Last December, when I was writing about a limited edition box set from Mosaic Records collecting recordings of five performances organized by Charles Mingus, which were originally released on his own Jazz Workshop label, I felt it was important to begin by clearing the deck with recognition of Mingus’ “difficult” personality. Working with Mingus was a risky proposition. Almost everyone who performed with him would inevitably have to endure an attack. Under the best of circumstances, the attack would be verbal; but, all too often, it would turn violently physical.
Nevertheless, many who bore the brunt of such abuse would still return. There was so much creative imagination in what he did that those who were most serious about performing jazz could not turn down opportunities to work with him. The very name of his label, “Jazz Workshop,” was what Mingus used to call the ensembles he led; and, as I observed about the Mosaic recording, many of the participants called his workshops the equivalent of a “university” for jazz.
Mingus could be just as difficult, if not as overtly violent, with those who would come to listen. He disliked playing in clubs, because he refused to compete with the distractions of casual conversations over drinks being ordered and served. There is a Candid recording of such a gig that begins with Mingus telling his audience that services for food and drink would not take place while the musicians were performing; and the demand of so many to listen to what Mingus was doing was great enough that he could get away with making such an ultimatum.
One could appreciate the source of that demand. At a time when there was an unpleasant trend to try to intellectualize jazz practices, whether past traditions of bebop, the emergence of free jazz, or the third stream flirtation with atonality, many found Mingus’ combination of an intense commitment to craft with both coarse rhetoric and considerable political contentiousness just the right gust of wind to clear away the cerebral cobwebs. I also suspect that there were many like myself, who kept listening to Mingus in the hope that eventually it would all begin to make sense. (Personal experience had taught me that such a strategy worked for listening to Elliott Carter.)
Over 34 years have elapsed since Mingus died on January 5, 1979. The man is now as much of an icon of jazz history as Duke Ellington (whom he greatly admired) is. There are at least three bands, the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty, and the Mingus Orchestra, committed to keeping his music in the repertoire and, more often than not, playing it better than it had been performed in his lifetime. For all that attention, however, much of the man’s music, as well as the man himself, remain enigmatic. As a result, many of us welcome access to any further information that might help us to get our minds around both the music and its creator’s problematic personality.
This past Monday the University of California Press released Mingus Speaks. The book was prepared by John F. Goodman, who used to write about Mingus in Playboy and reviewed for that magazine the historic Mingus and Friends concert at Philharmonic Hall (as it was then called) in the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts in New York, which took place on February 4, 1972. This was billed as a “comeback” concert since took place after Mingus had dropped out of the performance scene for about ten years to deal with both physical and mental illness.
The following June 3 Goodman began a series of interviews with Mingus, all of which were recorded. He then followed up on the June 1972 interviews with another series in March of 1974. The ultimate result was twenty hours of recorded material.
Note the extremely neutral choice of words for that last sentence. Mingus was just as erratic over the course of these interviews as he was in any other situations; and Goodman was well aware that he could not take any assertion as “ground truth,” just because it came out of Mingus’ mouth. As a result, Mingus Speaks has emerged as an almost Talmudic exercise in the interplay of source text and commentary. When Mingus tells a story about someone else, Goodman has tried to interview that third party for a “second opinion.” Reading this book is thus a bit like watching Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, with Goodman playing the role of the monk and the end of the film who accepts the fact that no one ever tells the whole truth all the time.
The result is that the reader comes away with an awareness that the Mingus personality was one defined by both signal and noise. It almost seems that Mingus was so defensive about “myself when I am real” (the title of the first track on the Impulse! Records Mingus Plays Piano release) that he would start injecting noise whenever he felt too much signal was taking over the message. As a result the book is neither memoir nor biography. Instead, one might call it a document of forensic evidence in which much of that evidence is revealed through multiple interpretations.
With that disclaimer I have to say that it has been quite some time since I have read a book with quite so much enthusiasm as this one stimulated. Indeed, this is the first time in a long time that strangers have come up to me to ask what I was reading about Mingus. That, in itself, is a sign of just how much impact he continues to have on people who take their jazz listening seriously. I have no doubt that those people will relish this book as much as I did.
On the other hand, I am not sure that those who know little about Mingus will respond to this book with so much enthusiasm. At the very least one should have an initial taste for how Mingus made his music, and that aforementioned Mosaic collection would not be a bad place to start. (My own start came with the also aforementioned Candid recording.) Having acquired a taste for the music, one can then turn to the biographical summary on his Wikipedia page. That combination of listening and reading experience should provide preparation for then negotiating the tangled web of how Mingus expressed himself in words.