I actually found out about author John F
Goodman, when he sent me a direct email congratulating me on a Mingus post I had published here. He explained and pointed me to a book he had written about Charles Mingus: Mingus Speaks and it deals with actual in-person interviews with Charles Mingus from 1972-74. He documents the meeting, the proposal to do the interview and the acceptance from the azz master. The rest is history, as the book covers the careful questioning from John and answers provided from the oss man himself, Charles Mingus. It must have been so special for John to have this opportunity and something he will forever treasure. Conducting a live interview is quite different from an online interview because it is spontaneous and can only sprout more questions that were not planned. I’m sure John would agree with me that the additional questions he had to ask at the spur of the moment, were probably the most effective ones and the most revealing.
I do have a good idea of some questions he asked Mingus from the excerpts of his book and from an online interview that took place September 6th of this year and conducted on a very popular jazz blog, Jerry Jazz Musician here. There’s plenty of interesting exiting information in both the excerpts and from John’s interview, so buy the book. Whether you are very familiar with Mingus’ masterful work or are very recently learning about him, this book is a no-
brainer. There’s nothing more authentic and more original than hearing it from Mingus himself. This brings me to my interview here with John and how I will approach it. There’s enough information just with John’s book link, its excerpts and the thorough online interview, that I may sound sort of redundant asking him questions that point directly at the theme of the book and what type of character Mingus had.
Interview with John F. Goodman (Author of book “Mingus Speaks):
Hello John, how are you doing? My first question will be based on my brief opinion of Charles Mingus.
For me Charles Mingus was, first of all, a professional musician who rigorously studied and practiced his craft to an extreme level. Secondly, he was one of the best composers ever and I mean in any type of music genre. Mingus was very fortunate to have the right tutoring and from two major influences, Hermann Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and in compositional techniques with Lloyd Reese. This sure helps but every great musical institution has their own influential teachers. It’s what Mingus
took from his knowledge and used as a tool to help other musicians that is critical to note about him and something that is rarely mentioned about him. He was a leader and a teacher, he respected and admired the ones before him and took it upon himself to pass his knowledge to others after him. He felt that everyone should be their own composer and they should spontaneously do so while playing together with other musicians. All together, all the musicians composing while playing a single tune. That’s the exact definition of jazz, that’s what makes jazz unique from any other type of music and that’s what makes jazz COOL! Mingus just took it to another level and by having the right ambitious musicians around him, he managed to make/help them improve and become better musicians. He would lead the rest of the musicians by setting the tempo of the song and changing it throughout, slowing it down and picking it up whenever he liked or whenever it was appropriate. He did work with a format, the songs had their beginning and their end, but the solos could be done in any fashion and were as long as the musician wanted them to be.
Here’s a great example:
That’s the way I look at Charles Mingus, he is a hero to humanity and is a perfect example of real freedom. Of course, when a person becomes famous in a musical sense, they become subject to curiosity and it could either hurt or help them in public opinion. Why? I don’t know because I’m only interested in the music they play and the human inspiration behind it. The improvisational nature of jazz makes it the most inspirational of all music genres and Charles Mingus supplied it to us all.
Okay John, please give the readers here of Jazz Con Class Radio a general bio/background of yourself for starters, so they could familiarize themselves with you. And please give them your personal opinion of Charles Mingus before and after interviewing him. Tell us also how much of a challenge was it for you John, knowing your great understanding and knowledge of the roots of Jazz and its true meaning so well but conveying it to Mingus and somehow being allowed to enter his world.
Answer From John:
After graduate school and a Ph.D. at the Universities of Chicago and Wisconsin, I taught English in New York at NYU and City College during the Vietnam years. I wrote a music column for the New Leader, a notable small leftish monthly, and then covered jazz, classical and rock for Playboy for nine years.
One way or another I have been involved with jazz since I was a young child. I’ve also been a professor, writer-editor, media and political consultant, critic and blogger, writing about everything from cell biology to the story of a great labor union. Wearing many hats is fine, but jazz has been the enduring passion.
