“Don’t take me for no avant-garde, ready-born doctor.”

from Ch. 2, The Avant-Garde, Tradition and Structure

America gave us a new thing, it’s called avant-garde, which nobody has ever explained, for Negroes. It’s not music, because in the olden days a guy had to play his solo back. I met one of these guys and said, “Can you play this off the record?”

“Of course not, man, I don’t want to.”

I said, “What if I wrote it down, could you play it?”

He said, “You couldn’t write it.” That’s bullshit. I can write it but he can’t play it ‘cause he doesn’t know what he played.

And I’m tired of these people fooling our people. Because if you’re going to be a physician or a finished artist in anything, like a surgeon, then you got to be able to retrace your steps and do it anytime you want to go forward, be more advanced. And if I’m a surgeon, am I going to cut you open “by heart,” free-form it, you know?

We’re on an island and you say, “Look, man, use a book.”

“No, I don’t need no book, I’ll just ad lib it.”

“Well, look, Mingus, we’re out here by ourselves, it’s dangerous, and I don’t want you to make no mistakes, so just look in the book.”

“I can’t read, man, I don’t read no music, but I’m going to cut you open and take out your appendix ‘cause it’s bursting.”

Well, you’re gonna hope that, since I’m the only guy there, I will look in the book. Don’t take me for no avant-garde, ready-born doctor. Don’t let nobody fool me and tell me that they’re avant-garde, don’t need to study and make the black kids think they don’t need to learn how to read to play flute, oboe, French horn and all the instruments.

Let these people know that there gonna be openings in all symphonies everywhere in the world for them and that jazz is just one little stupid language hanging out there as a sign of unfair employment. Jazz means “nigger”: If you can’t get a job in a symphony you can get a little job over here where you get a lot of write-ups and no money. But you’ll never get in the symphony. Maybe in all America we’ll hire one of you guys for the Philharmonic, one for the Jersey Symphony. We’ll let these two be a sign that we found two good ones.

Yet the white man can go on forever saying, “Well, we’ve got Jascha Heifitz . . . .” Sure, but we may get one of them if you free the kids, I mean little babies, let them grow up and think there’s a place for them. Wouldn’t you feel good to think that someday we’d have another Jascha Heifitz, regardless of what color he was? It don’t have to be Isaac Stern or Yehudi Menhuin. They don’t always have to be Jews, right? It’s kind of weird they all Jews [laughs]. 

“I’ve heard nothing better than a Steinway yet”

from Ch. 1, Introduction

I think it’s time that good musicians get rid of electric instruments, because a good musician can’t play an electric instrument; it plays you. For instance, if you want to bend a note, you’ve got to push a button to bend it. You can’t control the dynamics. You play soft-loud with the bow on a violin, but it all comes out the same volume on the electric machine. You’ve got to have another hand to turn it down soft and low. So it’s not meant for real music, it’s meant for someone who is not sincere about playing how he feels.

. . . I’ve heard nothing better than a Steinway yet, all over the world. I’ve heard nothing better than a violin. Electric music is electric music. If a guy uses this music, then he’s not a serious musician. I mean, they’re not gonna make a better piano, man.

Electronics are doing the same thing in music as elsewhere: They’re replacing people. Push a button, it sounds like an oboe, but not a good oboe player; another button, sounds like a French horn. The guy who plays this stuff is a nigger because he can’t afford to get a violin player or a French horn or oboe player. He might like to have the oboe—I would—but will go to the commercial extreme because it’s popular to use electric instruments.

And the great men like Charlie Parker and men who played legitimate instruments would laugh at these guys because they’re not in it for the love of music but because they think they’re going to make a lot of money—like Miles Davis did. Miles didn’t even need to make any money; he was already rich, or his daddy was rich, so I’m not even sure if Miles made that much money, I just assume he did in music. But I know he’s an electronic man, and eventually somebody like me is going to make him come back and start playing again, put that bullshit down and play his horn. He’s gonna have to because [otherwise] he’ll be laughed out. Because you can get a little kid to push a button, and with these machines they got now, it’ll sound like they’re right.

I want to be able to go to a hall with no mikes and hear the guy play his cello like Janos Starker. If he can’t play it, send him home. Give him a rock and roll instrument and let him play. But don’t tell me he’s no musician, don’t put a musician label on him. Say he’s an electric player, find something else to call him.


on Eric Dolphy: “I never heard nothing like that,
I thought he was crazy, man.”

from Ch. 6, Musicians: Reminiscing in Tempo

When I lived in California, there was a jazz workshop band that Lloyd Reese used to run: Dexter Gordon, Ernie Royal and some very famous guys of the day in it, Buddy Collette and others, [James] Nelson. Anyway, there was always a kid sitting on the steps when we’d come down from rehearsal. He never came in, he had a lump on his head. Good, full of very nervous energy, very enthusiastic about how we all were studying, and saying that some day he’d be with us. Then one day I saw this same guy cutting Lloyd Reese’s hedges and cutting the grass; I realized he was working his way through school by taking care of the place.

