It is not always the case that financial rewards flow to the most creative pioneers in our society. Case in point: In 1966, jazz legend Charles Mingus got evicted from his apartment at 5 Great Jones Street due to nonpayment of rent. A young documentary filmmaker named Thomas Reichman had a crew on hand the night before Mingus had to vacate the premises, and he left with some astonishingly poignant footage of Mingus in a garrulous, charming, angry, self-pitying mode.
The footage was incorporated in an hour-long movie that was released two years later with the somewhat confusing title Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, which isn’t what I would call a movie that was shot in 1966. Whatever!
Anyway, Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968 is quite fascinating. Mingus is fully aware that Reichman and his crew are there, of course, and he is in his most florid and theatrical mode. Early on Mingus delivers a lengthy impromptu “pledge of allegiance” that starts like this:
I pledge allegiance to the flag—the white flag. I pledge allegiance to the flag of America. When they say “black” or “negro,” it means you’re not an American. I pledge allegiance to your flag. Not that I have to, but just for the hell of it I pledge allegiance. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. The white flag, with no stripes, no stars. It is a prestige badge worn by a profitable minority.
Later on he sings the altered refrain of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with the line “sweet land of slavery.” He unloads his shotgun into a nearby expanse of plaster and asks his young daughter Kiki to tug on a noose made of trick theatrical rope that he has placed around his neck.
The movie alternates between scenes of Mingus about to be evicted with some footage of his combo tearing it up at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike in Peabody, Massachusetts. Really, what makes the eviction footage even sadder is that it may have caught the moment that defined the end of Mingus’ productive years. Mingus’ truly great period began with Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um in 1959 and lasted until about 1964, when the Town Hall Concert, 1964 came out. After his eviction, Mingus didn’t release an album of any kind (studio or live) until 1970, when Unique Records put out Sextet Live in Europe. Mingus had had a run for the ages, but now he couldn’t back anything financially and those days were over.
Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968 got a good deal of attention at the time. The May 17, 1968, edition of the New York Times featured a review of the movie, in which Vincent Canby referred to the documentary as “a very personal, very moving portrait of a man dispossessed.” Sadly, after winning an Oscar in 1972 for his involvement on a movie called Marjoe, Thomas Reichman was found dead in his Barrow Street apartment in 1975, the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It’s difficult not to think of Mingus firing the shotgun in his apartment, which was documented in Reichman’s movie.