Charles Mingus was a source of fascination for me, both because of his music and his outspoken opinions on everything. Playboy commissioned my review of his “comeback” concert in February 1972, and from there we got to know and trust each other so as to begin the interviews that would finally lead to Mingus Speaks.
Mingus had a reputation as the angry man of jazz, and part of the reason I wanted to interview him was to see whether and in what sense that was true. It was also a challenge because he was supposed to eat white critics for breakfast and I wanted to see if I could survive until lunch.
We built trust between us because, as you point out, I had a good background in jazz and also because I always tried to be straight with Mingus. Interviewers often work from a prearranged set of questions (I had some in the back of my mind), but my goal was to throw a few provocative comments out and see where he would take them. The idea was not to draw answers out of him but finally to engage in real conversations. I think my book shows that we often accomplished this.
Mingus was reputed to be one of the most difficult people in jazz to deal with. I found him (usually) open, happy to talk on most any subject, warm, funny, responsive—and sometimes just brilliant. I usually agreed with his opinions on music and musicians, but he taught me a very great deal about how jazz is played, performed, recorded, received. And much about the business side of the music.
This question will deal with Mingus’s temperament and his inner goal/legacy. We all know that Mingus was very tough and opinionated with the press and very strict to work with. Could this be because he was actually a “Perfectionist” and/or because he was a “Traditionalist” and wanted to leave this mark on the music world? It seems that to ask this question would go totally against the improvisational manner that jazz is played and the freedom of the jazz musician it expresses, maybe he needed to discipline the public and the musician in order for them to excel in their improvisations, it puzzles me, what’s your take on this John and after spending hours interviewing him?
Answer From John:
Both your terms define Mingus. He was indeed a perfectionist in regard to how his music was played, and he was a traditionalist in how he viewed jazz and music in general. The irony is that his music was often labled avant-garde, and much of it was very advanced in terms of what other jazz players were doing. Mingus and I had a long discussion (in the book) about the term “avant-garde,” which he had no use for, and which critics used to label anything that was to their ears “advanced.”
But Mingus was in every sense a traditionalist. He built his music on the older styles—worksongs, blues, street bands, New Orleans jazz, swing, Dixieland, bebop—and church music, Latin and Caribbean music, classical, circus and minstrel music, a whole stew of music from which he created new forms and an array of new sounds. And it was always a music of the earth.
He taught his musicians to learn this sometimes very difficult stuff by forcing them to play by ear, though lead sheets and scores were written out for the larger ensembles. Once they got it down, he encouraged them to play it their own way, in other words, to develop their individual voices. Mingus said that he never told anyone how to solo. But he was a real task-master, a perfectionist if you will, and would stop the band during a live performance if something sounded wrong to him. There are a number of instances on YouTube where you can see this happening.
Now, you make a good point about his disciplining the public. Mingus was famous for his lectures, sometimes tirades, to nightclub audiences who were noisy or inattentive. He once put a microphone on the table of a couple chattering in front of him. He performed such stunts for the fun of it and because he liked lots of drama in his life. But more importantly, Mingus wanted respect for his art and took any and all means to get it.
John, you mention in the email with your answer to the 2nd question and said that my question was a great one, well, your answer was even better! The final paragraph, in particular, especially aroused my attention and will be the main source of juice needed to complete my 3rd question to him:
“Now, you make a good point about his disciplining the public. Mingus was famous for his lectures, sometimes tirades, to nightclub audiences who were noisy or inattentive. He once put a microphone on the table of a couple chattering in front of him. He performed such stunts for the fun of it and because he liked lots of drama in his life. But more importantly, Mingus wanted respect for his art and took any and all means to get it.”
I think the importance of “Musicianship” has been lost. What happened to the demand of excellence by a musician, to play his or her instrument to the highest standard? The ability of the musician is not necessary to the music industry and is on an all-time low in respect to so-called “popular music.” Substituting electronically created sounds in the place of human living beings is a growing trend and the interest of the new generation towards this style of music has skyrocketed also. What do you think Mingus would say about today’s music if he were alive now and what are your personal thoughts concerning my critical statement?
