"I would like to remind you that we don't applaud here at the Showplace where we're working. So restrain your applause and if you must applaud wait until the end of the set and it won't even matter then. The reason is we are distracted by your noise. Don't even take any drinks or rattle the ice in your glasses, and no cash register ringing, etc."
He was a charismatic and temperamental performer who often fired his musicians in the middle of a performance (sometimes by pushing them off the stage) and wasn't afraid to use a gun to make sure mafia-owned clubs paid him his money. Leaving the largest legacy after Duke Ellington, his body of work spans over four decades, dozens of records, and hundreds of bootleg recordings.
Bootleg recordings his widow Sue Mingus is now claiming back! For years she has been rifling through record, and now CD, bins all over America and Europe, physically removing pirate Mingus recordings from the shelves. When confronted by store security she threatens them with extremely bad publicity. Now the pirate recordings are being re-released under Revenge! Records. The first of which is from the legendary Paris concerts with Eric Dolphy in 1964. Mrs. Mingus was kind enough to share her memories of the jazz great.
Goblin Magazine: How did you meet Charles Mingus?
Sue Mingus: I met Mingus at the Five Spot in the early 60's. At the time I had a brief film career. I was in a film by Robert Frank, he's one of our great photographers, known for a book called The Americans about the Beats and the late 50's, he also directed Pull My Daisy with Allen Ginsberg. I was in one of his films and we were looking for Ornette Coleman to do a soundtrack, and I was going around to jazz clubs with Robert and our producer. I knew nothing about jazz at all and I met Mingus while he was performing at the Five Spot. He was looking for someone to run a mail order record company. He'd become disenchanted with the establishment in record companies and he didn't feel like he was getting an honest count. I was looking for a job so I started out working for Charles for a few months and it turned into a relationship. I had a magazine myself called Changes and Charles used to write for that.
Goblin: Did he have much connection with the Beat writers?
Mingus: Yeah he did. We used to go up to Millbrook in those days where Tim Leary had a play and a lot of the New York poets and painters ended up there on weekends -- some people were dropping acid and some were not. But it was a scene. Allen (Ginsberg) married us actually.
We were at a party in New York, it was a prenuptial celebration, the night before a friend was getting married. He lived in a Brownstone with five or six floors and there were events going on on each floor -- chanting, Indian music, psychedelic shows and so forth. We were wandering around from show to show and we bumped into Allen in the library -- his arms full of books.
Charles just looked at him and said, "Marry us."
Allen who always did things at the drop of a hat pulled up two chairs and sat us down and pulled out the little bells he used to carry with him and starting chanting: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Rama, Rama whatever it was. It went on for hours and we were in a trance.
Finally, when we came out of it and he stopped, Charles looked at him and said, "You married me - now marry her."
So Allen started from square one for an hour or two, and when we came to we were surrounded by all the members of the wedding party and they had wrapped up things from around the house, and so we had a little celebration.
Mingus: Did Mingus ever use pot or was he pretty abstemious in his behavior?
Mingus: He didn't like drugs. He had tried Heroin once when he was a kid and gotten sick like most people do and hadn't gone back to it. He was pretty against drugs.
Goblin: How did he deal with his sidemen being addicted frequently?
Mingus: Well there was a general rule that people where not allowed to smoke pot in the buses and cars that we traveled around in, and even at parties he used to go to with the Millbrook gang; whether it was Salvador Dali or Peter Fonda or whoever was there; Charles made his announcement before he went that he would not come if there were any drugs, because he said if the cops break in it's Charles Mingus who will go to jail and he was right. He was very worried about drugs in those days as well he should have been because he would have been the one who was fingered.
Goblin: When he described himself as being paranoid, do you think that was completely justified by his position in society?
Mingus: There were times when Mingus over-stated, exaggerated and misconstrued but it was understandable enough because so many times he proved to be right in his positions about things. After a certain point you can lose balance in a society where you're written off and you begin to not believe in the rules that everyone lives by because they don't apply to you and aren't in your favor. Then you begin questioning everything and sometimes you go overboard and question things that shouldn't be questioned. Often times I thought he was exaggerating and looking for trouble, but I began to see that really wasn't the case and most of the time he was right. Sometimes he wasn't but in the long run I think he assessed things pretty accurately.
