Juan Tizol , a talented Valve-Trombone place himself only played with Duke Ellington for two years but he was there long enough to tangle with the famous Bass Player/Composer. Semi -lunatic, Charles 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.”
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
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
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.