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I first encountered Charles Mingus in 1972, when he brought his band to the Brown Shoe, a funky nightclub in Chicago that briefly housed Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase. It had rained steadily that day, and by showtime, the water on the roof had found a seam in the ceiling and began to trickle onto the stage — just about where Mingus was situated. He had just started a solo and couldn’t easily move out of the way. And the band was playing a piece so new that they still had their eyes glued to the music stands, from which raindrops had started to splash onto the stage. Essentially, it was raining on Charles Mingus’ music, and that struck me as unconscionable. Back then, as a 20-year-old college student — one year from graduating college, two years after Kent State, with a draft number of 18 — a lot of things struck me as unconscionable. But this was different. It was raining on Mingus, the monumental composer and brilliant colorist, successor to Ellington and to Monk and, not incidentally, a gobsmacking pioneer of jazz bass technique. So I took action: I leapt onto the stage with my umbrella and, defying centuries of superstition, I opened it and held it over Mingus’ head until he finished his solo and could move away from the stream. I kept my eyes down, to avoid the glare of the small spotlights and to blend into the scenery: just another piece of equipment on stage, placed there in service of the music.I believe that Mingus nodded slightly to me as I returned to my seat (as if I really needed acknowledgment for this selfless act). I later realized I was lucky he hadn’t just hauled off and clocked me. Admittedly, Mingus at 50 was less prone than before to mercurial displays of anger (such as the time he ended an argument by punching his own sideman, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, in the teeth). But still, this was Mingus, whose personality encompassed sudden acts of violence as well as random beauty. My second interaction with Mingus came a couple of years after my Travelers Insurance imitation at the Brown Shoe. This time, I had an assignment to interview him for a short piece in the British music magazine Melody Maker. I arrived with enough stiff-upper-lip bravado to almost quiet my trepidation at bearding the lion in his den — in this case, the makeshift green room at the Quiet Knight, a fabled Chicago nightspot, right next to the Belmont El station. Mingus treated my questions with relative politeness, answering them in detail and with no more than his usual gruffness. As it turns out, any orneriness had been dispelled the previous evening when, mid-gig, he parted company with the saxophonist in his quintet.“Walked off the job, quit last night, on the third set,” Mingus huffed in his quickstep delivery. “Said he didn’t like playin’ that long. I didn’t like him, to tell the truth.” But his appraisal of the man had nothing to do with how he soloed, which most of us consider the most revealing aspect of a jazz musician’s personality. Mingus said he didn’t care how his musicians soloed, as long as they could handle the music he wrote. “I’m not responsible for the soloists,” he half-blurted, half-mumbled. “I write the music, they read it and play it, interpret it, I’m happy. No matter how they solo. … They just have be able to play my music as it’s written.”In my mind’s eye, I can still see Hamiet Bluiett walking down Belmont Avenue, baritone-sax case in hand, looking forlorn — although, given the circumstances, he might have been elated by his newfound freedom.Mingus did leave me with one other memory. Earlier in that week at the Brown Shoe, between sets, his trumpet player — a skinny teenager with an impressive Afro — identified me as the only other person under 30 in the club and pulled up a chair at my table. Jon Faddis started telling bad jokes, hasn’t stopped since, and remains a valued friend to this day — and an ongoing reminder of the time I jumped on stage to provide a shield from one storm while standing in the center of another. - Neil Tesser
Featured photo by Hans Harzheim.