The day started out as a regular humdrum work day in NYC, however because of a last minute decision my friends and I made it would turn out to be a night that could easily compete with the best Hollywood action thriller! It would be New Years Eve, and a few of my close friends and I had decided to play it cool and stay at home, maybe invite a few close friends by, cook some spaghetti of course listen to some music, NYC had several good FM stations that offered a real eclectic mix of music and of course that would give us the opportunity to indulge ourselves in the grand custom of shooting the breeze and taking inventory of the preceding year.
According to the weather report it was going to snow tonight and as I looked out of the window, the skies over Manhattan were
grey and promised to grow even more so. Earlier that day I had worked a full shift loading and unloading trucks at Gimbels loading dock on 33rd St. near the corner of 7th Avenue. The day was crisp and cold many customers were pouring into the giant Dpt. Store to return gifts that they had received for Christmas and many more scavenging the counters of the famed bargain basement for the endless treasures waiting for them in the cavernous lower floors of this retail behemoth. Yeah, Gimbels was a big place.
After work I took the subway downtown and rendezvoused with my buddies at their loft on Crosby Street and we soon learned that most of the guys that were to join us cancelled out because of the impending weather so we began to explore alternatives. We decided to hike across town to Katz’s Deli on Houston St. and indulge ourselves in a hot pastrami sandwich and some crispy fries and make it back to the loft before the weather got too bad. We sat in Katz’s and ate to our hearts content, when it was time to go we decided that since we were so close to Slugs which was not far away on Third St. we would stop by and see what was happening, someone mentioned that Chico Hamilton was appearing there and Chico had just formed a new group that was playing some exceptional music, so we set out in the snowy night and headed north up First Avenue towards our destination. Once we reached the corner at Third St. and Avenue B the snow had begun to fall in large soft fluffy flakes. We could see a crowd of people gathered outside of Slugs, it had closed early because of a sever storm warning that had been issued and lo and behold there was Chico Hamilton standing in the doorway of Slugs dressed in vintage Mob Era clothes holding a violin case under his arm in which he carried his drum sticks.
A certain section of the Lower East Side had been made over to look like it did during the 1920s/30s during the heyday of the
gangster mobs and early Italian and Jewish immigration. The makeover section provided many of the sets for the famous film; The
Godfather which starred Marlon Brando. So Chico Hamilton and his band had dressed the part. Standing directly in front of Chico was the steaming bulk of Charlie Mingus. Mingus bulk prevented Chico from moving away from the front door – Mingus was begging Chico to reconsider taking up a fund to buy Fats Waller a tombstone.
According to Charlie Mingus, Fats Waller had been in contact with him in the dream world and was complaining that no one had
put a tombstone on his grave. Mingus was wearing a light undershirt and a pair of bib overhauls
with the suspenders over the shoulders. The steam was literally rising off of his body, it was around midnight, the snow was
coming down in large powder puff sized flakes and here was Charlie Mingus standing under the street lights, illuminated and ‘steaming’,
yes literally steaming, raving, weeping and imploring everyone around him in the crowd but particularly Chico Hamilton to take
on the responsibility of buying a tombstone for Fats Wallers grave. Chico continued to shug his shoulders in the negative and it
sounded as if he said that Charlie was making a mountain out of mole hill and that eventually the Musicians Union or Fat’s recording
Company would take care of the problem. Well those statements were the straws that broke the camel’s back and they enraged
Mingus to the extent that he turned from Chico and began to beat his massive fists on the hoods and the roofs of the cars parked in
front of Slugs. Each time his fists came down on a car you could hear the crunch of the metal and a flurry of snow would rise to mark the
spot. This went on for a few minutes and people began to run away in all directions. Chico and his lady friends, all blond and decked
up in furs looking like gun molls from the roaring 20s took off down the street and I could hear Chico saying that Mingus had
finally gone completely nuts. Paul Neves approached Mingus and begged him to stop, to think about what he was doing particularly to his hands, Paul was just about to put his hands on Mingus shoulder and Mingus turned toward him with a truly mad look in his eyes and raised his fist to take a swing at Paul. He resembled in many ways an enraged bull in the ring – you could plainly see by the look in his eyes that he
was not here at all but that he was somewhere else consumed in a painful fury that had now turned to rampage.
