Volume X, Special Issue on Jazz

"Playing the Clown: Charles Mingus, Jimmy Knepper and Jerry Maguire" by Krin Gabbard

Krin Gabbard is a film and jazz scholar. His name is familiar to many readers from the volume Psychiatry and the Cinema (1987) that he co-authored with his brother Glen O. Gabbard. After the publication of the anthologies, Jazz Among the Discourses and Representing Jazz (both Duke Univ. Press, 1995), he was hailed as one of the fathers of “New Jazz Studies.” His highly acclaimed Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (1996) was followed by Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture (2004) and Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture (2009). While researching the latter, he again took up the trumpet, which he used to play as a student. Professor Gabbard became an Affiliated Faculty Member at the Center for Jazz Study at Columbia University in 2001 and has been teaching at Stony Brook University, New York, since 1981. The essay published here is to appear in his upcoming biography on Charles Mingus. Email:

Any mature jazz artist with the ability and the desire to succeed will have shared bandstands with a long list of musicians. But Charles Mingus seems to have played with everyone. Because of his mastery of his instrument and his history of playing in all jazz styles, he played with Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Hamiet Bluiett, and many others at every stop along the paths of jazz history. Once he became a leader, he hired and fired an especially long list of sidepeople. Some stayed longer than others, but many were quickly discarded because Mingus did not always like what he heard. Or because he liked what he heard before he heard what he did not like. And there were plenty who left on their own, unwilling to engage with Mingus’s music or with Mingus himself. In his autobiography, the genial tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath says 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” (Heath 164).

At least at first, trombonist Jimmy Knepper was not intimidated. He was in the studio in 1957 when Mingus recorded his second LP for Atlantic, The Clown. The trombonist is brilliant playing the clown on the title track of the LP, but he is just as impressive on “Haitian Fight Song,” a song celebrating the victories of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of slave rebellions in Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century. “Haitian Fight Song” begins with a bass solo followed by the theme played several times by the ensemble, each time more assertively. As the ensemble crescendos, Mingus utters one of his signature cries for the first time in his recording career.

A few months before “Haitian Fight Song” was recorded in March, 1957, the Supreme Court had ruled that bus segregation was illegal, thus granting Martin Luther King a solid civil rights victory in the thirteen-month-long boycott of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in which he played a major role after Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus. In February of 1957, King had appeared on the cover of Time magazine as its “Man of the Year.” The civil rights movement of the second half of the twentieth century had definitively begun. The intensity of “Haitian Fight Song” and Mingus’s cries may have been inspired by the national cry for equal rights, but it may also have reflected a new enthusiasm for the relationship Mingus was developing with his two new sidepeople, Knepper and Richmond.

The 1957 recording of “Haitian Fight Song” is also significant for the part it plays in a Hollywood film, Jerry Maguire, directed by Cameron Crowe and released in 1996. Perhaps the most famous scene in Jerry Maguire takes place early in the film when the eponymous sports agent played by Tom Cruise is losing his clients. He manages to hang on to only one, an outspoken African American football player named Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.). While the lights on the buttons on his telephone flicker out one by one as each of his clients fades away, Jerry/Cruise is detained by Rod/Gooding who demands that Jerry repeat the phrase “Show me the money.” While Rod dances shirtless in his kitchen, Jerry must shout repeatedly into the telephone exactly what Rod tells him to shout. The scene ends when Rod drastically changes his tone and matter-of-factly assures Jerry that he is still his agent. In an extremely rare moment in the history of American entertainment, the white hero has effectively put on a show at the request of a black man. Ever since the minstrel shows of the nineteenth century, a great many African Americans have been performing for the pleasure of white Americans. And slave musicians on plantations were surely playing for whites well before minstrelsy. As I will argue shortly, the recording of “Haitian Fight Song,” in which a white trombonist performs for his black leader, is provocatively relevant to a film in which a white agent must perform for his black client.

A Brilliant but Conflicted Musical Relationship

Both Mingus and Knepper grew up in Los Angeles. Mingus first hired the trombonist in the summer of 1946 when he was leading a band at Billie Berg’s, the hippest jazz club in Los Angeles at that time (Porter 5). Even earlier, before he was eighteen, Knepper played in a band with Dean Benedetti, who would later become famous for dragging a tape recorder into night clubs to record every solo by Charlie Parker. In fact, when Benedetti first began making his Parker tapes, he and Knepper were living in the same house with Jimmy’s mother. Knepper assisted Benedetti on many of his first foray into the clubs where they could record Parker. By 1947, when he was twenty, Knepper had already begun the difficult work of transcribing Parker’s solos and studying them (Porter 8). Later, after he had moved to New York, Knepper and saxophonist Joe Maini rented an apartment on 130th Street in Harlem where musicians, including Parker, would come for jam sessions. Knepper made sure that the tape recorder was always working when Parker played. As he had done in Los Angeles, he would transcribe everything he recorded and transpose it down an octave. He would then practice Parker’s solos on his trombone in the way that other musicians would play études. Trombonist Sam Burtis says that Knepper also made J.S. Bach’s complex cello sonatas part of his practice regime1.

Playing the alto saxophone is, of course, very different from playing the trombone. The slide makes Charlie Parker’s lightning-fast runs almost impossible. Knepper was born with long arms so that he could comfortably extend the slide of his instrument to greater lengths than was typical, but like many jazz trombonists, he had mastered the art of playing fast and in tune with the slide just a few inches from the mouthpiece. Many of the best trombonists never even used the fifth and sixth positions toward the end of the slide. Knepper was a “double threat,” able to play at both the top and the bottom of the slide.

