Nonfiction vignette from Peter Cherches

An Autograph from Mingus

	Charles Mingus was my first jazz obsession. When I was an adolescent, my older brother Bart worked in the mailroom at Columbia Records and was often able to bring home swag from the label. I glommed onto Mingus Dynasty, the follow-up to the landmark album Mingus Ah Um. I was especially taken with the tracks that went beyond the jazz I was familiar with, the ones that had adventurous compositional structures, “Far Wells Mill Valley” in particular, which combined influences of classical composition with wildly swinging jazz. This wasn’t the somewhat forced and stiff “third-stream” music I’d later learn about, it was a consummate artist putting all his influences and resources at the service of his music.
Mingus’ earliest recordings as a leader tended to lean heavily on his classical compositional proclivities, and then, around 1955, he took a wholly new tack, eschewing written arrangements for a looser approach, where he’d talk his band through arrangements in rehearsal, aiming for greater spontaneity. By the late fifties he’d started bringing both approaches together, along with liberal doses of blues and gospel, forming the style that would characterize his music for the rest of his career, a brilliant tension between the composed and the spontaneous, emphasizing the individual sound characteristics of his sidemen (something he learned from Duke Ellington, one of his mentors), creating a repertoire that drew upon a wide variety of influences to make music that was both eclectic and idiosyncratic.

	After hearing Mingus Dynasty, I started buying other Mingus albums, and then, in 1972, when I was just short of 16, I saw him live, one of my first jazz concerts. It was a New York homecoming for Mingus. He had been only intermittently active since 1965 and had just released his first major-label album in 8 years, back at Columbia after more than a decade, Let My Children Hear Music. The concert at Lincoln Center, like that album, featured a large ensemble playing new compositions as well as many of his career classics. It was also my live introduction to a number of other jazz greats who appeared as guests to help celebrate the return of Mingus, including saxophonists Gene Ammons, Gerry Mulligan, and Lee Konitz. Mingus and Friends in Concert, recorded that evening, is the first of a number of jazz albums to include my applause.

	From then until 1977 I saw Mingus many times, in concert halls and clubs. A Carnegie Hall concert in 1974, featuring a number of Mingus saxophone alumni in a jam session, was released by Atlantic. On Mingus at Carnegie Hall, the discerning listener can hear how much more self-assured my applause had become in just two short years.
I caught Mingus at least one time each at The Five Spot, The Village Vanguard, and The Bottom Line, and numerous times at The Village Gate, where he had two-week or month-long residencies. Most of those times at the Gate it was Mingus with his tightest quintet in years, featuring tenor saxophonist George Adams, trumpeter Jack Walrath, and pianist Don Pullen. During those longer engagements other musicians, like singer Jackie Paris and trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, would often sit in. 

	At The Village Gate, Mingus performed at the upstairs space called The Top of the Gate. Most of the time I’d sit at the bar—which was just outside the main room with the stage, but from which you could still see the band—because there was no cover, just a drink minimum (and back then 18 was the legal drinking age in New York). But one time a friend and I splurged for a table. We had arrived early and got great seats right by the stage. Shortly after we sat down, as Mingus was setting up, tuning his bass with his back to the audience, he let out a big, brassy fart. Next thing we knew, Mingus turned around and graced us with a big shit-eating grin. 

	It’s the closest I ever came to an autograph.