For those of you who weren’t with us in Charlotte on February 22-23, 2019; well, you missed some amazing jazz, as Neil Caine honored Charles Mingus. I was fortunate enough to be the MC for the weekend and in that capacity, tell a few stories related to one of the greatest bass players in the history of jazz. Due to time constraints, I only made passing mention to one of my favorites – one from Mingus’ fascinating autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. I did promise to post the story in full, because it is a classic.
Charles Mingus idolized Duke Ellington from his youth. He always considered the Duke to be one of his greatest musical influences. So it had to be a thrill for Mingus, when, in 1953, he was hired to fill the bass chair in the Ellington Orchestra. It was a short-lived honor, however, as Mingus, who was known for his irascibility, almost as much as his prowess on the bass, almost immediately butted heads with Ellington’s famed valve trombonist, Juan Tizol (the composer of “Caravan”).
The “disagreement” was so heated, that Ellington, who almost never terminated anyone from his band, felt that someone had to go and that someone, was Charles Mingus.
Mingus gives an account of his firing, in his autobiography. Over the ensuing years, some have questioned the veracity of parts, or all, of Mingus’ version of the facts but it is so entertaining and, for those who knew Ellington, so plausible, that it has become the accepted account. Below is that story. Please note that Mingus wrote much of the book in the second person, and we will not make any revisions to his preference:
Tizol wants you to play a solo he’s written where bowing is required. You raise the solo an octave, where the bass isn’t too muddy. He doesn’t like that and he comes to the room under the stage where you’re practicing at intermission and comments that you’re like the rest of the niggers in the band, you can’t read. You ask Juan how he’s different from the other niggers and he states that one of the ways he’s different is that he is white. So you run his ass upstairs. You leave the rehearsal room, proceed toward the stage with your bass and take your place and at the moment Duke brings down the baton for “A-Train” and the curtain of the Apollo Theatre goes up, a yelling, whooping Tizol rushes out and lunges at you with a bolo knife. The rest you remember mostly from Duke’s own words in his dressing room as he changes after the show.
“Now, Charles,” he says, looking amused, putting Cartier links into the cuffs of his beautiful handmade shirt, “you could have forewarned me—you left me out of the act entirely! At least you could have let me cue in a few chords as you ran through that Nijinsky routine. I congratulate you on your performance, but why didn’t you and Juan inform me about the adagio you planned so that we could score it? I must say I never saw a large man so agile—I never saw anybody make such tremendous leaps! The gambado over the piano carrying your bass was colossal. When you exited after that I thought, ‘That man’s really afraid of Juan’s knife and at the speed he’s going he’s probably home in bed by now.’ But no, back you came through the same door with your bass still intact. For a moment I was hopeful you’d decided to sit down and play but instead you slashed Juan’s chair in two with a fire axe! Really, Charles, that’s destructive. Everybody knows Juan has a knife but nobody ever took it seriously—he likes to pull it out and show it to people, you understand. So I’m afraid, Charles—I’ve never fired anybody—you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem, I can cope with that, but you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice, Mingus.”
The charming way he says it, it’s like he’s paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign.
And that’s the way it happened, according to Charles Mingus. And who are we, to doubt him. Thanks again to the fantastic musicians, who made Mingus proud, through their efforts in The Jazz Room last weekend: Annalise Stalls; Will Campbell; Orlando Fiol; Ocie Davis and of course, Neal Caine.
Until the next time, the jazz continues.