Great Encounters #44 — Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean and their “nearly murderous confrontation”

March 29th, 2016


“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons.  This edition tells the story of the violent, physical confrontation that took place between Charles Mingus and Jackie McLean while touring in Cleveland, 1956

Excerpted from Better Git it in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus, by Krin Gabbard


  jackie-mclean[1]Jackie McLean

 mingus1Charles Mingus




Any mature jazz artist with the ability and the desire to succeed will have shared the stage with a long list of musicians.  But Charles Mingus seems to have played with everyone from Kid Ory to George Adams and at every stop along the paths of jazz history.  Once he became a leader, he hired and fired a long list of sidepeople.  Some stayed longer than others.  Many were quickly discarded because Mingus did not always like what he heard.  And there were plenty who left on their own, unwilling to engage with Mingus’s music or with Mingus himself.  The genial tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, for example, says in his autobiography that he “never wanted to work with Mingus because he often hollered at his musicians on the bandstand and wouldn’t hesitate to stop a performance.  I loved his music, but I didn’t want to play with him because I was intimidated by him.”

At least one musician continued working with Mingus even after a nearly murderous confrontation.  Jackie McLean had already recorded several times with Miles Davis when he joined the Jazz Workshop in 1956.  Within a few days he was in the studio with Mingus to record Pithecanthropus Erectus, the first of the many great LPs that Charles would make with Atlantic Records.  At this early stage in their relationship, Mingus was sufficiently impressed by McLean to record a tune called “Profile of Jackie.”  On the bandstand, however, Mingus regularly berated McLean for sounding too much like Charlie Parker.

When the band was in Cleveland on tour, Mingus was so aggressive in his public criticisms of McLean that, at the end of the set, Jackie announced that he was giving two weeks’ notice.  According to Derek Ansell, Mingus then punched McLean in the mouth, knocking out two of his teeth.  McLean pulled out a knife and would have severely injured Mingus had someone not accidentally bumped his arm.  The knife struck Mingus in the stomach, but the cut was not deep.  Mingus fired McLean on the spot, leaving him penniless in Cleveland.  He had to pawn his saxophone to get back home.

A year later, Mingus invited McLean to join him for a gig at Birdland, and McLean showed up.  Mingus hugged him and laughingly showed him the small scar from their altercation in Cleveland.  He then invited McLean to rejoin the band, which he did, though only for four months.  In spite of the constant stress that Mingus imposed on his musicians, McLean stayed on because the band leader “helped me to discover myself and to become more concerned with being original” and not another Bird imitator.





Excerpted from Better Git it in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus, by Krin Gabbard




“Profile of Jackie” 

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