, he wandered out of the lobby of the Mayfair Hotel and into the old narrow streets of Shepherd Market, a figure of vast bulk carving a bow-wave through the eddying currents of lunchtime strollers.
He paused to buy four fresh peaches from a barrow boy, and appeared shocked by the virulent response when he told the trader that the fruit he had bought there the previous day had been rotten. Clutching the bag of peaches, he set off against the tide, looking for a shellfish restaurant. As he peered through the window of one establishment, he commented unfavourably on the size of the live lobsters in the tank before moving on and finally settling down, with some grumbling, at a pavement table outside a sandwich bar.
Then he started talking. And over the course of a largely one-way conversation occupying the next hour, he proved that, behind an increasingly Buddha-like façade, the fires of rebellion were still burning bright.
My first mistake was to ask him a rather vague question about the contract he had recently signed with a major label, Columbia Records, which had produced a terrific big-band record called Let My Children Hear Music, full of complex, fascinating pieces with typically vivid titles, such as “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid, Too” and “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers”.
“I don’t see the importance of that question,” he said.
Well, I said, already feeling somewhat uncomfortable, did his decision mean that it was no longer possible for a musician to run his own record label, as he had occasionally tried to do in the ’50s and ’60s?
“It’s impossible for me, because I’m not educated to do that. I used to have a woman with me who did that. I don’t have nobody like that now. I’d rather not have to think about it. It can be done, though. Oxtail soup, please. And leave the menu. I’ll just go through it one thing at a time.”
So what was it like, working with Columbia?
“It’s just like being with a record company. I don’t see them doing much promotion on me. They don’t push jazz like they should. They push everything else. Unknown groups get a publicity party for each record they make. But it’s not just so-called jazz. If they pushed symphony enough, more people would buy it. And if you push shit, they buy shit. I tell you what, last night McPherson” — Charles McPherson, his gifted and highly experienced alto saxophonist — “played the worst he can play, and he smiled, and people applauded. He was making noise. He played quarter-notes for two choruses. Can you imagine a saxophone playing a quarter-note solo? They applauded and yelled. Do you see where the people are at? They don’t know. So immediately what you do is get a bunch of guys to play the worst they can, put a lot of publicity on it, and sell it. Play out of tune, anything you want. In this country, in America, everywhere, put a pretty cover on it, say a lot of pretty words, and it sells.”
It was nothing new, he said. “It’s always been true. If you smile and dance along, and be a clown. You couldn’t fool serious people, though. You couldn’t fool a classical audience into thinking he was playing good, someone who’d had a prior musical education. But the way the kids have been brainwashed, you can fool them.”
He went back to an event held a decade earlier, during the time when the New Thing — the avant-garde jazz of people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler — was drawing the attention of critics and the public away from his own generation. In retaliation, he had put a bunch of children behind a curtain at the Village Vanguard and got them to play out of sight, while his own musicians mimed.
“Those kids were just beginning to learn the instruments,” he said. “They took the solos, and man, they broke the house up. They thought we had found some new Ornette Colemans. These kids were eight or nine years old, and they didn’t even know the notes they were playing. Or they were just sliding notes. It didn’t matter. If you blow any horn, some note will come out.”
His words may have been confrontational but the tone of his voice was soft. Sometimes he would lower the volume to let the words slide out in a rapid slur, as though he were talking to himself. Even when he got angry, there was a gentleness about him. Nevertheless his presence was powerful enough to make passers-by stop to listen as the intensity of his harangue rose and fell.
Let’s take painting, he continued. “Some painters draw seriously. They draw precise lines and certain perspectives that correspond with something you’ve seen before. Then you get guys who throw paint at a canvas, throw some sand on top of it. and they say they paint. Some people let monkeys and little children use their fingers on it, and they call it a good painting.” He looked up from his oxtail soup and fixed me with a sort of amiable glare. “It’s time for guys like you to decide what you want: bullshit, or something real.”
So did he fell that the increasing popularity of intelligent rock music had diminished the audience for jazz?
“Nobody’s going to make money in jazz, not even Louis Armstrong. Nobody expects to make any money. They’re playing it because they like to pay it. I don’t know anybody who expects to make a million dollars playing what you’d call jazz. But I do know some people who expect to make a good living once you drop the word jazz and integrate fair employment into music, so the white kids won’t copy the niggers. That’s all they’re doing. They’re minstrels, to me. I haven’t heard any white kids yet that could come up and play something from their own culture — although in a way the Beatles did, they used English music, and that’s why I respect them, and they’re just kids. Although I’m not sure they did it. I think they had some very clever people, learned people, not just one of them. Somebody said that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. I think it was a bunch of guys like Bacon that got together and said, ‘Let’s make one genius man.’ That’s what I think the Beatles were. They evolved from certain types of American music, and certain types of English music, but it was original. It was conceived mathematically. I can hear that. Like ‘Eleanor Rigby’. That wasn’t accidental. One thing that came out was a lot of good words. Bob Dylan, too. He said something, a little something, about his culture.
