Mingus Wants To Be Alone, Man

My father was a terrific guy and an excellent father but he wasn’t perfect. He loved hockey.

CBC television was showing The Mind of Mingus, a half hour live episode of Daryl Duke’s Quest program featuring one of the supreme geniuses of jazz and beauty, Charles Mingus, playing and talking about his life and music. At the exact same time there was a hockey game starting up on the French CBC channel. My dad and I faced off in front of the TV.

“Let me watch this. You’ll only miss the first half hour of the game. Please.”

We had a terrible argument but he gave in. He let me watch Mingus but not without sitting there making sarcastic comments every twelve seconds. Ten minutes of this and Rocket Richard was firing slapshots around my brain. It was impossible. I exploded out of my seat and shot out of the house slamming the door, rattling every window in the block and scaring the cats.

Hands shoved in my pockets – crazed with fury, I walked all the way downtown, five or six miles – wound up on Stanley Street. There were people, probably all disaffected refugees from the fifties like myself, hanging out up and down the block and especially in front of The Place where Sun Ra, who was living in Montréal at the time, played nightly. I was utterly penniless. Where were my friends? I saw no one I knew but spent the night hanging out on the street breathing the nocturnal Sun Ralian air. I spoke to no one. I knew no one. I was miserable but excited at the same time because I knew the world was around here somewhere waiting to be found but I was still miserable. I was never going back home again ever. I was gone, man. This is it. I’m outta there! Sun Ra save me! I walked up and down that one block of Stanley Street for hours. I talked to no one. Scheming, dreaming. Searching for the gate to the future. I wanted to die. I wanted to live. One in the morning or two in the morning I got on the 65 bus and went home to the dark house – slipped into my room and fell asleep listening to Mort Fega’s jazz show on the radio.

A year later I read a story in Down Beat Magazine. Mingus had a fight with a club owner in New York City and said, “All I want is a place to play my music.” Christ, I thought. How hard could that be? I’ll do it. I’ll build a club and Mingus can play his music, anything he wants, how he wants, as long as he wants.

I’m in a café in Vancouver with Dannie Richmond and Charles Mingus, smoking Players and drinking coffee and waiting for the rest of the band for the trip to the airport. Mingus as usual is being a surly bastard but Dannie and I had become friends, hanging out most nights after the gig. Mingus had done nothing but bitch at me till I said I wasn’t a fucking chauffeur – that my driving them to the airport was strictly a favour for Al, owner of the club where they’d been playing for the past week. That shut him up. When I took another cigarette out of my pack he muttered, “Hunh – Players – that’s what we call pimps in New York.” Only nice thing Mingus said to me. I told Dannie how I came to be involved in jazz. “Years ago when I was just a kid I read an article in Down Beat about Mingus getting into a big hassle with a club owner and saying All I want is a place to play my music and I decided then and there that I’d provide it,” and from the corner of my eye I saw Mingus raise his head slightly and peer over at me from under his raised eyebrow with a look that said, “Hmmm . . . ”

As it turned out it wasn’t me that brought Mingus to Vancouver, despite many lengthy late-night phone conversations with his then manager and wife-to-be Susan Graham whom I knew from her having published a hip New York arts paper, Changes. After we’d starting having these conversations I happend to be in Montréal at the same time Mingus was at a club in Old Montréal. Great, I thought. I’ll talk to him and firm up a Vancouver concert. He sat alone during the break and when I approached his table and asked if i could talk to him he said, “I want to be alone, man.”


Josh, from Florence, KY wrote on December 29, 2008

I find it cool – almost inspiring, if you will – that you saw past Mingus’ rough exterior to still appreciate his amazing music, especially after him acting like that when you were giving him a ride. He is an amazing man, and while I don’t like to make excuses for people no matter who they are or what they do, you can’t help but feel that if anybody had to right to act like that, he did.

(Also, since you are a fan of Miller, did you ever notice how reading Tropic Of Cancer while listening to Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus was like eating caviar with fine vodka?)

One comment »

One Response to “Mingus Wants To Be Alone, Man”

  1. Rakattack

    Great piece Mr. Nation. I really enjoyed the quantum leap from penniless kid to a player in the arts scene of the day. I was born in 1959 and despite loving all sorts of music, to this day, I hadn’t heard about Charles Mingus until Joni Mitchell’s tribute album (I’s a muggin’) then I started to listen to the genius of Mingus. I didn’t know he was a surly SOB but I’ll take your word.

    Anyway, dug your piece.

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