1967 turned into 1968. For me, as with so many others my age, that space of 12 months was a lifetime. So picture this: It's less than two months after my 18th birthday, and I show up at college with maybe 20 or so albums under my arm. Cash, Dylan and Morrison, joined by Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, John Lee Hooker, Barry McGuire, Jimi Hendrix, and a smattering of "Greatest Hits" collectionsthe Drifters, Coasters, and Animals. A couple records I'd picked up at a flea market in Spain in 1966: a 45rpm with a Spanish rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound"; the other a flimsy EP by a singer named Antoinejust 'Antoine'billed as sort of a Frenchified Bob Dylan, though I had no idea what the hell he was singing about (I happened to see him again on French TV in 2004he was still just 'Antoine', he looked like an old Tiny Tim, and I was still just as clueless as to what he was talking about). There were a few other albums in my little collection, which I'd probably be embarrassed about if I could remember them now (could I possibly have even been so precociousso ambitious, so audaciousas to bring the young Loretta Lynn, unchaperoned no less, into my dorm room?). Country & western, soul, rock & roll, folk rock and just plain rock, proto-Europop... but nothing vaguely resembling even a distant cousin to jazz, in spite of that eclectic smorgasbordand in spite of the influence of my Uncle Sam and cousin Steven. What I knew about jazz could probably have fit on one side of an old 45rpm record, with room left over for a dozen Top 40 radio commercials.
In contrast, there was my new roommate's LP collection. Dozens of recordshad to be more than a hundred, maybe a couple hundred. Most of them not only musicians I'd never heard ofbut whole kinds of music I'd never heard or heard of before.
The records that stood out the most were those black-and-orange, double covers from "Impulse!"you knew just looking at the packaging that whatever was on the record had to be heavy duty. And clearly, from the frequency that my roommate played them, those "Impulse!" albums were particularly precious to him. John Coltrane. Charles Mingus. Archie Shepp. Oliver Nelson. Who were these guys?
At some point I must have asked him about this strange, new (to me) music because one day, as he was leaving the dorm room, he invited me to spend some time just riffling through the albums to get to know what they were all about. It was more than an invitationit felt like a necessary rite of passage of some kind. And I was more than happy to partake. So, alone in the room, I sat myself down on the floor in front of his shelf-full of albums, and spent the afternoon pulling one after another of these mysterious, serious, ponderous, wondrous Halloween-colored packets off the shelf and playing thema few minutes of Coltrane (here was the passion!), a few of Archie Shepp (the energy!); now some Oliver Nelson (the bigness!). And there were others, not just the weighty "Impulse!" label: there were Blue Note, Verve, Prestige, even some more familiar-looking specimens from Columbia and Atlantic. Eric Dolphy, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie. I was falling into an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbithole of jazz, with no bottom to it and few safe places to restan unending whirlwind of wailing and whispering trumpets; crying, honking saxophones; dancing, pounding pianos; walloping, galloping drums; rumbling, thundering basses; screaming voices; chaotic (or dangerously close to it, it seemed to me) orchestras...
I loved it. There was no turning back now. I was lost, and never wanted to be found. Wandered off the trail and into the forest, embarking on an adventure that hasn't grown tired in the more than three decades sincenor do I expect it to lose an iota of its excitement for decades to come.
All of which is a long setup for the answer to that simple little question: why do I like Mingus?
Maybe the answer is better related by imagining a scene that might have been played out by the musicians performing Mingus' music. Picture this, as you think about which Mingus LP or CD to listen to next:
Some of the players sit, some stand around on the stage, as if carelessly thrown there by an indifferent chessplayer or puppeteer. The pianist is slouched over the keyboard, his spine slack as he glances off to the side at the drinking audience, sleepily scanning the smoky crowdmaybe he's looking for someone he knows, maybe he's looking for tonight's new lady friend, maybe he's thinking about what he ate for lunch. Hornplayers talk quietly, occasionally punctuating the conversation by swinging a trumpet or a saxophone at the end of an extended arm; the drummer watches the pianist's attention wander, and silently wills him back from all distractions beyond the keyboard.