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Thinking Mingus

By Published: February 15, 2006

From Country to College

By the time I was 13 or 14, I was listening to Country & Western. The deep-voiced storytellers like Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves—and head-over-adolescent-heels infatuated with the young Loretta Lynn. First concert I ever went to was Johnny Cash at the Bushnell Memorial Auditorium in Hartford, Connecticut. Dragged my younger brother there, who I'm sure was bored out of his mind. It was 1964—so Cash was still fairly new to a lot of us in the decidedly non-C&W Northeast. Fortunately, Hartford had a small, but hardcore C&W audience and could attract a major show with this young star. I can still see Cash on the Bushnell stage, singing "Tennessee Flat-top Box", holding his guitar up and behind his head as he sang (which might explain why Jimi Hendrix's stage antics seemed more familiar than exotic to me, years later)—and, of course, "Walk the Line", "Ring of Fire", "Don't Take Your Guns to Town", and the rest. I continued listening to C&W well into high school, causing my friends to think I was completely whacky because I insisted on keeping the car radio tuned to the local C&W radio station (yes, Hartford had its own, dedicated C&W radio station back then—WEXT). And my suburban classmates certainly didn't have a clue as to what to think of my owning albums with titles like "Johnny Cash at San Quentin" and "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison". (Maybe it was a throwback to the days when I thought my uncle was listening to music from Sing Sing?)

By 1966, I was branching out—Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Barry McGuire ("Eve of Destruction"—classic!), and even looking back toward Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Coasters. Then 1967 happened—and I was spending my minimum-wage paychecks on albums by The Doors, Hendrix, and Bob Dylan. I don't think there was much of a transition—it just happened in a blink. My cousin Steve was in his mid-20s by then, teaching high-school in a small, working-class Connecticut town, known primarily for its stock car race track and its proximity to Gene Pitney's hometown. Again, the older-sibling wisdom: Steve told me that once I went away to college, I'd soon be coming home to tell him I was finally listening to "real" music, instead of that "Dylan stuff".

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" collections—the 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 Antoine—just '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 2004—he 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 precocious—so ambitious, so audacious—as 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 smorgasbord—and 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 records—had to be more than a hundred, maybe a couple hundred. Most of them not only musicians I'd never heard of—but 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 invitation—it 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 them—a 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 rest—an 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 since—nor do I expect it to lose an iota of its excitement for decades to come.

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