Answer from John:
I can say with some confidence that Mingus simply would not listen to the pop music of today. He hardly listened to pop and rock music in the ‘70s, when the quality was a lot better. His comments in my book about Dylan and the Beatles make very clear where he stood on this.
He thought the use of electronics in producing music was an abomination—and said so on many occasions. “You can’t control the dynamics,” he said, meaning that a whole range of expressivity is lost. He also said, “We all want it to be easy,” when in fact playing jazz or any kind of music well is anything but.
Mingus taught his musicians by laying out the parts of his pieces on the piano and allowing each to develop his own individual freedom within the scales, chords and rows required. The pieces were usually complex and difficult, so the task of learning how to improvise on them was immense. The people in his bands went to one tough school.
I think there are plenty of good jazz musicians today, and many of them have great chops. But there are few old masters like Mingus left to teach them how to play with feeling and extract the essence of a tune.
4th and Final Question:
John, I’m in my mid-50’s now and I’ve been blessed to hear a great variety of quality music in my lifetime, I’m talking about Afro-Cuban, Motown, 50’s early Rock, Blues, 60’s and 70’s Classic Rock, Classic Disco, Salsa, Jazz Fusion, Alternative Rock and of course Classic Jazz. I don’t want to leave out Classical music either because it is really the root of all “Music” performed in an organized manner.
This gives me some type of authority in the field of music, I would think and after all is said and done, I feel that Classic Jazz dominates them all because of its purity and its power to improvise. The Blues roots it contains, of course, is what makes it happen and is what powers it.
So with this in mind, I ask you John, are the blues being challenged nowadays and to the point where it can be replaced? Or do you think that this is just a cycle and the new generation of music listeners 20 years from now will eventually be interested in classic jazz anymore?
Answer from John:
The blues will never go away—until, as Mingus said, the conditions that cause the blues go away. He was talking about racism and the “I’m so sad, lost my job, he stole my woman” kind of blues, but Mingus knew well that the blues in jazz can be a lot more than that. See his Blues & Roots for examples. I like the distinction Albert Murray makes between folk blues and urban (or jazz) blues, and his book Stomping the Blues, with its wonderful photos, is the best introduction to the subject you can read.
There are good-time blues, swinging blues, Monk-Basie-Charlie-Parker blues and, as you note, the classic jazz versions of blues in every flavor. The blues is much more than a musical form (12-bar, 8-bar, ABAA, etc.). It’s a way of thinking and feeling, singing, playing and dancing, and you can’t fake it. The reason the blues have always been popular, no matter what style or tone or emotion they cover, is their sincerity.
The blues and the American songbook have always been central to what jazz is, though there is of course more to the story than that. But present-day jazz sometimes imports musical sources and styles to the point where the product is only a kind of pseudo-jazz. I wrote about so-called globalized music in my blog and had this to say, in part: “It has taken away the identity of the music, made it into a tuneless, fractured, babel of rhythmic and harmonic languages, jazz without a soul.”
Some people seem to enjoy this kind of music superimposed on jazz styles and procedures, but to me it is the antithesis of the blues. There are many challenges to jazz today, both commercial and musical, but you can’t take the blues away from jazz (though not all jazz is formed on blues) and expect it to survive. It’s part of the flesh and blood and bones of the music.
This concludes the interview with John F Goodman and only begs the readers/listeners here to purchase his book “Mingus Speaks.” Our interview, believe or not, took us a little more than a month to complete. I asked him one question at a time and calmly waited for his answer before asking him the next. In this manner, I was able to be more effective in producing an interview that would uncover the “mystique” behind this masterpiece of a man, named Mingus. I tried asking John questions that I would have address to Mingus himself in an interview but came very short, only to touch the tip of the iceberg. Again, I urge all the readers/listeners here to get John’s book, so they could find all the answers to questions they would have possibly asked Mingus. The odds are that this book contains them all. Learning all about Charles Mingus was John’s goal and he nailed it! Thanks again, John
1. John F Goodman’s “Mingus Speaks” website
2. Amazon Book Page
3. John’s Blog