Mingus Gets It All — Taking Music To the Limit in a New York Minute
Charles Mingus and his music gave the impression of howling assurance and terrifying emotions. His bass echoed like a giant’s threat, to be soothed by his balmy melodies…He was dogmatic, pensive, demagogoic, irreverent, furious, nostalgic…He is the best example we have of disciplined turmoil.
—Gary Giddins, from Visions of Jazz
On midwest radio nights around the middle of the previous century teenagers up past their bedtime could pull in clear-channel stations like CKLW in Toronto, WLS in Chicago, and WLW in Cincinnati which, legend had it, beamed a signal so powerful it could be picked up on backyard fences and, some said, on the fillings in your teeth. In a college town 200 miles south of Chicago, a high school sophomore listening to a station in Dallas/Fort Worth on “a little crackerbox AM radio” picked up the music that changed his life.
In Better Git It In Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus (University of California Press $34.95), Krin Gabbard recalls what happened the first time he heard Charles Mingus’s ballet suite The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady: “I could not believe my ears. I had no idea that such textures and harmonies were even possible. As Mingus magisterially drove the band with his bass, saxophones howled in the upper register while rumbling brass instruments growled at the lower end. No sooner had I decided that the music was full of menace than peaceful, lyrical harmonies seamlessly emerged from the mix. The tempo would speed up, then slow down, giving the music an exhilarating, nervous edge, as if it were searching for a direction.”
Gabbard calls it his “road to Damascus moment,” except that the road led to New York City: “There was another world out there, and I wanted to be in it.” Before New York there was another midwestern college town roughly 250 miles south of Chicago where in 1975 Gabbard “finally saw Mingus,” live, “with his last great quintet.” On stage in Bloomington, Indiana, Mingus was “a force of nature, a law unto himself.”
Escaping the Fifties
In the same town 15 years earlier, the year the sixties officially began, the album Mingus Ah Hum was a vivid presence in pot-hazed dormitory rooms and rooming houses on and around the campus of Indiana University. In what Van Morrison called “the days before rock and roll,” we were looking for some energy. There had been hints of things to come in Buddy Morrow’s “Night Train” riff, in the mayhem of the “Rock Around the Clock” scene in Blackboard Jungle, in the soundtrack of Man With a Golden Arm, and most powerfully, speaking of radio nights, in the gospel music and rhythm and blues picked up loud and clear after midnight on Nashville’s WLAC. By 1960 what we got high to hear were the musings of Miles Davis and haunting phrasings of Bill Evans, but what we needed, the game-changer, was the first track on Mingus Ah Hum, the one Krin Gabbard uses for his title, the one we could never seem to stop playing because when the divining rod of the phonograph needle landed on Mingus’s big, naked, now-here-we-go, now-here-we-go bass line leading into “Better Git It In Your Soul,” we had all the fuel we needed for the great escape, we were on our way, this was the heartbeat of the night world, New York, and the other land of a brand-new decade, the 1950s fading fast in the rear view mirror of the Mingus mobile like a billboard of Ike and Mamie waving goodbye, Mingus shouting get on get on, spinning the wheel, pounding it, surging us and slowing us, breaking into the open. We never got enough of that high-octane ride; true to the Esso ad of the era, we had a tiger named Mingus in the tank.
Getting It All
Charles Mingus was famous for interrupting live performances of his various bands to call out musicians he thought weren’t performing to his standard. Krin Gabbard saw him in action on one of those quintet gigs in Bloomington. When a young alto player who had been invited to sit in “made the mistake of playing too long, Mingus unceremoniously stopped the band and ordered him to stop doing what way too many other alto saxophonists do — try to play like Charlie Parker. As he was leaving the bandstand, the young man forgot to pick up his saxophone stand. More than a little terrified of Mingus, he never went back for it.”
For readers inclined to look askance at such behavior, Gabbard wisely offers a wealth of evidence for the abiding necessity of Mingus being Mingus. As the title of the book and the song itself suggest, “better git it in your soul” means going to the limit and, as Clark Terry liked to say, “getting it all” every time you were on the stand or in the studio. Gabbard shines a light on a seminal moment by quoting a story Mingus told on himself, how in the late 40s when he and trumpeter Fats Navarro were both members of Lionel Hampton’s big band, Mingus took a bass solo that he felt visibly proud of and Navarro told him, “You played all the right notes. You got the theory right. But you didn’t tell me anything. You didn’t play what you felt. You didn’t say, ‘Hello, Fats I love you.’ “
Hold That Tear!
