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Blindfold Test: Charlie Mingus

An Exclusive Online Extra in Downbeat magazine
by Leonard Feather —  04/28/1960
(reprinted with permission)

Almost five years have elapsed since Charlie Mingus’ previous Blindfold Test . In the interim he has grown tremendously in musical stature. Five years ago he was beset by many frustrations in the attempt to find an outlet for his music.

Today, while by no means rich or world famous, Mingus is a man highly respected by an increasing coterie. His music has settled into a groove that is at once funk-rooted, far-reaching and emotionally stimulating.

Mingus, as a person, has changed, too. Though there remains in him a latent streak of defiant anger, much of which is reflected in his music, he takes no active delight in putting anyone or anything down.

Because it would be unfair to Mingus and the reader to whittle down his comments, they have been split into two installments. The second segment, which will appear in the next issue, includes a long afterthought about Ornette Coleman. Mingus was given no information about the records played.

The Records

1. Manny Albam. “Blues For Amy” (from Something New, Something Blue ; Columbia). Teo Macero, composer.

Take it off…Look, I don’t want to drag you or anybody. I don’t think maybe you should give me a Blindfold Test , because I’ve changed. I didn’t let it get started—maybe that’s not fair of me? But it disturbs my ulcer. I’d rather talk about something important—all the stuff that’s happening down south.

2. Clifford Brown. “Stockholm Sweetnin’” (from Clifford Brown Memorial ; Prestige). Arne Domnerus, alto; Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, trumpet; Lars Gullin, baritone; Bengt Hallberg, piano; Gunnar Johnson, bass; Jack Noren, drums; Quincy Jones, composer. Recorded in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1953.

I heard a trumpet player up in the front that sounded like Art Farmer. The second solo? I don’t think I liked it as much as the first. Not that it matters…My opinion doesn’t matter much. What’s Lee Konitz doing on a record with these guys?…The rhythm section has no guts at all.

The baritone player sure has a lot of warmth; could it have been Gerry Mulligan? It’s not an inspiring performance on the whole. I didn’t hear the second trumpet player playing any parts in the ensemble; it’s like they wrote it for one trumpet, then this guy walked in the studio and they said, “Why don’t you blow one, man?”

The tune is Quincy Jones’ tune—he knows what will go, knows what he’d like to do, and he always writes what he knows will sell. And what guys can play. I know he does this—we discussed it together seven or eight years ago, before he became successful. And he was wondering why I always wrote so hard and never got it played, and I was wondering why he wrote so simple and got it played.

Well, I just like Art Farmer so very much—that little airy sound he gets in the front of the notes—I like him even if he is old fashioned and doesn’t know it. He became old-fashioned about two years ago. But he’s going to come up with something—you watch what he’ll be doing a year from now.

I’ll give it five for Art, if you don’t mind—and Gerry Mulligan if that’s who it is.

3. George Shearing. “Chelsea Bridge” (from Satin Brass ; Capitol). Jimmy Jones, arranger.

People used to think Louis Armstrong was putting everybody on when he said he liked Guy Lombardo. But I think he really sincerely like Guy. Because I’m beginning to feel that way. Some cats simply should play like Lombardo and not try anything else. Because that’s not them if they don’t; that’s not their soul. And I think that applies to this.

If that’s Gil Evans, I’m sorry—that applies to this. I’ve heard some things he did with Miles that were better. Usually I like Gil—I don’t know what happened on this thing. Maybe he has too much work to do and has to turn it out very fast. Or maybe that’s the worst track on the record, because I know you do that, sometimes.

The tune is something that’s been done a million times—even before Duke. I think I heard Paul Whiteman use those intervals…Well, give the record five stars because Gil Evans is famous.

4. Johnny Hodges. “Big Shoe” (from Side By Side ; Verve). Hodges, alto; Ben Webster, tenor; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Billy Strayhorn, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1958.

You can take it off—I know what this is. Somebody’s trying to get an alumni band together with Hodges and Webster, and they weren’t thinking about music, except Ben maybe. I don’t know what Hodges was doing…is that something new? And I assume it’s Lawrence Brown.

But I don’t think this means anything because I don’t think that was Duke. With Duke, they might have played better—sometimes that’s what it takes…

I tell you, I’m not much on comment today. I’d rather just rate them, and on this, for Ben Webster I’d have to give it five stars again, because I like Ben. But I think somebody was trying to figure out a way to make some money with some records, and they put one of things together.

I’ll tell you why I know Duke isn’t here. You listen to that record of Duke’s that came out a while ago with Dizzy on it, and hear the way Duke comps in there. There’s a lot of young cats around that could learn from the way Duke comps. This cat on the Hodges record played every chorus on the blues and played it different; he didn’t create nothing; that’s why I knew the piano player wasn’t Duke, that it was just anybody trying to cop out.

Charlie Mingus—#2
May 12, 1960

“You haven’t been told before that you’re phonies. You’re here because jazz has publicity, jazz is popular…You like to associate yourself with this sort of thing. But it doesn’t make you a connoisseur of the art because you follow it around…A blind man can go to an exhibition of Picasso and Kline, and not even see their works, and comment behind dark glasses, ‘Wow! They’re the swingingest paintings ever, crazy!’ Well, so can you. You’ve got your dark glasses and clogged up ears.”

This is one of the milder portions of an off-the-cuff speech made one night from the bandstand at the Five Spot by Charlie Mingus, preserved on tape and reproduced in an enlightening piece by Dian Dorr-Dorynek in The Jazz World , recently published by Ballantine Books. The speech bares Mingus’ long-pent-up frustrations and brings to the reader the sort of moment of truth many jazzmen wish they had the courage to express.

