Review by Des Cowley. ‘It’s fair to say that Charles Mingus was a giant of a man in every way.’
Mingus Speaks By John F Goodman (University of California Press, h/b)
It’s fair to say that Charles Mingus was a giant of a man in every way. Physically, to be sure, but equally a colossus on bass, and one of greatest jazz composers in the post-Ellington era. Between the mid-fifties and mid-sixties, he released an unbroken string of classic albums for various labels – Atlantic, Columbia, Candid, and Impulse. While he longed to hear his music played by large ensembles, to my mind his greatest recordings often involved no more than five or six players. Somehow, Mingus could make a small group sound like a large one, though it probably helps when you are directing musicians of the calibre of Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Roland Kirk, Jackie McLean, Pepper Adams, and other greats.
John Goodman’s book of interviews with Mingus has had a somewhat checkered history. Goodman carried out the interviews in New York between 1972 and 1974, at a time when he was writing on jazz for Playboy magazine (hard to believe, but Playboy was dead serious about jazz at the time under the editorship of Sheldon Wax). Goodman’s proposed book languished over the years, only now appearing some forty years later. It’s an odd feeling, having Mingus speak to us, as if from beyond the grave, so many years after his death in 1979.
At the time of the interviews, Mingus was just starting to work and record again after a break of some five or six years, during which time he’d barely performed. He’d become disillusioned with the industry, had suffered mental health problems, and even been evicted from his premises. If he was composing today, he’d undoubtedly be the recipient of a McArthur Fellowship genius grant; but back then, America’s pre-eminent black musicians could still find themselves hustling to survive. We just have to think of Bird’s or Monk’s final years. Mingus often found himself on the receiving end of poor treatment by club owners, record producers, and critics, which bubbled over into anger and resentment. Even though he was recording one of his favourite albums Let My Children Hear Music at the time of these interviews, his residual anger habitually comes to the fore.
The importance of Goodman’s book lies in its delivering the relatively unedited voice of Mingus in the final decade of his life. That said, it’s no easy read. If Mingus were a politician, chances are we’d label him as someone who had trouble ‘staying on message’. His mind seems to flit from one topic to another, and his stories ten to have a rambling quality about them. He always had a tendency to embellish a good story – particularly in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog – and these interviews prove no exception. And yet, there are gems scattered throughout. Mingus is surprisingly antagonistic to the music of Ornette Coleman and the avant-garde, given that his own music, as recorded on his European tour with Eric Dolphy in 1964, comfortably flirted with free jazz. He talks about the recording of his new album, and his comeback concert Charles Mingus and Friends at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 1972, making numerous comments on musicians he’s worked with, some respectful and others disparaging. He reminiscences about the clubs he’d played, the recording industry, jazz critics, and women. Throughout these interviews Mingus comes across alternatively as funny, cantankerous, angry, loving or mean, sometimes within the space of a few pages. But he’s clearly carrying a lot of hurt within him.
Aside from his conversations with Mingus, Goodman also carried out interviews with Sy Johnson, who worked as an arranger for Mingus; with Teo Macero, who recorded Mingus for Columbia records; with musicians Paul Jeffrey and Bobby Jones; with jazz critic Dan Morgenstern; with promoter George Wein; with Village Vanguard founder Max Gordon; and with Mingus’s wife Sue. I have to admit to finding some of these interviews, interspersed throughout Goodman’s book, more interesting to read than Mingus’s own words, given they provide a more intense focus on the music in comparison to Mingus’s verbal riffing. In particular, these additional interviews shed real light on Mingus’s compositional methods, his way of working with musicians, and approaches to recording his music.
Goodman’s book is an essential source on Mingus, to put alongside previous books by Gene Santoro, Brian Priestley, and Sue Mingus. What comes through most of all is Mingus’s wish that jazz, and his own compositions, be accepted as an art form. It is a pity that the economic realities of jazz in the post-war decades rarely allowed Mingus to record his music at a standard he heard in his own head. And yet, despite this, he left us with a remarkable series of masterpieces, many of which still sound as fresh and modern today as when they were first recorded. Even a decade after his death, the rediscovered score of his extended work Epitaph was finally performed by a thirty piece orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller. Mingus had long ago given up on it ever seeing the light of day, thus naming it for his tombstone.
Mingus’s music is so rich and complex; but it’s fair to say he never lost touch with the blues and church music he heard as a child. His arranger, Sy Johnson, sums it up beautifully, in Goodman’s book, when he states: “his music is just full of earth and it’s always got its feet in the dirt. I mean, it’s jazz, it has human cries in it, and it’s full of humanity”.