Well, I never got to play with him in California, never heard him in California. I heard some records of his on which he sounded like Charlie Parker. He was on a Charlie Parker kick but went to a style of his own later on. In the ‘60s Chico Hamilton got very popular and Buddy Collette had been doing a lot of recording with him, but Chico came to town, came to Birdland, with Eric Dolphy. Anyway, Eric sounded about the same, he didn’t play “out.” So I hired him, and he left Chico’s band and we went to work in the Showplace.

All of a sudden, I never heard nothing like that, I thought he was crazy, man, because he wasn’t playing anything like I heard him play before. One thing I never do is tell a guy how to solo, I never tell him a solo is wrong, because I don’t get blamed for solos. If a guy plays bad as hell, if he fools the public, it doesn’t hurt my band, even if I don’t like it.

So, Eric was always at my house, always somewhere, looking at my old music—otherwise we would have had just an ordinary quartet—and he found some music I’d written in California, one of the things was called “What Love” and “All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.”

He said, “Why don’t we play things like this, Mingus?”

I say, “That’s written for Buddy Collette, you guys can’t play it.”

He says, “I can’t play it as good as Buddy, but I’ll take it home and study it and I’ll play it.”

So he took the music out of the book and began to practice on it. Out of those two tunes a whole style came. That was probably the greatest band I ever had. And Eric to me was just . . . out. And something else: I had stopped soloing, and Eric turned around to me one night and said, “Why don’t you play solos, you can play.”

“Well, I want the kids to play.”

“Man, you ought to play, this is your band.”

So I started playing solos again, and got pretty good again. Got so very famous-good that—what’s that name, the white bass player?—Scott LaFaro—used to come by every night, lay back in a chair and listen. Couldn’t tell his playing from my playing sometimes.

You know, a person never knows his own temperament, but I don’t remember ever doing anything to hurt Eric because Eric never cursed or used loud boisterous language, never got angry. This is in my band, I don’t know what happened in Chico [Hamilton]’s band. All he did was blow his horn, he took it all out on his horn, a very quiet person. Got the release on his horn and shut up otherwise. The change in his music was this: If Ornette Coleman can make it, as less of a player, then I guess Eric said, “I might as well do some of the things I want to do and stop playing Charlie Parker.” That’s a simple way to put it.

Sy Johnson commentary on the Village Vanguard band, spring 1972

from Ch. 8, The Clubs and the Mafia

The band was just singing. They had so much adrenaline going. And then the following week they lost some of that energy, and then we started rehearsing, and we went into a rehearsal problem because Mingus wasn’t able to pay people to come down and rehearse every week before the gig.

So most of the people were willing to come down and rehearse free, but there were some key players who bitched about not getting paid for rehearsals, and eventually the rehearsals got to be a half-hour or three-quarters of an hour long. The rehearsal would be called for 7:00 o’clock and by 8:15 everybody would start to play. Then some people might not even show up, and it got to the point where the band went back to the situation where it was a workshop. There were things that would sound brilliant, and Mingus would stop the band and yell at people and start things over again.

They still had, under the circumstances, some very, very exciting nights, some nights when this thing would come alive and sound so fantastic. There were nights when Mingus was getting mad at people, getting people whose egos needed babying somewhat and needed reassuring, and he was up there badgering and bullying them, and they would get all unsettled, and it was very difficult.

That’s always going to be a problem with Mingus. Part of the volatility problem is that he’s not going to make it easy for anybody. He claims that when things are going well he’s happy. He is, I’ve seen it demonstrated. That Monday night at the Vanguard I’ve never seen him so expansive. He was beaming—making long announcements to people, smiling at the band, carrying on. He was so elated he was waving to me all the time. He was beside himself.

So he does like it when things go well, but he also doesn’t like to leave well enough alone. You know he’s going to get in and muddy things up, keep everybody off their chair a little bit. He changes things spontaneously. He will suddenly decide he wants it to go another place, and he’s like yelling, trying to get 20 guys who have the momentum, in one respect, not unlike a cement mixer. It just gets going in a certain direction, and to stop or change direction is not easy. So he want to get everybody to veer off and go in another direction with a piece, and it unsettles people.

But that’s part of his creative process. And now that he’s got the juices going, it’s an awesome thing to see.