Everybody Knows Juan Has a Knife

Charles Mingus played for a brief stint in the band of his hero Duke Ellington. Juan Tizol, Ellington’s longtime trombonist and sometime arranger, asked Mingus to play a certain solo, which the bass player decided to change slightly. The alteration so infuriated Tizol he threatened Mingus with his bolo knife. Mingus responded by attacking him during a performance. Here, according to Mingus in his Beneath the Underdog, is what the Duke said to him afterwards.

“Now Charles,” he says, looking amused, putting Cartier links into the cuffs of his beautiful hand-made shirt, “you could have forewarned me–you left me out of the act entirely! At least you could have let me cue in a few chords as you ran through that Nijinsky routine. I congratulate you on your performance, but why didn’t you and Juan inform me about the adagio you planned so that we could score it? I must say I never saw a large man so agile–I never saw anybody make such tremendous leaps! The gambado over the piano carrying your bass was colossal. When you exited after that I thought, ‘That man’s really afraid of Juan’s knife and at the speed he’s going he’s probably home in bed by now.’ But no, back you came through the same door with your bass still intact. For a moment I was hopeful you’d decided to sit down and play but instead you slashed Juan’s chair in two with a fire axe! Really, Charles, that’s destructive. Everybody knows Juan has a knife but nobody ever took it seriously–he likes to pull it out and show it to people, you understand. So I’m afraid, Charles–I’ve never fired anybody–you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem, I can cope with that, but you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice, Mingus.”

I find this anecdote to sum up a lot about the inner nature of Ellington’s music.

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One Response to Everybody Knows Juan Has a Knife

  1. Pingback: “Playtime” Play Mingus. Edinburgh, June 2015. | On the Beat

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