This was indeed a delicate moment…Mingus had quite a long reputation for his hair-trigger anger and his flights of fantasy which often manifested in his compositions and his experimental approach on the bandstand. In all fairness to Mingus his anger was coupled with a long history of being manipulated by the recording companies and booking agents and the fact that the 1960s through the early 1970s America
was caught up in the raging flames of Civil Rights activism. Many of his compositions bore the titles of critical areas in society that
needed change: “God Don’t them Drop the Atom Bomb on Me, Garvey’s Ghost, Fables of Faubus, etc. His extended orchestral works particularly his experimental Ballet: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, evoked the strong Basso Proundo of Paul Robeson and Shakespeare’s tragic Blackamoor; Othello. The fact that Mingus claimed to be in touch with the soul of the deceased pianist
Fats Waller (Please see his autobiography: Beneath The Underdog/His World as Composed By Mingus.) Paul with amazing skill looked into Mingus’ eyes for along time – they just stood there eyes locked and then unexpectedly Mingus fell into Paul’s arms and began to sob like a baby. At that time Paul was tall and thin – an almost gaunt figure of a man and Mingus was a giant of a man who had great bulk like a
rhino , the three of us surrounded Mingus and wrapped our arms around him and together we calmed him down, and begged him to come with us, somewhere out of the bitter cold and the freezing snow.
After a few minutes of consolation and tears we hailed a cab and stuffed Charlie into the backseat and we were off to Chinatown. By the time we arrived in Chinatown most of the restaurants in Chinatown were closed the streets empty and the snow was beginning to take hold on the sidewalks. Mingus remembered one of his favorite restaurants that happened to be located nearby on a remote side street and we quickly made our way there. The Restaurant was perched on the second floor in what appeared to be the industrial section of Chinatown, it had a long flight of metal stairs that led from the sidewalk to its narrow front door which had a CLOSED sign hanging in the window. Mingus began to rap on the front door and eventually a small man came to the window and said they were closed, the small man pointed to the sign in the window and in his best Chinese accent stammered out: “Closed, closed, Holiday, closed.” Charlie then began to bang harder and harder on the door and the man then cracked the door and told him that if he didn’t cause any confusion (fight or argument) he would let us in…Mingus
mumbled something like : ‘Hey Man It’s OK” and the small man
opened the door and let us in.
The restaurant was totally empty but for a few lamps lit along
the walls. It was a small place and most of the tables had been piled
high with chairs it was apparent that they were getting ready to
wash the floors. The small man had begun to notice that Charlie
was eyeing the piles of chairs and I could assume as a result of some
very bad memories began to beg Charlie not to knock them down.
Charlie had begun to assume a Judo position in front of a table
piled high with wooden chairs and had begun to rock back and
forth like a giant Grizzly bear waving his hands..with a mischievous
child like smile on his face, we begged Charlie to sit at a table the
small man had cleared for us…and the small man blurted out:
“Mr. Mingus, Mr. Mingus, we gonna fix you big bowl of She-
Crab Soup, You hear me… She-Crab soup, just like you like it, hot, hot
and spicy – lot of She-Crab filled wid egg, filled wid egg”
Charlie nodded his head and sat down and we ordered a pot of
hot tea. I noticed that from time to time Charlie would look over
at a table piled high with chairs stretch his powerful arms, flex his
massive hands and break with a mischievous Felix the Cat smile.
The soup came in a very large ornamented bowl, I guess cauldron
would be a better description of the bowl and as promised by
the small man it was a masterpiece soup.
Once you removed the ornate lid the steam rose followed by the
pungent aroma and memories of the Silk Road and of old Cathay
rose with steamy fumes.
Dozens of she-crabs loaded with tiny orange eggs were floating
on the top as well as what looked like bits of fish and other seafood,
it was a royal banquet fit for a king and we immediately dug
in and filled our bowls. The smiling man came back carrying an
ordinary sized serving tureen for Charlie to eat out of and emptied
the smaller bowl back into the cauldron and then gave the whole
concoction a few stirrs.
I can’t begin to describe how scrumptious that soup was. After
a few spoonful’s we began to remove our jackets and our sweaters,
all that is but Charlie he began to perspire and began to look like
an athlete in ring , after a few minutes we were all looking like we
had been sitting in a steam bath.
