In 1962, Mingus was hired by United Artists to perform at New York’s Town Hall. The label planned to record the concert for an album release, and Mingus set to work preparing with supersized ambitions (he envisioned upward of 45 musicians). Then the already-tight schedule grew even tighter when the original November concert date was pushed up to October. Under enormous stress, Mingus struggled to finish his arrangements in time and badgered friends into helping.
Angry at himself, angry at the musicians helping him, angry at United Artists, and angry at concert promoter George Wein [pictured] (a grudge that had been going on for two years), Mingus became an unstoppable bully in a china shop. Naturally, in this climate, the concert became part protest, part opus. Mingus insisted on stopping and starting the band at will, and the concert ran late. Yet on the recording of the concert, the completed tracks are indisputable works of art.In Part 5 of my conversation with Buddy, the legendary West Coast reed and woodwind musician talks about Charles Mingus (his childhood friend) and the 1962 Town Hall concert in which he participated:
JazzWax: What did you think of the music Charles Mingus put together for his Town Hall concert in 1962?
Buddy Collettte: It was excellent. The music was so alive and exciting.
JW: Being a busy West Coast musician, how did you wind up in an East Coast concert?
BC: I was very busy in Hollywood, but Mingus liked to have me around if he could. We’d known each other since we were 12 years old. So I got a call from United Artists Records asking me to come to New York. I told them I was busy but the person on the phone called back and said that Mingus said if I didn’t come, there would be no concert. He even called me to tell me that.
JW: Did you have high expectations before you left for New York?
BC: I knew that if Mingus was in the kind of mood he was in on the phone, making threats about the concert, he probably would eventually turn on me, too. But we always got along, so I agreed.
JW: What happened when you arrived in New York?
BC: The first thing I did was go to Mingus’ apartment on Fifth Avenue. When I got there dressed in my topcoat and hat, I saw that the lamp was kicked over and the house was in disarray.
JW: What had happened?
BC: Mingus told me he had hit trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth. Jimmy had been helping Mingus with all of the arrangement. Mingus said, “Jimmy called me a name so I hit him.” Which I doubt was true knowing Jimmy. But when Mingus got wound up, there was nothing you could do to stop that energy short of letting it all come out.
JW: Mingus had been working hard to get ready for the concert.
BC: He did have a ton of pressure to get all this music done for so many people. He told me the band was rehearsing at night after their record dates. Sometimes starting at midnight. [Pictured: Jimmy Knepper]
JW: What else did you notice at Mingus’ apartment?
BC: He was still uptight when I arrived. He had music all over the floor. He asked me to help him arrange some of the pieces. I wrote a few 12-tone things. As long as the pieces were interesting, he loved it.
JW: When did you rehearse with the band?
BC: The night of the day I arrived. But Mingus wasn’t into what he heard. Jimmy was still being helpful and could play again a little toward the end of the rehearsal. Mingus finally said, “I’m going to cancel this concert.” I knew what that was about.
BC: When Mingus grew angry about something, he would either go through with such a threat or he’d make an event a very undesirable situation.
JW: Did you ask Mingus what was bothering him deep down?
BC: Yes. He said that George Wein was producing the event and that George wanted a traditional concert.
JW: Isn’t that what it was supposed to be?
BC: I said to Mingus, “So what’s wrong with that?” Mingus said, “I want an open recording session so the audience can see how you really make a record.” George [pictured] turned down that idea flat, fearing the process would wear thin on an audience that had paid to hear music.
JW: So the stage was set for a showdown.
BC: Yes. After rehearsal, Mingus said he wanted everyone to wear tuxedos on stage at the concert. I had mine, because I always traveled with it.
JW: How did everyone look that night?
BC: Great. Except when Mingus came on stage, he had on jeans, a wash and wear shirt, a leather vest and sandals without socks.
JW: Why did he do that?
BC: I think to stand out from the band. But his protest didn’t stop there. He came to the microphone and said something like, “I have an announcement. George Wein says this is going to be a concert but it’s an open recording session. I’m going to stop and start the band where I want.”
JW: Wow, George must have been livid.
BC: I’m sure he was. Mingus was going to make sure George didn’t get a concert.
JW: How did the audience react from your perspective on stage?
BC: They thought at first Mingus was doing comedy.
JW: How did the music go over?
BC: We started the first piece, and it sounded good. But about three minutes into it, Mingus dropped his hand down for us to stop. He then goes up to the mike and says, “I wouldn’t buy that would you?” I had known all along that was going to happen.
JW: That must have been insulting to the musicians on stage, no?
BC: All of the musicians' faces changed. As a musician, you sensed immediately that this kind of thing was going to go on for a very long time that night. On the second song, Mingus didn’t like it either. He kept starting and stopping tunes all the way up to intermission. Then Mingus’ 67-year-old uncle came out with his Dixieland band and played for a half hour or so. Now it was close to 11 p.m. We were supposed to have been finished by 11 so the theater could close.
JW: What happened?
BC: We all got back on the stage. We figured Mingus was going to straighten up and play. But he went and did the same thing again with the stopping and restarting. Eventually, the stagehands started closing the curtain.
JW: What did the audience do?
BC: Some of them went to the left and right and pulled the curtains open [laughs]. At one point toward the end, Clark Terry grew fed up and started playing In a Mellow Tone. Everyone was so hungry to play, we all jumped in started jamming on the tune. You can hear that on the recording. We were all dying together and the guys figured we’d all jam to let it out. There were a lot of musicians jamming [laughs].
JW: Did you ever ask Mingus why he did what he did that night?
BC: He was going after George for whatever reason. I always knew Mingus was going to do it his way, and he did.
JazzWax tracks: For all of Charles Mingus' drama, the United Artists recording of his Town Hall concert won the 1963 Down Beat International Critics Poll as best album of the year. Originally, the album was 36 minutes long. But for the digital release, all of the completed tracks recorded were included.
Who was on the stage that night? Are you sitting down? The band featured Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Richard Williams, Rolf Ericson, Ed Armour, Lonnie Hillyer (tp), Britt Woodman, Quentin Jackson, Willie Dennis, Eddie Bert, Jimmy Cleveland, Paul Faulise (tb), Don Butterfield (tu), Danny Bank (contrabass-cl), Romeo Penque (oboe), Eric Dolphy, Charlie Mariano, Charles McPherson, Buddy Collette (as), Zoot Sims, George Berg (ts), Pepper Adams, Jerome Richardson (bar), Warren Smith (vib,perc), Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jaki Byard (p), Les Spann (g), Charles Mingus (b,narrator-1), Milt Hinton (b), Dannie Richmond (d), Grady Tate (perc), Melba Liston (arr,cond) and Bob Hammer, Gene Roland (arr).
You'll find Charles Mingus: The Complete Town Hall Concert at iTunes or here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Peggy's Blue Skylight from the Charles Mingus Town Hall concert in 1962, with Buddy Collette in the reed section...