Mingus's Fingus

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Its nothin illegal, man, its just for my finguz. Its like a pain killer, see?
On a chilly November night the fog from the River rolled up Hudson Street rubbing against the big plate glass window of the Half-Note Café on the corner of Spring. Inside, things were warm and busy. Charlie Mingus's sextet was setting up on the bandstand on top of the two-sided bar.

People were finding their tables in the half-dark room. Al, the waiter with the smart- ass New York accent, was delivering drinks and wise cracks to the regulars. Mingus, his body shaped a lot like the bass he played, was wearing a red plaid lumberjack shirt and green corduroy slacks.

He finished tuning up and pulled a small white plastic bottle of what looked like nasal spray out of his pocket and squirted a clear liquid onto the fingers of his right hand. Suddenly a guy who looked a little too much like Sgt. Joe Friday rushed up to the stand. There was an exchange of words, Mingus looking down at the man from the height of the bandstand. "No, no, man, Mingus said earnestly, "It's nothin' illegal, man, it's just for my finguz. It's like a pain killer, see? Mingus handed the guy the plastic bottle, then looked out at the audience which had started to focus on the conversation. There was a ripple of laughter. The Joe Friday guy, apparently a narc assigned to keep an eye specifically on jazz musicians, handed the bottle back to Mingus and vanished. Mingus looked up and smiled broadly at the audience and there was a brief round of applause. He took a small bow, then looked over at Danny Richmond who was cracking up behind the drums. Mingus counted off "Haitian Fight Song and the band took off.

After what had just happened, I couldn't help wondering what Charlie Mingus's fingers must have felt like at the end of a night of three or four sets, each an hour long. Raw meat. But the music the group was playing was so joyful and painless. As the first set progressed I marveled at the ensemble's closeness. It wasn't just that they hit all the right notes of Mingus's very original charts in perfect unison; it was the nuances and subtle intonations that they all seemed to feel in precisely the same way.

Then I remembered reading some place that Mingus had the habit of teaching the band his tunes by singing them to them, rather than just showing them the written charts. That explained a lot, I thought. John Handy was on tenor and Shafi Hadi (Curtis Porter) was on alto and flute. I think hardly a day goes by when I don't wonder what ever happened to these two very talented musicians after they left Mingus. They both played with incredible lyricism and feeling, and orgiinality, their tones absolutely perfect for the singing, moaning Mingus arrangements.

Jimmy Knepper was on trombone, of course, his voice perhaps more than all the others giving this band its individual sound. He didn't sound "mellow like a lot of the section men I'd heard on trombone in big bands. There was a mixture of laughter and pain in Knepper's playing that was never predictable but always just right for the musical moment. (Listen to his plaintive voicings on The Clown. ) Horace Parlan was the piano player. An elegant, easy swinger, he and Mingus and Richmond made up one of the most distinctive rhythm sections I've ever heard. Dynamically, they had a way of rising and falling together like a wave underneath the horns. The feeling they created pushed and pulled, built tension and released it until the accompaniment took on a life of its own.

Mingus and Danny Richmond, especially, seemed to be thinking with the same mind. They doubled tempos, changed time signatures, dropped out and started clapping, surged back and fell to a whisper, as if by mental telepathy. Nor did they fall back on the standard bebop riffs rhythm sections had begun to develop at that time. Their comping style was both new and perfectly crafted to the originality of Mingus's tunes.

Midway into the first set the group played Mingus's wonderfully lyrical and complex "Self-Portrait in Three Colors. As the music progressed, it struck me what a tremendous influence Duke Ellington had had—not only on Mingus, but on just about every musician who'd ever heard the Duke's music. Jazz's foremost composer had opened up the musical landscape so that intrepid improvisers like Charlie Mingus could portray their ideas, however spontaneous, in a more structured, preservable musical context. In other words, Duke showed everyone that it is possible to capture lightening in a bottle.

I can't imagine why a lot more players today aren't recording Mingus's music. Despite his comparative popularity and enduring legacy, the mixture of anger, sadness, joy and humor that come through in his music are perhaps still underappreciated. If he'd been no more than a bassist, he was so good we'd have remembered him for his drive and originality. But it's his compositions, above all, that will endure.


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