Goblin: Danny Richmnod said everything Mingus wrote was fantasy and that he was living in a fantasy world.
Mingus: No, I don't think so. He had a great imagination as an artist has and very often the distinctions were blurred between his imagination and reality, that's for sure. But that's the way a poet sees life. He builds on it.
Goblin: What kinds of things did he do for the Civil Rights movement?
Mingus: Charles was not a joiner. He spoke out as a personal voice on stage. he used his stage as a soap box and was a political human being at all times. He spoke out about whatever he thought was unjust, racism, intolerance, unfairness in he record business. Whatever confronted him he spoke out immediately. That's why he didn't want to travel in the South, he thought he'd get killed because he wouldn't keep his mouth shut. He was a loudmouth and never compromised an inch in his entire career, musically or in his opinions.
Goblin: How influential do you think he is?
Mingus: I think his influence is growing all the time. Charles was very outspoken and I think a lot of people stayed away from his music because he was such a huge personality on stage I don't think they wanted to trespass on that territory. People didn't think of Charles as a composer as they did Duke Ellington, they thought of him as a personality on stage, as a virtuouso bass player and as an outspoken person on politics. They used to have things called Happenings in the 60's and he was a Happening for a lot of people, a show. To some extent his importance as a composer was overlooked. He always said he was first and foremost a composer but nobody else paid attention to that.
Until when I formed the first Mingus repertory band called the Mingus Dynasty in connection with a tribute done at Carnegie Hall. I was supposed to get together some kind of band. And it sounded so spirited and authentic that we kept the band going. And at the time when we first started the Mingus Dynasty people in Europe just couldn't imagine: How could you have a Mingus band without Mingus? And I took my cue from Charles, because it was his composition. Even without this gigantic personality he had, that personality is in the music and all the musicians will tell you that. It's so personal and emotional and at the same time it leaves all these spaces for these other musicians to come in to put in their own personality and individuality to the music. Which is why the guys have so much fun with it and why it is more modern than the many great composers in jazz.
I was thinking one day on a train trip to Washington that Charles had so much trust and faith in his musicians, that although he was a composer he left a lot of openings and space with the confidence that musicians would come in and play the music.
Mingus: Well, that's jazz. Charles used to laugh because he would play the same music and just change the titles to satisfy the record companies, so they would think it was another piece. But you can take the same piece and play it night after night after night and it will be different every time because jazz is a combination of structured and improvised music, and when you're improvising each musician is his own composer, and he's composing on the structure and changes that's provided, so you have an enormous range of sounds. Mingus would have his own devices that would change, he would double time, and change the rhythmic structures and the harmonies from night to night.
But this is just Jazz, and so was classical music in the beginning, which people just don't think about anymore. Bach and Mozart were improvising when they performed the concertos they wrote. We have a notion of this music that's written in stone. We think it can't be tampered with. Charles always wanted to open up classical music, open up Beethoven. Of course you you have to know what you're doing and be on Beethoven's level.
Goblin: There's a kind of paradox because each Mingus work seems to be unique, when they're transcribed -- I think Mingus preferred to sing the lines to his musicians so they're freeer that way.
Mingus: It depends. There were different periods. There was a period in the late 50's, early 60's, when he didn't like what he called pencil composers and didn't want to write music down because he felt it interfered with the passion and emotion. A trumpet player who played with him told me how difficult it was Charles would sing all the parts and everybody would learn them by heart and then he would go home at night, and his imagination was so fertile that he would get another hundred ideas, and by the time he got back the next day everything was changed. Even his masterwork Epitaph wouldn't be the same now if he was still around because he would have come up with another 50 ideas.
Then in another period he wrote everything down and wrote scores he was really proud of, that dripped over three music stands, like Jazz Fusion and a number of long pieces.
Goblin: What was Mingus like personally, was he as charming as he was abrasive?