“But I haven’t heard any so-caed jazz guys from England that have any English culture in their playing. They’re still playing from Lennie Tristano, from Eric Dolphy and myself, the kind of things we did in that band we had, from Ornette Coleman, and based on Charlie Parker. Which is the most difficult of all to play. They haven’t played that yet. I don’t hear anything in their playing to say that they’ve found a culture in their own country to speak of. They’re still speaking of a music that came out of our culture, which is not theirs and they know nothing about it. They’ve only heard the surface and they don’t now what the guys have lived, the pains they’ve gone through to come up with this music.”
His principal argument with the younger players was against their lack of training and their ignorance of the roots. “These guys who want to pay ‘free music’ and can’t even play a melody or even play their solos exactly the same way twice… In the old days, Coleman Hawkins would play ‘Body and Soul’ and he’d play the solo that was on the record, and then he’d play a new one for you, or two or three new ones. Because he had this one solo that was considered like a Picasso, you know, a Picasso solo, and he was capable of doing it again. When I hear guys doing that, I respect them. But I haven’t seen any of them capable of doing the same thing twice, except the melody. I’m not saying that they’re not serious. They’re very serious. You can be crazy and be serious.
“But I think we’re trying to show that civilisation has given us an attunement of the self, a calmness, a peace of mind, and an inventiveness. You shouldn’t go on the bandstand, meditating and praying in front of the audience all the time. That’s what ‘free music’ is. Like a drone, an Indian religious meeting. Difference is, it’s probably a bunch of atheists playing. Meditating with the devil. And the main thing I’m trying to say is that they’re probably all in one key. I don’t hear them change key. I don’t hear no B natural, no E, no A, no F sharp. It’s mainly around C and D flat. Like Ornette Coleman, a pedal-point C. I was with Phineas Newborn when I first heard Ornette, and Phineas said, ‘What key’s that in?’ Sounded like C. He started playing with Ornette. He said, ‘That’s all it is, man. The key of C.’ I don’t know, man, but have you heard Ornette play any melodies? I know before he was successful he had a band with a piano-player, and he played some melodies. But he sounded like a beginner playing saxophone, trying to copy Charlie Parker. On the very next record he had a thing with no piano on it, and I could see where he became very happy. When there’s no chord structure, the guy can pay anything he wants to play.”
A dozen years earlier, Mingus had greeted Coleman’s arrival on the scene with scepticism, although they had played together at the famous Newport Rebels concert at Cliff Walk Manor on the shore of Rhode Island Sound, when a group of disaffected musicians got together and decided to make a protest against the programming of the official Newport Jazz Festival by staging their own alternative event.
“I don’t want to sound like I don’t like Ornette Coleman,” Mingus said now. “He’s one of the nicest people in the world. And I don’t want to say I don’t understand him. I’ve heard him discuss musical theory, and he has a different approach to that. He’s added a different feeling, a different embellishment, a different mood. I think that’s good. Some of the beboppers need to learn it. For instance, I don’t think they know that you can play sad on one note, or happy. You can play the same bridge happy, or sad, or angry, or frustrated. You should be able to play hate, love, anger, fear. Bird did it, but these kids never heard him in person, they only heard the notes off the records, and they don’t know that Bird played tearful some nights, for just one or two bars, he’d cry on one note.
“Guys today know how to play like a very hip old guy or a very hip young guy. They’re afraid to be unhip. To be a musician, you should be able to play hip, unhip, sad, happy, or like the devi, and with imagination a creative person should even be able to play like a saint. It’s too bad that this may be lost in this camouflage of so-called free music, where everything is distorted into sounding like chaos, or another way it sounds is like guys praying or being high or being some place doing something no one else has done, yet if you listen, it’s been done. I haven’t heard nothing yet that hasn’t been done in the so-called avant-garde except that they all do it together. I’m going to have to go back and repeat myself and do what these guys call avant-garde, because I’m sure I was one of the guys that started it, along with Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. I’m sorry I never had a group that believed in me enough to play my music properly, because that’s exactly what’s always missing in my music, except it did happen when Eric Dolphy was there, because he had so many moods in his playing. But most guys don’t.”
But didn’t jazz have to find a route away from the rigid chord structures of standard ballads and the blues?
“I didn’t say you have to use chord changes, man. It’s just so hip. There’s a thousand chords in one chord, anyway. So why call it a chord? That’s just for dumb piano players, block-chording. If you listen to Duke Ellington, you don’t hear chords all the time. He plays linear things, rhythm patterns, one note, bass note, pedal-point. Bud Powell did it, too. You weren’t conscious of the exact chord changes every time. Nor with Monk, either. I heard some things that Monk did in 1940 that sounded like Ornette, or let’s say the avant-garde. But he didn’t do it for the whole piece. You can do it on the introduction and the ending, and it sounds nice. But not the whole thing.
“I’ve worked in clubs with bands who’ve played that shit for a whole set, and it’s annoying. I’m not concerned about a guy’s sickness, because he’s meditating and praying to some kind of Allah or Buddha. He can go to church in his closet at home, like the Bible says. When you pray, pray in your closet. When you’re on the bandstand, play some music. And if you’ve got a bunch of guys all playing what they want, then everybody’s right, aren’t they? If you’ve got appendicitis, you don’t want no doctor that’s never studied. You want a doctor that can handle that knife and cut you open properly. You don’t want no ad lib free-form doctor to cut you open, no avant-garde jazz doctor improvising by ear. I want a guy who’s studied from the very beginning.”
