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The Mingus Excerpt

Dr. Judith Schlesinger BY

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From their bed they heard the sound of their piano starting and restarting, a haunting melody they did not recognize. At length they fell asleep.
"The Mingus Excerpt" shows a sweet side of Charles Mingus that few people saw or could imagine. After all, his nickname was "The Angry Man of Jazz," and most biographical material supports that designation in one way or other. But for all his bluster and bombast, there was also generosity and kindness.

This story describes his unlikely friendship with Steve Reichman, a young Jewish kid from the suburbs who eventually committed suicide in Morocco, at the age of 19. His parents' frantic need to understand what happened led to Mingus's surprise gift for the memorial, and ultimately to the creation of the famous documentary, Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, by Steve's older brother, Thomas Reichman. What happened to the gifted Tommy is a question that still lingers in some old AAJ forums; the answer is part of this story too.

"The Mingus Excerpt" was written by my friend Marge Chilcoat, writer, relative of the Reichmans, and witness to these events in the early 1960s. The Mingus pages were part of her unpublished memoir; she was happy to donate them for posting at AAJ. Unfortunately, they stayed in a drawer for years, as such things often do.

Today, Marge is 90 and sadly, her own brilliant mind has lost its way—she no longer remembers writing a memoir, and is unlikely to fully appreciate having an international byline. Fortunately her daughter, Laura Rogers, has renewed my permission to share the story, since I believe it's a tale that needs to be told.

First: some historical context.

The legendary bassist/composer/bandleader Charles Mingus (1922-1979) was one of the towering figures in 20th century jazz. Mingus recorded over 100 albums and received numerous honors, including a 1971 Guggenheim Fellowship for Composition, a Grammy award for lifetime achievement, and a postage stamp in his honor (the last two after his death). Mingus is responsible for at least two standards: "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," his elegy for saxophonist Lester Young), and "Fables of Faubus," a satirical tune inspired by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who defied the U.S. Supreme Court's order to desegregate American schools.

Mingus's magnum opus, "Epitaph," was discovered after his death, when his papers were being catalogued. Favorably compared to Duke Ellington's groundbreaking "Black, Brown, and Beige," the powerful two-hour "Epitaph" was reassembled from fragments and performed in 1989 at New York's Lincoln Center, with archivist Gunther Schuller conducting a 30-piece orchestra that reads like a "Who's Who" of jazz.

Mingus was also the only person Ellington ever fired, which fits in with the dark side of his reputation. In fact, it's virtually impossible to read anything about him without encountering words like "fiery," "uncompromising," "intimidating," "mentally ill" and even "violent." He was as famous for his temper as he was for his groundbreaking contributions to the music. What follows provides just a tiny insight into his enormous complexity.

—Dr. Judith Schlesinger

The Mingus Excerpt by Marge Chilcoat

Then, in the third month of his journey, his parents heard about him. They heard it from the American Embassy in Morocco. Stevie's body, along with a few items of worn clothing and a dog-eared notebook, had been found in a small rented room there. The body could not be returned until the end of some religious period or other, and until after investigation by local authorities to determine that it was indeed a suicide.

The notebooks told the story, along with some corroboration from his roommate, with whom he had corresponded erratically and to whom the reason for the trip was no secret.

Stevie, it turned out, had during his Greenwich Village period fallen quite adolescently in love with a girl a few years older than he who had been part of a group of friends. She had appeared to return his interest, but in retrospect only to make her longstanding boyfriend jealous. Her ploy worked, and the boyfriend swooped her away to Paris. Stevie, in his innocence, thought he could win her back if only he could see her.

Someone had given him the address of a relative in Paris, allowing him to slowly track down the hideaway she shared with her abductor. He acquired somehow a motorbike, and with it he posted himself daily by the front door of her apartment, waiting to catch her alone one day. At last he did.

"Oh my God," she said. "Can't I ever get away from you?"

The impact on the lovelorn boy was dramatic, and unhinging. He left Europe for the mysterious East where, his journals show, he expected to find the meaning of life from some wise guru. That is where the written trail ends.

His mother Stella reacted wildly. She could or would not accept the idea of suicide, insisting that he had been killed on his motorcycle. She spent the next three months in an obsessional, single-minded effort to uncover the last—the hidden-to-her years—of her baby's life, and the planning of a memorial service that would top even the biggest and best of the Reichman family reunions—a service that haunts me to this very day, almost 20 years later.

