THE STORY

What is this thing called Mingus? Some have heard the name, a few know his music and maybe a story or two. But most people don’t know who he really was or how he came to be one of the master players and composers in jazz.

MINGUS SPEAKS is a book of extended interviews which allowed the man to explain himself. He was assisted by me, the interviewer, and by a number of close associates who commented on aspects of his life, behavior and music.

We did the interviews in 1972 and 1974, five years before Mingus died. It was a contentious and wonderful period in his life and for his music. Read some of the exceprts and poke around on this site to get the flavor of the real Mingus.

 

The story behind Mingus Speaks

Most interviewers end up asking the wrong questions, so here I wrote my own and interviewed myself. Yes, that may be cheating, but life is sometimes better when you can arrange it.

Interviewer: Well, how did you get to this guy? He was supposed to be nasty and difficult and had no use for white people.

JG: A lot of what Mingus did encouraged the media to resort to stereotypes to explain it. I “got to him” by avoiding these, by talking straight, and by having grown up with jazz. I was also a music writer at the time for Playboy, and Mingus thought that was great. It gave him an excuse to talk a lot about sex.

Interviewer: How did you meet?

JG: Mingus had a long period in the late ‘60s where he didn’t play any music, was depressed and alone, had basically left the jazz scene. The great years of the ‘50s were behind him. He was evicted, twice, broke and angry at the world.

But by 1971 he had gotten himself together and begun to play again. He made one of his finest records, Let My Children Hear Music, and finally got his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, published to some acclaim.

There was talk of a New York concert which was to be a sort of comeback, and I got the magazine to let me cover it and do a review. It turned out in fact to be a big-deal event, and the musical community virtually welcomed Mingus back from the dead.

That was in February 1972, and we met backstage and talked about a feature article for Playboy and, subsequently, doing a book.

Interviewer: So this book is a series of interviews with Mingus? That sounds kind of boring.

JG: Well, read it first and then tell me what you think. Mingus Speaks also includes commentary by ten friends, musicians and associates on many aspects of Mingus and their experiences with him. I use their insights plus comments of my own to organize and punctuate the talks that Mingus and I had.

And the material is organized and presented in chapters that reflect how Mingus thought about the world—at least as he revealed it to me.

Interviewer: What kinds of things did he talk about?

JG: How he saw himself as composer and performer, how he saw his peers and predecessors, how he created his extraordinary music, how he looked at race. A lot of what he said has never been revealed before, and readers will find some reshaping of the Mingus legends.

Interviewer: What took you so long to write the book?

JG: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” My sister had a refrigerator magnet that said that.

Interviewer: How did you do the interviews?

JG: We sat in bars and restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, in his apartment and Sue’s. I did over 20 hours of tape. The transcription was difficult because Mingus spoke a rapid-fire, slurred speech that hopped around a lot from topic to topic. It took a lot of editing.

Interviewer: So you’re a kind of wannabe Studs Terkel?

JG: Yeah, I suppose. I grew up listening to and reading Studs in Chicago.