He talked about his own youth, and how he had to prove his ability to play solos recorded by men like Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart before he was allowed to improvise.
“You had to study until you knew where to go on your own. They used to do that at Minton’s, too. Before you could get on the bandstand to play with Charlie Christian, you had to do through an audition. I liked Jimmy Blanton’s playing, so I tried to find out what he was doing. I discovered that he had studied legitimate bass to learn to play properly. So I followed that. One day I came to take a solo, and in those days when you were training it meant you had to play a solo that someone had already played. So I went out and tried something of my own. They told me to go back and study Blanton and Stewart.
“I think the kids today don’t really love the music they copy. They choose them because they’re popular. It’s the latest thing, and it’s going to make them a dollar. When I was young, nobody told me that Duke Ellington made any money. I turned on the radio and heard something that I loved and I followed it until I found out what it was. Ask me and Duke to make an avant-garde record, and we’d cut everybody. Me and Duke, Clark Terry, Jerome Richardson, Buddy Collette, Cat Anderson — don’t ask nobody to be weird, man. We’ll make you sick. Make ’em all put their horns away.”
At several points in the conversation, during the oxtail soup and the plain salad — lettuce, tomato, cucumber — that followed it, I tried to get Mingus to talk about the music he’d been playing recently. This was not well received.
“Why do you always have to ask a guy about his music? You should talk to Mal Waldron, and you can talk to me about his music. He’s made some good comments about my music, about what I’ve contributed. Duke even said it one time. I went up to him and said how much I loved his music, and he said, ‘Well, you did this, and you did that.’ He mentioned two or three things that I did. He called me the Two-Beat Waltz King. He knew how I loved and respected his music.’ And the memory of that caused Mingus to smile, for the first time in almost an hour of virtually unbroken monologue.
But he would talk a bit about the future. “Complication is progress,” he said. “That’s one way of getting rid of the amateurs. For instance, on the trumpet it’s a little difficult to make very wide intervals. Now if you start working those intervals into jazz, the public would realise that this is a technician who has control of his instrument and can make melodic sense on it. I’m working on it now, music with a wider range. Pretty soon it’s going to cancel out all the guys who say, ‘I play trumpet,’ and have a trumpet and a case but don’t master their instrument.
“Same thing goes for saxophone players. They got harmonics on it, they can play chords on it, also wider intervals. It’s the way for good musicians to show that they’re superior to the guys who call themselves avant-garde. It’ll also help the guys who’re avant-garde to make more precise leaps and be more in tune with what they’re doing. Advance the thing technically and people will appreciate it more. It may not be as soulful at first, because it’ll be a hell of a mechanical chase to see who can do this kind of playing. Even piano players, you have to be as good as the guys who play classical. When you get to that point, then you’re really something.”
He had just written a string quartet, he said. “The guys played it at sight. And I rehearsed my music for months with the big band, but that music hasn’t been played yet. But the string quartet was nine thousand times more difficult. If that’s the kind of musicianship they have, where string quartets get played in one day, then I’m going to quit right now and write string quartets. And we call ourselves virtuosos. Think about that. I’m even going to have to do a little woodshedding myself, because I’m writing music I can’t play. I’ve got to do it because all these little kids, they’re all great bass players now. I’ve got to find something they can’t do. I’ve got one thing they can’t do, but if I do it, they’ll be doing it on a record before I get to do it myself. That’s why I don’t play solos on jobs, not until I come to Europe. If I do that in New York, I go to a record date and hear what I played already.
“It’s not funny. Oscar Pettiford told me the same thing. I didn’t believe it. Lester Young told me the same thing. He had a record the next day, and he was in a hotel with Stan Getz, and he heard Stan playing this solo that he’d played the night before, and he wanted to record it. So he had to go and work a new one out. What a nice world it would be if Jewish guys played music from their heredity, from their environment, from what their families had given them. Or if the Scottish guys would do it, or ex-slaves, black men, if the Africans would do it, improvise, but play music from their own culture. The Spanish people do it, with flamenco — see how great that is? Because it’s pure. Flamenco is about their people, Spanish gypsies, and their suffering. The Indians are doing it, too, Americans and them other Indians. But all the so-called civilised countries are copying what came from the past of jazz. It’s not real, man. can’t make it.”
And with that he got up and lurched away, seeming to block out the daylight as he headed up an alley towards Curzon Street, people coming in the opposite direction having to squeeze past on either side of him. I stayed at the table, ordered a cup of coffee and thought about the anger, the sweetness, the love of music and musicians (even, deep down, those of whom he seemed to disapprove), the frustration and the joy that flowed out of his character, and how it had all been poured into his astonishing music.
* The photograph of Charles Mingus was taken in 1959 by Lee Friedlander, and is from the cover of Blues & Roots. A new three-CD set from Resonance Records, The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s, documents Mingus’s season at the Frith Street club in August 1972.