Stella insisted that Tommy, her older son, find out from Stevie's friends how he had spent his time in the Village. Tommy learned that his brother's one consuming passion was a famous bassist named Charlie Mingus, who with his group played nightly at a local café called The Five Spot.

Stevie went there night after night, staying behind as the players folded their chairs and put the covers on their instruments. It was his habit then to chat with Mingus, an acknowledged people's philosopher, whose rambling thoughts must have somehow connected with those of the searching boy.

Hearing about Mingus, Stella fixated on the idea of talking to him himself, and sent Tommy to the Five Spot with an invitation to dinner at her velvet-draped nouveau apartment. Tommy asked Mingus about his brother.

"I never heard of him, white boy," Mingus said dismissively.

"Go again," said Stella. "Here, take this picture of Stevie."

Seeing the picture the next night, Mingus wearily acknowledged remembering Stevie. "I didn't know his name. I called him Whitey because he was so blond. Good kid. Smart. How's he doing?"

Tommy told him. The face was expressionless. Could he meet Stevie's parents? It would mean so much to his mother.

"No. I got no time for that."

Stella said try again. Leave her card. He tried once more, left the card, and gave up. So, it seemed, did Stella.

A few weeks later, the maid took a telephone message. "A Mr. Mingus says he come for dinner tomorrow night at seven," she told Stella.

Stella flew into a whirlwind of activity: minor redecorating, cleaning, visiting the city's premier gourmet shops, buying herself a new low-cut outfit. Finally all was ready, and promptly at seven the doorman called, no doubt puzzled at this unusual visitor, to announce Mingus.

The dinner party was not a success. Mingus said little. They showed him the unsettling, surreal poetry the boy had written since early childhood, and talked about his problems. Mingus was unemotional.

Stella and Henry went into the bedroom to whisper. "What do we do?" Stella asked.

"Say goodnight and go to bed," suggested Henry, a man in touch with reality.

They made their excuses (early appointments for the morning, etc.) and backed away, but Mingus continued to sit. "Make yourself at home, leave whenever you like," invited Henry.

From their bed they heard the sound of their piano starting and restarting, a haunting melody they did not recognize. At length they fell asleep.

The next morning there were several pages of hand-written music on the piano stand. Stevie was the only pianist in the family, so they couldn't tell what it sounded like, but the title was "Ode to Steven."

Stella was determined to have Mingus play it at the memorial service she was in the throes of devising. She was already meeting with impediments. None of the rabbis she solicited would agree to conduct a service in which God was not to be mentioned.

"I no longer believe in a God who could do this thing to me," she told each one. Sorry, they all told her. God is sort of our direct business.

Mingus was equally recalcitrant when she called to invite him to play the Ode. "I get a lot of money when I perform."

"That's all right. We will pay you a lot of money."

"I don't do this kind of performing, even for a lot of money."

In the end he ceded. He would play, with his pianist, but only out of sight of the mourners, and anonymously. They could say only that friends of Steven would play a piece they composed for the occasion.

On the appointed day, I attended the service with my brother. The rabbi spoke first, and he did not mention his employer. Once again Stella had triumphed. Following him was Tommy, who spoke candidly and articulately about his lifelong jealousy and resentment of his much-too bright and handsome younger brother.

When he finished, he introduced the next speaker, a man for whom Stevie had worked summers before boarding school, helping out in the electric train business the man owned for awhile. The man was Roy Cohn, the infamous lawyer who had represented the equally infamous Senator McCarthy, among others. Mr. Cohn spoke at length about how fortunate the young boy had been to have had an opportunity to work at Lionel under the tutelage of a person such as himself.

The rabbi returned to tell us that would hear an "Ode to Steven" composed and played by friends. From behind the empty lectern, with its players hidden by a curtain, came possibly the most beautiful music I have ever heard—surely the most haunting. I looked at the Reichmans up front. Some of them looked even more puzzled than they had up to now; most of them wept quietly. When the music stopped, there was a long hush. Then it was over.

Stella continued to live her life in denial. If ever she gave way, it was never when I was there, but I saw her seldom. She involved herself wholeheartedly in the fashion business, and in Tommy, who went on to become a promising filmmaker.

The first film he made after graduating from NYU was a profile of Mingus, considered a masterpiece to this day, long after Mingus's death. And long after Tommy's. Less than 10 years after Stevie's suicide, Tommy at 30 put a gun to his own head.

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