Mingus also understood the necessity of emotional restraint. After an event honoring Duke Ellington, he embraced the man who had organized it, “pulling him into his three-hundred pounds of girth” and expressing himself with such warmth that the man was brought “to the verge of tears.” When Mingus saw what was about to happen, he said, “with sudden forcefulness: ‘Oh, no. Naw, man. Hold that tear! Call it back. Call that one back. I mean it. Call it back! … Keep that tear. Save it for another time on down the road. You need to keep that one — it’s special. Hold it in reserve!”
You can hear hints of Mingus music in that quote from Gabbard’s introduction. Imagine how it would sound, the mixture of command and compassion, calling someone out for the sake of an emotional moment of truth, a dynamic not unlike the one suggested in Gabbard’s first impression of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady: “menace” followed by “peaceful, lyrical harmonies,” a tempo that “would speed up, then slow down, giving the music an exhilarating, nervous edge.” Here the “nervous edge” was in Mingus’s refusal of the obvious scenario, the too-easy reading that says a-hug-from-Mingus means a tear-in-the-eye. Even then, man to man, no bass in hand, Mingus was the leader, playing the moment to the hilt, saying “Hello I love you” but “hold that tear.”
The poetry of emotional rapport between musicians is in evidence again when Gabbard focuses on a moment during the 56th birthday party that Mingus’s wife Sue threw for him in April 1978, less than a year before he died. Suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Mingus was confined to a wheelchair. One of the people who stopped by to see him was tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. “Although the two never recorded together,” Gabbard notes, “they were friends. Rollins walked over to Mingus and sat down next to his wheelchair. The two sat for at least eight minutes just looking into each other’s eyes. Neither man said a word.”
“At least eight minutes?” That’s how the young pianist quoted in the book remembers it. But who was counting? A single minute of silent communication between two such giants would have been impressive enough.
Master of Ceremonies
In his own “paradoxical, tempestuous, loving, angry, spiritual, defiant, and questing” way (Gabbard’s words), Mingus was always teaching, always leading. His solution to the problem of chattering audiences could be theatrical, like the night when faced with a noisy, inattentive crowd at the Village Vanguard, he stopped playing and handed a newspaper to his pianist and a chess set to the drummer and saxophonist, meanwhile setting up a rabbit-ear TV, which he began watching. Not until the audience shut up and got the message did Mingus resume the set.
When Sue Mingus moved into an apartment on West 87th Street after several “breakups and reconciliations,” Mingus rented a space in the building directly across the street, filled it with all sorts of light bulbs, wires and timing devices, and for weeks staged elaborate light shows for Sue that she described in her memoir Tonight at Noon: “Sometimes they splattered bright, rude, and incessant through the dark. Other times he gently staggered the rhythms of his bulbs. He invented fresh images, sacred and obscene,” and “all the while, beneath the wild activity of his window, the conductor lay concealed in his bunker behind the sill.”
I lived a few blocks east on the same street a year before Mingus staged his light show. Closing my eyes, I can see the brownstones opposite, one of which Billie Holiday occupied during the last years of her life. I’m remembering hot summer days when the hydrant on the street below is turned on and kids, black and white, are dancing in and out of the gushing spray of the fountain. As always, my table model stereo is playing. Probably I’m listening to Sonny Rollins or Horace Silver, not Mingus, though he’s in the house in the form of Mingus Ah Hum and Oh Yeah. The kids are yelling, a siren is wailing over on Central Park West, and the New York Times says this is the most dangerous neighborhood in Manhattan. But think about it, if you were walking toward the river one night a year later and you looked up at just the right moment, you’d see that light show, and even if you didn’t know who was staging it, you’d know in the summer of 1965 that Mingus was everywhere, as he is in mid-May 2016 in Krin Gabbard’s invaluable book.
Princeton Record Exchange Manager Jeff Rusnak, a familiar presence to jazz record buyers and vinyl addicts from around the world, died last week. Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” one of the most eloquent memorials ever, was composed for the legendary Lester Young. Among Jeff’s survivors is his cat Fripp, named no doubt for the legendary guitarist/composer/producer and founding member of King Crimson Robert Fripp, who was influenced early on by — Charles Mingus