Mingus’ basic intensity and integrity can be found, too, in his Blindfold Test reactions. Following is the second segment of a two-part test, the previous one having appeared in the last issue. These comments, too, were tape-recorded , and Mingus received no advance information on the records played.

The Records

1. Lambert-Hendricks-Ross. “Moanin’” (from The Hottest New Group In Jazz ; Columbia).

I just don’t know what to tell you about that…I heard Sarah Vaughan last night, and she was singing a song, and the trumpet player was playing two bars, and she’d echo behind it—but she wasn’t singing what he was playing. And this—well, I think he’d be a good poet. A much better poet. He’s trying to tell a story—he always has. And I’m glad he can.

The group? I think they’ll make a lot of money. They’ll always make money—more than I’ll ever make. (L.F.: Don’t you think the group’s different?) Different from what? King Pleasure? I heard some little bitty young kids singing like that in Chicago. When Bird first came up, they used to stand up by the jukebox and make up words to the songs. It’’ not that original, man. Ten years ago people were doing that. I remember some words the kids wrote for a song of Hamp’s: Bebop’s taking over, oo-wee; better bop while you’re able, see; open your ears, bop’s been here for years”—something like that; and that was 11 or 12 years ago.

2. Sonny Stitt with Oscar Peterson Trio. “Au Privave” (Verve).

Well, you heard that thing he did on the second chorus, the bad note—he probably did that a whole lot of times on the record, and they spliced it out. There must have been a lot of splicing, or else they had an engineer who liked to twist the buttons, because the sound kept changing, it was as if a different soloist was coming up to the microphone.

Is that stereo? Yes…That’s too bad. And the piano player—he sounded like this was his first record date and his last one, so he wants to get everything in and plays all the notes he can in that solo, in the style of Horace Silver; and it could be Horace, I don’t know. Maybe he was very anxious that day. How could I know if I don’t listen to those cats anymore?

I put some old Bird record on the other day, and I realized that nobody’s playing like him yet. I wish you’d tell me who this is just for my own kicks.
Rating? Well, let’s put it like this. If I were in a record store and I’d listened to all the seven records you’ve played me so far (including those in the first part of the test), I wouldn’t buy any of them. And I’ve got some money.

3. Mahalia Jackson. “I Going To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song” (from The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer ; Columbia).

I’m presently in the process of buying some records. I don’t have that one, but I believe I know who it is. And I would buy that one. She’s on my list. And I think that this is what everybody need a whole lot of—not only in their playing, but in their way of living.

As far as rating this—maybe you should use a different kind of stars for rating this from the stars you use ranting jazz records. A moving star. Make it five moving stars.

4. Dizzy Reece. “The Rake” (from Star Bright ; Blue Note). Reece, trumpet; Hank Mobley, tenor; Wynton Kelly, piano; Art Taylor, drums; Paul Chambers, bass. Recorded by Rudy van Gelder in 1959.

The drummer sounded like Art Blakey, and I like Art so much—but, man, I don’t think you machine makes it because everything sounds blurry—the tenor player, Hank Mobley, sounds as if he’s trying to play like Sonny Rollins. I never before heard Hank trying to sound like that. Or else it’s the way they’re recording. Rudy van Gelder makes those kind of records. He tries to change people’s tones. I’ve seen him do it; I’ve seen him do it; I’ve seen him take Thad Jones and the way he sets him up at the mike, he can change the whole sound. That’s why I never go to him; he ruined my bass sound.

I’ve got a feeling that if that is Art, it sounded like the trumpet could have been Clifford Brown. But I don’t know when they could have made a record like that. I’m not talking about the solo, I’m talking about the ensemble feeling that suggests Clifford Brown.

The bass player sure was in tune—I knew that right from the start. He was in tune with himself. And I’ve never know Art with a piano player like that—it’s kind of confusing.

The over-all emotional feeling that I get when I enjoy music, I couldn’t her it—yet I know it must be there if it was Art playing. I won’t say it didn’t swing because I never knew a time when Art didn’t swing; it’s just not coming off on this record to me.

Play that trumpet solo again…I would say it’s Clifford Brown. A lot of people who don’t know Fats Navarro would have to like Clifford. I hear the kind of crying feeling, the soul that you got from Fats. Now I wouldn’t buy it because it was Clifford; the fact that somebody’s dead doesn’t change anything for me. I’m going to die, too.

Afterthought
You didn’t play anything by Ornette Coleman. I’ll comment on him anyway. Now, I don’t care if he doesn’t like me, but anyway, one night Symphony Sid was playing a whole lot of stuff, and then he put on an Ornette Coleman record.

Now, he is really an old-fashioned alto player. He’s not as modern as Bird. He plays in C and F and G and B Flat only; he does not play in all the keys. Basically, you can hit a pedal point C all the time, and it’ll have some relationship to what he’s playing.

Now aside from the fact that I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole notes—tied whole notes, a couple of bars apiece—in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh. So when Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible.

I’m not saying everybody’s going to have to play like Coleman. But they’re going to have to stop copying Bird. Nobody can play Bird right yet but him. Now what would Fats Navarro and J.J. have played like if they’d never heard Bird? Or even Dizzy? Would he still play like Roy Eldridge? Anyway, when they put Coleman’s record on, the only record they could have put on behind it would have been Bird.

It doesn’t matter about the key he’s playing in—he’s got a percussional sound, like a cat on a whole lot of bongos. He’s brought a thing in—it’s not new. I won’t say who started it, but whoever started it, people overlooked it. It’s like not having anything to do with what’s around you, and being right in your own world. You can’t put you finger on what he’s doing.

It’s like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right. And it gets to you emotionally, like a drummer. That’s what Coleman means to me.