We sat for a long time, perhaps too long for the smiling man
who came to the table every five or ten minutes asking if everything
was alright and glancing back toward the kitchen to give his kitchen
help a signal promising that they could come out soon and clean
the dining room, Paul and I caught the signal and began to change
the conversation towards going home, and began asking Charlie if
he wanted us to drop him off at his place or did he want to continue
hanging out with us.
At his insistence we decided to go to his place which was located
in the vicinity of Canal Street not far away and despite the snowy
weather conveniently within walking distance. Luther, Paul and
I divided up the bill, which was amazingly reasonable, however,
after taking the whole scenario into consideration the smiling man
wanted to make our exit as easy and as fast as possible. We paid the
smiling man who ingratiated himself and looked nervously around
at the table and at Charlie…I guess resurrecting old memories of
nights that Charlie got out of hand and wrecked his restaurant, one
of the many rumors that had circulated about Charlie’s ‘Wrecking
Ball” tendencies even going so far as punching his trombone player
in the mouth for not providing proper service while he was doubling
as Charlie’s chauffer. Yeah Charlie owned a Rolls Royce, but
that is another story for another time.
We made our way up the steps to the second floor of a fairly
large loft not far from Chinatown and Charlie pulled out a large
ring of keys and began searching for the right sequence of keys – as
you could probably have guessed the large metal door was covered
with different types of locks and padlocks. He mumbled something
about bill collectors and process servers and that he was late that
day in making contact with the auto storage company where he
kept his Rolls Royce and his nightly calls to the CIA for who he
was working part time as a secret agent. He opened the door and
walked in and motioned for us to come in and make ourself at
home while he made his way to a telephone that was ringing itself
off the hook.
We sat down and were soon astonished at the collection of Bass
Viols that were sitting upright on stands alongside one wall of the
loft and an old upright piano which was covered with stacks of
music and folds of manuscript paper hanging down from the sides
of the piano and lying along the floor in neat rows all inscribed in
the undeniable Mingus handwriting which I had seen earlier at
Eddy Armors loft when Eddie earned admission to a trumpet chair
in the Mingus Dynasty.
Paul of course was in seventh heaven craning his head sideways
in an attempt to sight read some of the music that was laying around
in full view. Paul walked over to the piano and lightly pressed a few
keys to check out the tonality and Mingus covered the phone with
his hand and told him to lay off the piano he was on the phone.
For about fifteen minutes we were captives who were rather
intimidated by the forceful personality of Charlie Mingus who was
intentionally speaking on the phone loud enough for us to hear
each word he uttered. The conversation appeared to be between he
and his CIA directors who at the moment were trying to persuade
him to travel to Nova Scotia to investigate a few things for them
and Mingus was complaining that NYC was cold enough for him
and he had a few gigs and record dates on his calendar that would
not allow him to travel on their behalf, the conversation took an
a argumentative tone and he began to use quite a bit of profanity
and finally hung the phone up with a full fledged crash.
His second call was to an auto storage facility somewhere
in Manhattan which also serviced his vehicle. Charlie was issuing
orders and threats of what he was going to do if the vehicle
caused him any trouble, he rambled on about them checking out a
number of issues that concerned bugging devices he thought had
been installed by foreign agents and to double check for explosive
devices that might have been installed by the same foreign agents
whose nationalities he never mentioned.
We intentionally began to look at our watches and began clearing
our throats in an attempt to get his attention and clue him that we were ready to take our leave and after a few more minutes he
hung up and asked us if we were hungry, that he was and he was
going to prepare something for us to eat. We politely bowed out
and pointed to our stomachs still quite full of Chinese food. We
wished him a Happy New Year, we all embraced and wished each
other well. Charlie reminded us to stop by when we were in the
vicinity and of course we all said we would, we made our way to
the door and Charlie made a gracious gesture by placing his hands
over his heart and lowered his head and his eyes, unbolted the door
and we made our way downstairs into the street to be greeted by the
brilliance of the morning sun. If not for the small dust devils rising
and falling along the dusty road and the distant roar of engines the
place was empty.
Yes! It was New Years day in Manhattan and the three of us
looked at each other with smiles on our faces and shook our heads:
“This is one hell of a way to start the new year – Yeah Man! Last
night was a trip, a real trip!