The Eloquent Firing of Charles Mingus by Duke Ellington

Trombonist Juan Tizol’s tussle — allegedly brandishing a knife and the “n-word” — led to the dismissal of Mingus

By Krin Gabbard

In 1953, shortly after he had turned twenty-one, Charles Mingus seized the opportunity of a lifetime and joined the orchestra of his idol and inspiration, Duke Ellington. He would be subbing for the band’s regular bassist Wendell Marshall, who had a special relationship with Ellington if only because he was the cousin of double bassist Jimmie Blanton. But Mingus knew that this might lead to a regular place in the band. The association with Ellington, however, was brief. Only a few weeks after he joined the band, Mingus had an altercation with valve-trombonist Juan Tizol that led to his dismissal.

Tizol came from Puerto Rico with its thriving culture of brass-players. After moving to the United States to look for work as a trombonist, he took a job playing in a pit orchestra for a show in Washington, DC, in 1920, where he met the young Ellington, a DC native. Several years later, in 1929, when Ellington decided that his band ought to have a valve-trombonist, he hired Tizol. Although Tizol was not much of an improviser, Duke liked his mellow sound and his polished technique. Tizol soon became one of the mainstays of the orchestra, even contributing several compositions to the band’s book — “Caravan,” “Perdido,” “Conga Brava,” and “Moonlight Fiesta.” Like many of the musicians who worked with Ellington, however, he grew tired of the constant touring and left in 1944.

Shortly after Tizol left Ellington, he took a position in Harry James’ orchestra, but he and his wife remained friends with Duke. Ellington has especially fond words for Tizol in his autobiography, Music Is my Mistress. In 1951, when Ellington was at an especially difficult time in his career, he paid the Tizols a visit in search of advice or just some solace. Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, and Sonny Greer, all essential players for many years, had just left the band. Greer had grown up in Washington with Ellington and had been the band’s drummer since the beginning. Hodges, who joined the band in 1928, played lead alto saxophone and supplied the band with solos so romantic that Duke described them as “excruciating ecstasy.” Trombonist Brown had joined in 1932 and contributed a mellow, singing sound that contrasted with the growling, wa-wa trombone of another of the band’s mainstays, “Tricky Sam” Nanton.

Ellington wrote that during his visit with Juan and his wife, Tizol said, “Say the word and take Louis Bellson, Willie Smith, and me, and we’ll leave Harry James and come with you.” Bellson was a younger and more facile drummer than Greer, and alto-saxophonist Willie Smith was an accomplished section leader even if he was not as charismatic a soloist as Hodges. With Tizol also joining, the loss of the three veterans was not fatal. Harry James did not seem to take the loss to his band personally. At least he had a sense of humor about it. When James heard that the three were leaving to join Ellington, he asked, “Can I come too?

Nevertheless, it was still not the best time for Ellington and his band. In 1953, they recorded “Satin Doll,” Ellington’s last hit record. It was not until the band played the Newport Jazz Festival performance in 1956 and the crowd went crazy that Duke was reborn. But even during the lean years when Mingus passed through, the band had Cat Anderson, Clark Terry and Ray Nance in the trumpet section, Quentin Jackson and Mingus’s old friend Britt Woodman on trombones, and Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, and Jimmy Hamilton on saxes. Mingus was in good company, if only for a few days.

Tizol himself only remained with Duke for two years after what the jazz press was calling the “Great James Raid,” but he was there long enough to tangle with Mingus. As was the case throughout most of his life, Mingus did not take well to insults, real or perceived. According to most commentators, the trouble began when Tizol asked Mingus to play the bass part to music he wanted the band to see. In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, Mingus writes that he found the bass part pitched too low, so he played it an octave higher. Tizol then remarked that Mingus, like “the rest of the niggers in the band,” could not read music.

Tizol’s racial slur led to an argument in which the trombonist eventually pulled a knife. It also led to one of the most memorable passages in Beneath the Underdog. Mingus is quoting Ellington himself after the incident:

“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 Nijinksy 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.”

According to Mingus, Ellington then says that everyone knew Tizol carried a knife but that it was not really a problem. “But you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks,” he tells Mingus. Although Ellington practically never fired a musician in a face-to-face encounter, he may have made an exception with Mingus. The chapter ends with, “The charming way he says it, you feel like he’s paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign.”

Tizol’s version of the story is equally self-serving but very different. And not nearly as amusing. Tizol claims that he used to carry a knife, but that he had given up the practice by 1953. When Mingus looked at the piece of music he had brought in (Tizol says that it wasn’t even something he had written), and when Mingus played it an octave higher, Tizol said, “If I wanted to write for a cello, I would have wrote for a cello.” After trading insults, Tizol retired to his dressing room. When he came back, Mingus apparently thought that Tizol had a knife and grabbed a piece of iron attached to the curtains. A stage hand restrained him from attacking Tizol with it. After the show that night, Tizol says he was so upset that he broke down and cried in his dressing room. Mingus appeared at the door, still angry and still arguing. His manner was so menacing that he had to be restrained again. Not long afterwards, Ellington told his road manager to give Mingus two weeks’ notice. Tizol also insists that he never used the word “nigger.”

Another version of the encounter appears in the autobiography of Clark Terry, who had been in the Ellington trumpet section for two years when the altercation took place. Terry writes that he was in the room with Mingus and Tizol when the trombonist asked Mingus to play the music. When Tizol insisted that Mingus had hit a wrong note, Mingus vociferously insisted that he had not. The argument escalated until Mingus pulled a fire axe off the wall. Terry agrees with Mingus that Tizol did indeed have a knife. It was a switchblade, or as Terry calls it, a “Cuban frog sticker.” When Tizol pushed the button to release the blade, Terry jumped into action. As a youth he had begun a career as a boxer, and he had the skill and the confidence to grab them both until they cooled down. At least according to Terry, that was the end of it. Moments later, they all went on stage and played the gig. Terry says that Mingus was subsequently dismissed because it was not the first time he had been in “a scrap.”

There is even more to the story of Mingus’s dismissal. Gene Santoro suggests that Charles wanted to show off his chops and play bebop while Duke wanted him to play like Jimmie Blanton. And even though Duke expressed interest in Charles’s composition “Mingus Fingers,” he had no regrets about letting him go after Tizol told him that he would quit if Mingus did not.

Duke has a few nice words for Mingus in Music is my Mistress, but he does not express the kind of affection that he does for Tizol. Regardless of whether or not there is any truth in Mingus’s account of how Ellington fired him, it is surely one of the funniest and most convincing accounts of how Ellington behaved backstage with his musicians. Mingus and Ellington would meet again on several occasions, most memorably when they joined Max Roach in the studio for the Money Jungle session. Tizol seems to have scrupulously avoided Mingus after 1953.

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Excerpted from Better Git It In Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus by Krin Gabbard from University of California Press. Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.