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Mingus, Mingus, Mingus

David Berger

In 1973 I was 24 and rehearsing some of my new music with my big band one Monday afternoon on the 5th floor of an old church in midtown Manhattan.  There was no elevator, so it was a bit of a struggle to get the drums up 5 flights.  After a while, Charles Mingus walked in covered in sweat from carrying his bass up the stairs.  He found an empty stool in the corner and just sat there for an hour listening to us.  He didn’t say anything, and I was so in awe of him that I didn’t approach him.  It turned out that he had a photo shoot there right after we left.  At the time I wondered what he thought of our music but being young and a bit shy, I was afraid to find out.


A couple of years later I was working with Chuck Israels.  One afternoon he told me that he was playing a duo gig at Bradley’s that night with John Bunch and that I should come by.  So I did.  Bradley’s was a small jazz club with a long narrow bar that extended from the front door to the middle of the space, which is where the piano and bass were situated.  In the back were tables where dinner was served.  When I got to the club, the music had already started, so I quickly grabbed a stool at the bar near the front door.  I quickly noticed that seated 3 or 4 stools from me was Charles Mingus.  Wow!  I’m listening to the music.  In those days there was no amplification and everyone smoked and talked in jazz clubs.  Very intimate.  So John finishes his solo and Chuck starts his.  Nobody in the audience seemed to care much.  They kept smoking and talking.  All of a sudden Mingus says in a loud and assertive tone, “Everybody shut up—Chuck’s playing a solo”.  [Immediate dead silence, except Chuck’s bass notes.  You could hear a pin drop, and it stayed like that for the rest of the set.]


When the set broke, Chuck walked over to Mingus, and they started talking.  Chuck signaled for me to join them and then introduced me to one of my all time heroes.  Over the sound system Bradley was playing a Duke Ellington record.  Mingus listened for a few seconds and said that he didn’t recognize the recording, so I told him what it was.  After that he asked if I had eaten dinner yet, and we repaired to a table and dined, all the while talking about Ellington’s music in pretty analytical terms.  This went on for a couple of hours.  When they finished playing for the evening, Chuck and John came over to our table to say goodnight.  After they left, Mingus turned to me and asked, “Will you excuse me?”  He walked over to the piano, sat down on the bench and proceeded to improvise for a solid hour.  Did you ever hear that expression about being at the right place at the right time?  I think this is what they were talking about.


Right around this time I started working a lot with Jimmy Knepper in the National Jazz Ensemble with Chuck, the Lee Konitz Nonet, Alvin Ailey, my band, all kinds of situations.  This went on for 15 years.  Jimmy was the consummate musician.  He was the most lyrical of trombonists and also a great bebopper.  His compositions and arrangements sounded like Mingus.  He had a very wry sense of humor and was the only one of the musicians in the National Jazz Ensemble that could beat me in ping-pong.  He had the most ridiculous spins that he put on the ball.  I was just a slammer and never could figure out what to do with his English.  I can still see his long arms moving through the air.  It was kinda like watching Randy Johnson pitch except that Johnson was intimidating with his fastball.  Jimmy was more like the classic crafty lefty.


Jimmy did everything slowly and gracefully—never any extraneous motion or effort.  This included how he played the trombone.  I can still see him playing.  Nothing moved except his loose wrist that moved ever so slightly.  He was a downstream player.  His horn made a 45-degree angle with his body and the floor.  The great lead trumpet player Al Porcino said once that Knepper would be a big star, if he would just hold his horn up. 


I’ve gotta tell 3 of my favorite Knepper stories.  We were in a car on the way back from a gig in NJ and come up to a tollbooth.  The toll was 30 cents.  So Knepper hands the attendant a dollar bill and a nickel.  The attendant holds up the nickel and asks, “What's this?” to which Knepper replies, “It’s an intelligence test”. 


Another Knepper story finds him to be the unwitting straight man.  We were on tour in South Carolina.  After the gig, the trombone section went out for breakfast in a local diner in this small southern town.  The prototypical hardcore, gum chewing, bleach blonde, middle-aged waitress came over to their table and asked, “What’ll you boys have?”  Knepper says, “I’ll have 2 eggs over easy.  Hold the grease”.  So she gives Jimmy the fish eye.  Without missing a beat, young Rick Chamberlain, pipes up, “Uh, uh, I’ll have his grease”.  Joe Randazzo, sitting across the table, was laughing so hard, I don’t know if he ever got his order in. 


So this one afternoon Knepper comes over to my apartment on 23rd Street to pick me up on the way to a gig or recording session.  I’m listening to Mingus Ah Um or Mingus Dynasty.  He hears the music, looks at me and squints his left eye just a bit asking, “You like this record?”  To which I proudly replied, “It’s one of my favorites.  Why?  Don’t you like it?”  He say, “Oh, God, no”.  He then tells me that at that time Mingus had a great working quintet: Jimmy on trombone, tenor, and rhythm section.  When they got to the recording studio, there was an extra tenor and an extra trombone.  These guys don’t know the music and of course Mingus never wrote any of it out, since he preferred to teach everyone by singing their parts to them.  According to Knepper, these 2 new guys had no idea what they were doing.  So I asked him, “Are you telling me that all those hip voicings that I’ve been transcribing are just wrong notes?”  “Yup, every one”. 


I’ve never known what to do with this inside information.  Did those new guys luck into some good notes that Knepper wasn’t ready to hear, or was Jimmy right?  I’ve never been able to stop thinking about what he said whenever I hear those recordings.  I guess that is because I respect Jimmy’s musicianship so much.  I can’t remember any music that we ever played that Jimmy didn’t hear and understand.


One day, years later, Jimmy was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and realized that it was Mingus’ birthday.  As soon as he saw a rest stop, he pulled over to a phone booth and called Mingus, who, by this time, was dreadfully ill with ALS and couldn’t move a muscle outside of his face.  Never the less he still had so much music inside him that he would sing new compositions and have someone write them down.  So Knepper wished Mingus happy birthday, to which Mingus replied, “Jimmy, you’ve got to get over here.  They’re f***ing up my music”. 

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  • Brian Priestley on

    Enjoying your blog posts, including the latest by Chuck Israels. One question, though, on the great Jimmy Knepper about your favourite Mingus album. If there was another trombone added alongside Jimmy, that can’t be Mingus Ah Um or Mingus Dynasty, which only ever have one trombone (either Jim or Willie Dennis). However, Blues And Roots sees several extra horns and has Knepper and Dennis together, so could you have been listening to Blues And Roots? Keep up the good work!

  • Robert Berger on

    Great story

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