And I can hear myself saying, “No, don’t do it,” as I read Charles Mingus begging the guard at Bellevue to let him in.
As he tells it in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, it’s the late 1950s and Mingus hasn’t slept in three weeks, his brain was like “a crazy TV set flicking picture stories in color and black-and-white.” He was wired, “sped-up,” walked the streets for hours with maybe-thoughts of visiting friends at Birdland but canceled the idea of dropping by to talk to someone anyone, who just might listen and help him unwind.
I decided if I called anybody they’d think I was only trying to get sympathy and attention. I kept walking across town, trying to think what in hell I’d done with my life.
Mingus considered his fifteen albums, the hundreds of recordings, the music he’d written and the music he’d yet to write, but still his brain sped on. Then he reached Bellevue with a big sentry guard standing on the other side of the gates, watching the musician approach. And that’s when I’m thinking, “No Mingus, don’t ask.”
I said, “Look, man, I haven’t slept in three weeks,” and he said, “This is no rest home, this place is for the mentally disturbed.”
“Look, man,” I said, “I am mentally disturbed. I’m a musician, I need help, and I once saw a film that said if you need help the first and most difficult task is having the guts to ask for it, so help me, man!”
The gatekeeper said, “I done told you this not where you want to go if you just sleepy. I can see from here you look a little tired, so go home, man, and go to bed. Ain’t crazy or nothing, are you?”
I said, “Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.”
And he said, “Well, take my word for it, you don’t want to come in here. If I was to let you in first thing you’d say when I close that door behind you is “Lemme out, I ain’t crazy!”
Mingus shoulda listened. First thing over the gate, “Here’s that crazy one,” and buttoned-up tight in a strait-jacket—O, America, so this is how you treat genius?
Inside, Mingus can’t sleep, there’s snoring and crying and farting and still no peace. It’s near breakfast and soon the nurses will do their rounds and Mingus will have to get up, eat some food, take his meds, and listen to the blatherings of some racist psycho-doc.
Then I heard him say to another doctor, “Negroes are paranoiac, unrealistic people who believe the whole world is against them.”
I said, “Tell me, doctor, do you mean all Negroes on this earth or only the Negroes in this room?”
He said, “I see I’m getting through to Mingus now,” and I said, “That you are Herr Doktor. Tell me, is this paranoia we all have curable?”
And he said, “Yes, this is what I am so happy to tell you. I can cure this disease with a simple operation on the frontal lobe, called a lobotomy, and then you’ll be all right.”
As soon as he gets out of the interview with Herr Doktor, Mingus looks for a phone. He calls his friend Nat Hentoff and tells him where he is. He can’t talk long, there’s a Nazi doctor, “a prejudiced white cocksucker so high on white supremacy that he’s blowing the whole USA scene on integration singlehanded… Nat I’m scared. You gotta get me out of here!”
Getting in was easy, getting out’s the problem. A lawyer drops by and tells Mingus he’s under supervision for two weeks. They saw needle marks and they don’t believe these are for “reducing the fatty tumor” on his arm. The lawyer tells him to bide his time, get some rest, take it easy—as if these were options.
Mingus goes to the art room, does some painting, finds one by Thelonious Monk (an ax in an apple) and then starts writing down something that might make sense:
I have not vanished or given up music although to many it may seem that I have. For whatever reason, the only albums of my recordings that have been recently made available to the public are at least three years old. I have worked in a few jazz clubs lately but from the people outside New York who have liked my music I have gotten letters wondering where I disappeared to. Before and during this apparent layoff from productivity, however, I have been producing as always and perhaps more because there were few to hear my voice and my need is to express my thoughts and feelings as fully as is humanly possible all the time, I have worked and I have produced music that has not been played and I have written words that have not been read….
Mingus can’t concentrate, too much hubbub, he notices a kid opposite playing chess. A math genius who checkmates him every game. Next day, Mingus writes “Hellview of Bellevue,” a seven point list of what is wrong with the institution and its doctors. He’s had no sleep, but hasn’t lost his sense of humor:
4. Dr. Bonk keeps saying I am a failure. I did not come here to discuss my career or I would have brought a press agent.
He knows it was a mistake to have begged to come in and claims it was a protest over his own psychotherapist, and finishes number seven with: “I have learned my lesson. Let me have my freedom.”
No dice. The next day Mingus writes a song “All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother,” which he later records. His visitors make him realize what a mistake he has made, but then he thinks, maybe he can use his time in Bellevue to help others. He talks to “Chess,” the kid math genius:
“Why don’t you and me and The Dancer get all these nuts together and start up a school? Look around at these poor bastards, look at all that confusion. Between the three of us we got a university—math, chess, languages, music dancing.”
They dig the idea, the nurses dig the idea and arrange a room and a blackboard, but the cartoon Herr Doktor Bonk raised his eyebrows and said:
“Mr. Mingus is going to organize Bellevue for us. May I comment that compulsive organization is one of the prime traits of paranoia.
You can almost hear the scalpel being sharpened. Mingus leaves the room and keeps his head down for the duration. Days go by, then Mingus finds himself in an office opposite a nurse who tells him he can make a call and have someone collect him.
“We are only trying to help you here at Bellevue.”
Later, when Mingus thought about his naivety in seeking treatment at Bellevue, he wrote:
“All of us who stay sane, stay inside our own cages all the time.”
Bellevue’s had its fair share of talents behind its doors: Eugene O’Neill, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Malcolm Lowry and Charles Mingus. They were all lucky, they got out, and some say “Chess” the math genius was Bobby Fischer.
Charles Mingus performing in Belgium, Norway and Sweden, with Eric Dolphy (sax,bass clarinet and flute), Clifford Jordan (tenor sax), Jaki Byard (piano), Dannie Richmond (drums) and Johnny Coles (trumpet). Tracks: “So Long Eric,” “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” “Meditations On Integration,” “Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress,Then Blue Silk,” “Parkeriana,” “Take The ‘A’ Train.”
Previously on Dangerous Minds
‘Mingus’: Powerful and heartbreaking documentary portrait of the Jazz giant