AN OPEN LETTER TO MILES DAVIS
By Charles Mingus
November 30, 1955
Down Beat Magazine
Four editions of Down Beat come to my mind’s eye-Bird’s “Blindfold Test,” mine, Miles’, and Miles’ recent “comeback story”-as I sit down and attempt to honestly write my thoughts in an open letter to Miles Davis. (I discarded numerous “mental” letters before this writing, but one final letter formed last night as I looked through some pictures of Bird that Bob Parent had taken at a Village session.) If a picture needs to go with this story, it should be this picture of Bird, standing and looking down at Monk with more love than I think we’ll ever find in this jazz business!….
Bird’s love, so warmly obvious in this picture, was again demonstrated in his “Blindfold Test.” But dig Miles’ “Test”! As a matter of fact, dig my own “Blindfold Test”! See what I mean? And more recently, dig Miles’ comeback story. How is Miles going to act when he gets back and gets going again? Will it be like a gig in Brooklyn not too long ago with Max, Monk, and me when he kept telling Monk to “lay out” because his chords were all wrong? Or even at a more recent record date when he cursed, laid out, argued, and threatened Monk and asked Bob Weinstock why he hired such a nonmusician and would Monk lay out on his trumpet solos? What’s happening to us disciples of Bird? Or would Miles think I’m presuming too much to include myself as one?
It seems so hard for some of us to grow up mentally just enough to realize there are other persons of flesh and bone, just like us, on this great, big earth. And if they don’t ever stand still, move, or “swing,” they are as right as we are, even if they are as wrong as hell by our standards. Yes, Miles, I am apologizing for my stupid “Blindfold Test.” I can do it gladly because I’m learning a little something. No matter how much they try to say that Brubeck doesn’t swing-or whatever else they’re stewing or whoever else they’re brewing-it’s factually unimportant.
Not because Dave made Time magazine-and a dollar-but mainly because Dave honestly thinks he’s swinging. He feels a certain pulse and plays a certain pulse which gives him pleasure and a sense of exaltation because he’s sincerely doing something the way he, Dave Brubeck, feels like doing it. And as you said in your story, Miles, “if a guy makes you pat your foot, and if you feel it down your back, etc.,” then Dave is the swingingest by your definition, Miles, because at Newport and elsewhere Dave had the whole house patting its feet and even clapping its hands….
Miles, don’t you remember that “Mingus Fingers” was written in 1945 when I was a youngster, 22 years of age, who was studying and doing his damnedest to write in the Ellington tradition? Miles, that was 10 years ago when I weighed 185. Those clothes are worn and don’t fit me anymore. I’m a man; I weigh 215; I think my own way. I don’t think like you and my music isn’t meant just for the patting of feet and going down backs. When and if I feel gay and carefree, I write or play that way-or when I’m happy, or depressed, even.
Just because I’m playing jazz I don’t forget about me. I play or write me the way I feel through jazz, or whatever. Music is, or was, a language of the emotions. If someone has been escaping reality, I don’t expect him to dig my music, and I would begin to worry about my writing if such a person began to really like it. My music is alive and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It’s angry yet it’s real because it knows it’s angry.
I know you’re making a comeback, Miles, and I’m with you more than you know. You’re playing the greatest Miles I’ve ever heard, and I’m sure you already know that you’re one of America’s truly great jazz stylists. You’re often fresh in a creative sense and, if anything, you underevaluate yourself-on the outside-and so with other associates in the art. Truly, Miles, I love you and want you to know you’re needed here, but you’re too important a person in jazz to be less than extra careful about what you say about other musicians who are also trying to create….
Remember me, Miles? I’m Charles. Yeah, Mingus! You read third trumpet on my California record dates 11 years ago on the recommendation of Lucky Thompson. So easy, young man. Easy on those stepping stones….
If you should get around to answering this open letter, Miles, there is one thing I would like to know concerning what you said to Nat Hentoff about all the tunes you’ve recorded in the last two years. Why did you continue to record, session after session, when you now say you didn’t like them except for two LPs? I wonder if you forgot the names of those tunes; also, how a true artist can allow all this music, which even he himself doesn’t like, to be sold to the jazz public. Or even accept payment for a job which you yourself say wasn’t well done.
Good luck on your comeback, Miles.