Town Hall Train Wreck


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.

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.