William Matthews

Mingus at The Half Note

Two dozen bars or so into “Better Get It
in Your Soul,” the band mossy with sweat,
May 1960 at The Half Note, the rain
on the black streets outside
dusted here and there by the pale pollen
of the streetlights. Blue wreaths
of smoke, the excited calm
of the hip in congregation, the long
night before us like a view and Danny
Richmond so strung out the drums
fizz and seethe. “Ho, hole, hode it,”
Mingus shouts, and the band clatters
to fraught silence. There’s a twinge
in the pianist’s shoulder, but this time
Mingus focuses like a nozzle
his surge of imprecations on a sleek
black man bent chattering across
a table to his lavish date:
“This is your heritage and if you
don’ wanna listen, then you got
someplace else you’d better be.”
The poor jerk takes a few beats
to realize he’ll have to leave
while we all watch before another
note gets played. He glowers dimly
at Mingus, like throwing a rock
at a cliff, then offers his date
a disdained arm, and they leave in single
file (she’s first) and don’t
look back, nor at each other.
“Don’t let me constrain you revelers,”
Mingus says, and then, tamed by his own rage
for now, he kick-starts the band:
“One, two, one two three four.”