Mingus: Mingus was extremely intense, serious, and also extremely funny -- he had an enormous wit. And he had a great irony, he would have to in this country. For example the only Grammy he was ever nominated for was this magnificent album he did in 1972 called Let My Children Hear Music was, and the Grammy was for the liner notes. You can see his humor in his song titles, like All Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother. Or The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass slippers.
Goblin: Was he very religious?
Mingus: He believed in all religions like he did all music. He believed in the Hindu religion because he felt it was fundamentally democratic because it embraced all the other prophets, Moses, Buddha, Christ, and so forth. Charles was his own church. He was extremely spiritual, so the music came. Many musicians are very mystical. He took credit for his virtuosity on the bass, because that he worked at three hours a day on one finger as the story goes. Your fourth finger is your weakest finger because it doesn't have a muscle of its own, and he made that finger his swiftest finger by simply practicing -- he took credit for that but the melodies came from God. He would go to the piano and the melody would be waiting for him at the keys. He felt a connection as Mozart and Duke Ellington did, for being a vessel.
Goblin: How deeply rooted was he in his anti-Semitism?
Mingus: He was not anti-Semitic. A lot of Blacks in New York have had made remarks about Jews in Harlem -- this is just a fact of life, because there are a lot of commercial enterprises run by people who happen to be Jewish and in fact most of them were. Like the Vietnamese and others, there are ethnic groups that will move into an area and over-price things incredibly. This happened in the Ghetto. My first husband was Italian and when we first came here we moved to Little Italy and it was an Italian Ghetto. And the prices, as I discovered when I visited friends in fancy parts of town were much lower. Because when you're in your little enclave you don't know and you can be taken advantage of. So there were some things that Charles said to that effect but they were aimed at specific people who were taking advantage of Blacks in the ghetto. He was not anti-Semitic He may have made comments but that had to do with the wars and the murders and the slashings back and forth.
Goblin: He had a public persona of being a big bullying man, was he different domestically with you, perhaps more kind and gentle.
Mingus: Charles was not a bullying man at all except in circumstances where he felt threatened or intimidated. He always said basically he was a coward. He was a very sensitive artist and he over reacted several times. And he learned that it worked. Duke Ellington said "I love you madly," Charles bellowed it in a big voice. He did what he had to do to survive in this society and he used what he had to use. In the case of his music he courted and cajoled and intimidated and flattened, and loved, and did everything he had to do to get the music he wanted on stage -- he used all his passions and emotions.
I saw him behave violently, and tenderly and cover the gamut of emotions. he wanted to live out all sides of himself, the good and the evil. because that's what an artist does. He experiences it all for the rest of us who have narrowed our spectrums and have been told by our mommies and daddies to behave in a certain way. An artist goes way beyond that and experiences and experiments with everything; the good the bad, the taboos, the prohibited. because who's to say if you actually do what's prohibited it's so bad. An artist can be terrifying or reprehensible to some people but that's their job.
Goblin: Was there raw anger in his music?
Mingus: Yes. There was anger, he had plenty to be angry about, and there was joy. People who have hope and believe in things get angry when they're frustrated. It can also be a driving force, it has a positive side.
Goblin: Is there any reason why PBS and National Public Radio don't play more Mingus?
Mingus: That's what I'm trying to change. Before people thought his music was strange and weird but this is changing. A large portion of the people coming to the performances are young and new to the music and aren't coming out of familiarity, but they respond to it because of the energy. But they like it because there's something in it for anybody -- soaring melodies, frequent tempo changes, harmonics, textures, and so much variety and it's becoming more and more familiar -- and its a question of time. It's like looking at art or anything, you have to get used to it.
Goblin: What was he liked during his final days? Had he resolved his personal demons?
Mingus: He was full of grace and never cursed the Gods. He was manly and focused as anyone I ever met in my life. He was quite incredible in his final days in Mexico.
For those unfamilar with Mingus's work the Goblin suggests: Epitaph, Let My Children Hear Music, Charles Mingus / Live, Oh Yeah, The Bohemia, Meditation, The Mingus Sextet / Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Mingus Revisited, Mingus, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, The Jazz Experiments Of Charles Mingus, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, Town Hall Concert, Tihuana Moods, and Revenge! This is by no means a complete list of his work.
The Charles Mingus Website