Town Hall Train Wreck

Why Charles Mingus Came to Grief in 1962

Charles Mingus, Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island, 1971
photograph by David Gahr

In mid 1962, Charles Mingus made a deal with United Artists. He wanted to lead a big band, but he wanted to record it live, before an audience. That would take his Workshop shows, those exploratory onstage rehearsals that mixed open-ended materials and personalities unpredictably, one step further. People could see a recorded document being made in real time.

It was a daring plan. Even straightforward live albums were still rare.

His first deadline was November 15, then it got moved to October 12. He lost five weeks, thanks to UA. He was overwhelmed with ideas, but he didn't have any time. Anyway, musicians hated to play what he wrote down. Could he run a big band like his loose-limbed repertory Jazz Workshop?

Onstage, the Workshop started to grow. Pepper Adams was in, and Julian Priester signed on, and he called Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer back. He was trying different combinations of Workshop alumni. They could all create the chemistry he needed to catalyze, and he'd plug the holes with good session sight-readers.

He was sifting through his boxes of yellowing music.

That Labor Day, Jimmy Knepper was working in a parade band when he stopped by Mingus's Fifth Avenue apartment. He was hired back: The boss wanted him to copy some music for his upcoming concert recording.

Almost daily for the next six weeks, Knepper shuttled by bus, ferry, and train two hours each way between his new Staten Island house and Mingus's Uptown apartment to pick up and drop off sheet music. He worked on his new dining room table, on the ferry, and on the subway using a clipboard. That way he kept pace with what Mingus and his arrangers were writing.

Gargantua was volatile. He was surrounded by music paper, piles of it, some yellow and cracked. He wasn't writing new stuff as much as researching his past. He couldn't get music together fast enough, so he hired Gene Roland and a couple of other arrangers. They orchestrated his ideas and sketches for the growing orchestra.

It was like what Hollywood film composers did.

Jerome Richardson would be concertmaster. Buddy Collette and Britt Woodman, Eddie Bert and Teddy Charles, Zoot Sims and Booker Ervin, Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Jaki Byard, Richard Williams and Snooky Young and Clark Terry, Milt Hinton on bass with him, so he could solo and conduct more freely—many people from his past would play their parts in this magnum opus, this living orchestral theater.

His uncle Fess Williams would open the second half, putting Mingus's music into historical perspective, linking it to the early days of jazz. The music and the players would be an onstage, documented summary of his life.

Later, he would try to rework some of the pieces and the overarching idea, and call it Epitaph.

Columbus Day loomed nearer. Mingus rehearsed Workshop alumni, the core for the big orchestra, in his apartment and on New York stages like Birdland. For the first week of October he took them to Pep's Showbar in Philadelphia, and picked up $1750 for the band.

He wanted the musicians to be ready to leave the music when he led them out of the scores. A lot of the material was old, and written in his forbidding Beethoven-esque manner. The musicians looked at it, nonplussed. They only had three full rehearsals. How were they supposed to navigate it?

He didn't care about what musicians considered the natural ranges and limits of their particular instruments. He pushed them on paper the same way he pushed them with his voice: play THIS! Going for what he wanted and missing it was better than playing it safe.

He fell further behind his workload each day, each hour. He was a slow writer and reader.

He told The New York Times he was thinking about leaving the country permanently. The U.S. was no place for a black jazz musician. Europe was better and fairer.

For the first time, he asked Dr. Edmund Pollock, the clinical psychologist with whom Mingus had an informal relationship, to come over to his apartment. The arrangers were holding up his music, he complained, and he was losing his greatest opportunity. He wept.

Judy cooked endless chicken as musicians trooped in and out. Mingus was up all night playing the piano, so she tried to keep his daughter Carolyn out of the way during the day.

He argued with the record company and the union about bringing Buddy Collette in from Los Angeles. "No Buddy, no record," he yelled. Finally Collette got his round-trip ticket.

By the second week of October, dozens of scores for pieces and parts of pieces were pouring in, and Knepper was coordinating a four-man copying service to keep up with the torrent of diverse music from a crew of arrangers working from old complex arrangements or a single polytonal chord.

The night before the show, Mingus scheduled a midnight rehearsal, the band's second, in Town Hall's basement. It was more new music. Workshop veterans had played most of it in other forms, but the staggering amount and the band's sheer size changed everything.

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