Town Hall Train Wreck

Why Charles Mingus Came to Grief in 1962

By the time Collette arrived at the apartment the day before the concert, Mingus had finally exploded. He'd called Knepper at the copyists' office, and when the trombonist got to his apartment he said, "Jim, you've gotta help me. I want you to write some backgrounds for solos." Knepper said, "This is your music. You should write the backgrounds."

The Bull saw red. He turned and slapped Knepper in the mouth, and broke a cap and its tooth stub. Knepper fell down and waited out the storm. Mingus raged at the white faggot and traitor, brandished a kitchen chair. He was still yelling when Knepper finally got up and walked out, but he didn't try to stop him.

When Collette and Britt Woodman saw Mingus at the apartment before the midnight rehearsal, he was shooting off emotional sparks. He told them Knepper called him a nigger and refused to help him.

The midnight rehearsal was a mess. Mingus sang new backing riffs, tried to get soloists to interact, but he tightened the musicians up even more. He couldn't understand why they couldn't follow him, see how important this was. The music was his life.

Collette, the longtime Hollywood studio veteran, understood his pal was compounding the musicians' problems with the demanding, unfinished scores. Mingus needed these people more than they needed him. Buddy told him, "They have to want to play your music."

Knepper, his mouth closed so air wouldn't hit his exposed nerve and ripple it with pain, dropped off his last copying at the rehearsals.

That afternoon, they tried one last rehearsal. The music still wasn't finished. Jerome Richardson told them all to wear tuxedos that night.

For the performance at Town Hall, Mingus showed up in dungarees and a T-shirt and sneakers, and almost immediately started yelling at George Wein backstage. The promoter warned him about time limits and costs, and said the orchestra couldn't do endless stops and starts and retakes. Union charges went into overtime at 11 p.m.

Thirty pieces filled the stage, which was bristling with microphones as technicians scurried around and the audience filled the house.

Mingus stormed onstage, announcing, "George Wein didn't give us enough time to rehearse." He'd been "mousetrapped" into the show, and anyone who didn't like what he was doing could get their money back. Then he stormed off to change.

The audience expected him to be Mingus, so most of them just shrugged.

Wein had nothing to do with rehearsal time or budgets. Art Talmadge, UA's head, told him to keep the show tight: The night was costing $35,000.

Melba Liston, a fine composer-arranger and another Watts-bred musician, had tables set up on the side of the stage, to oversee copyists still working. They'd run to pass out music during the show.

Mingus came back out in a tuxedo and immediately took his coat off.

The evening rapidly became a musical train wreck. As the music piled up, and the orchestra fell further behind the program, the musicians got more and more frustrated and Mingus got more volatile. He was desperately trying to forge them into a small and supple Workshop, confronting them with music that was dense and often brand-new to them. The audience was increasingly bewildered.

Before the intermission, Mingus called for Dr. Pollock, who came backstage during the break. Mingus was inconsolable, crying and raging.

Never before could anyone in jazz remember promoter-agent Joe Glaser going onstage and offering an audience their money back. That Columbus Day, he did.

By intermission, the 1500-seat venue was emptying out. Mounted police arrived to handle the fracas at the box office, then Mingus's uncle Fess Williams played.

When the stagehands dropped the curtain at the show's 11 p.m. overtime deadline, the band, sparked by Clark Terry's trumpet, ironically ushered out the stragglers with Ellington's "In a Mellotone." Eddie Bert had left his jacket on, to make a quick escape. He finished the Duke tune with a sarcastic waahhh from his plunger mute that's on the recording Town Hall Concert.

Back at Britt Woodman's house with Buddy Collette, Mingus was furious and hurt while they cooked and ate. Collette had helped him assemble session players, he complained, and he blamed Buddy for their lackluster performances. "You said they could play anything," he yelled. Buddy repeated that he had to make musicians want to play his music instead of bullying them into it. Mingus sneered that everyone he grew up with had given up trying to do their own music. He was the only one really doing anything.

There were bouts of silence between his tirades. They could see how crushed he was.

The day of the concert, Knepper's dentist pulled the tooth stump. He needed a bridge. He lost an octave of range on the trombone and some mobility. And he started a civil lawsuit against Mingus.

United Artists asked Wein to secretly edit the two hours or so of tapes into a record for release. Wein had no music, no outline, no clue about structure or intention. He didn't dare ask Mingus, who terrified him. So in a single session that ran from 2 to 6 a.m., Wein cut the music by 50 percent, and in the process jumbled pieces and titles. The album got five stars when it was reviewed in down beat.

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