If he’d never written a note, his place in jazz history would have been assured. But the fact is that he was one of the most original, exciting and vivid composers of the 20th century. His method of teaching his sidemen music orally gave his music a passionate edge. He performed dazzlingly complex music with both precision and a freewheeling looseness.
To see him live was stand at the edge of the typhoon. I first heard him at the Five Spot with Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, Jaki Byard and Dannie Richmond. Now that was a rhythm section. Mingus would lead the band with a momentous swinging bass part, become one with Byard and Richmond and push McPherson and Hillyer beyond what they believed that they could do.
The quintet was on an extended stint there and I went often. Never one to compartmentalize his life, Mingus would, on some nights, get on a rant about politics, the music business or race relations. He was a socially conscious man who did not separate his art from his beliefs.
Everything he played or wrote or said, he did with passion. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter decided to give jazz its due and mounted an all-star jazz festival on the White House lawn. Most of the jazz community was fairly awestruck by this whole affair. By then, Mingus was in the throes of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), confined to a wheelchair and unable to play. But he came to the White House that day.
At one point, Stan Getz was on stage playing “Lush Life” and Dexter Gordon and I were standing next to Mingus’s chair. I happened to glance down and tears were streaming down his face.
- Michael Cuscuna