For Knepper, the Parker études definitely paid off. Loren Schoenberg, who regularly worked with Knepper in various ensembles, told me that he knew of no other jazz artist who had so thoroughly mastered the musical vocabulary developed by Parker2. Burtis, who first heard Knepper in 1966, said that Jimmy’s sound was so complex and so full of overtones that he looked around the room to see if there were any other trombonists playing3. Both Schoenberg and Burtis have compared Knepper favorably to other bop trombonists such as J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Curtis Fuller, and Slide Hampton, and both insist that Knepper was more advanced than all of them. Although Knepper drew on the innovations of Parker, his exposure to Bach and a wide range of other musics made him something other than the kind of Parker imitator that Mingus was fond of firing.

In 1956, Knepper had a recording date with RCA Victor in a four-trombone group called “Trombone Scene.” One of the other musicians was Willie Dennis, who had played with Mingus in 1953 on Mingus’s own Debut label. It was Dennis who re-introduced Knepper to Mingus. The rapport was instant. After only a few days in the Workshop, Knepper joined Mingus in the studio to record The Clown. The first tune that Mingus recorded was the title tune with its elaborate feature for Knepper. Just a few weeks after the Atlantic sessions, Mingus brought Knepper and Richmond along with alto saxophonist Joe Maini and pianist Bill Triglia to record an LP called New Faces for Debut. Although Mingus was the bassist on the recording, Knepper was listed as the leader. Knepper was a regular with Mingus groups for the next few years while also working in a small group led by clarinetist Tony Scott and in the big band of Stan Kenton. Gil Evans hired Knepper on several occasions, both for his own records as well as for the large orchestra that Evans conducted behind Miles Davis on the Live at Carnegie Hall LP in 1961. Gunther Schuller and John Lewis also discovered Knepper’s talents and made him the go-to trombone player on several Third Stream recording sessions.

For several years Knepper and Mingus were friends. In the late 1950s, when many Americans were replacing their old record-players with stereophonic component systems, Knepper came to Mingus’s apartment to set up his system. When Debut records went out of business in 1957, Mingus set up a new record company, Jazz Workshop Records. Only two LPs were issued during this short-lived venture, both of them previously unreleased recordings that Knepper had made of Charlie Parker. He gave them to Mingus free of charge.

When his band had a West Coast gig in the early 1960s, Mingus decided to drive all the way from New York in a Buick he had purchased a few years earlier. Mingus was by this time sufficiently successful to have purchased a Cadillac limousine. No longer in need of the Buick, he thought he could sell it for more money in California than in New York. The plan was to drive east with several members of the band, leave the Buick with his childhood friend Buddy Collette, and then fly home. But when a sideman showed up for the trip with a wife who was either drunk or stoned, Mingus decided to make the journey alone with Knepper in his new Cadillac. The other band members would take their own cars. After driving for several hours, Mingus asked Knepper to take the wheel, only to discover that Knepper’s driver’s license had expired. Rejecting Knepper’s claim that he should not be driving, Mingus replied, “Nobody stops a Caddie limo” (Santoro 187). They made the trip in four days, stopping as seldom and as briefly as possible, never even once pulled over by a state trooper. Mingus was nevertheless uncomfortable traveling with a white person through middle America, and not just because of fear of racist reprisals. He may have been just as uncomfortable when people took him for something other than the leader of a band and the employer of the white man in his car. Nevertheless, the road trip brought both men to LA without incident. In fact, they roomed together in Los Angeles after they arrived. According to Buddy Collette, after Mingus and Knepper had arrived in LA, Mingus told the trombonist to sit in the driver’s seat wearing a chauffeur’s hat, while Mingus and Collette sat in the back, all of them enjoying the spectacle of a white man chauffeuring two black men around town (Collette 27).

Mingus was not, however, consistently benevolent toward Knepper. The journalist Patricia Willard tells of a club date when Mingus began complaining about how terrible it was to have a white man in his group, especially when he was touring the south. According to Mingus biographer Gene Santoro, Mattie Comfort, the light-skinned black wife of bassist Joe Comfort, was sitting with Willard and cried out, “Leave that white boy alone. He loves you.” Mingus replied, “You’re not black enough to talk to me like that.” Mattie then said, “You’re lighter than I am, Mingus” (Santoro 189). Brian Priestley, who wrote an earlier biography of Mingus, reports the incident a bit differently. When a fan asked Mingus why he said such terrible things about Knepper, a nice man who contributed so much to Mingus’s music and who clearly loved him, Mingus answered, “Don’t mess with my act” (Priestley 87). I will argue shortly that the act to which Mingus refers was a kind of reverse minstrelsy and that he found various ways to work Knepper into that act.

By the time the band’s West Coast sojourn was over, Knepper had had enough, and he gave Mingus notice. It was also at about this time that Knepper bought a house in Staten Island where he would live out the rest of his life. One day in September of 1962, Knepper decided to drop in on Mingus, who was then planning a major event at Town Hall and who needed someone to help him copy out individual parts for a large group of musicians. Knepper was hired back, but within a few weeks, the relationship had turned sinister. For the Town Hall concert, Mingus was assembling an orchestra with seven trumpets, six trombones, ten reeds (including a classical oboist), a guitar, two pianos, two basses, and three percussionists. The event was produced by impresario George Wein with whom Mingus had a relationship dating back to the early 1950s. Mingus felt the pressure to come up with elaborately composed music, and as the time for the event drew closer, he was increasingly unprepared and increasingly desperate. At a midnight rehearsal the night before the concert, he tried to teach the musicians some background figures by singing them. This kind of thing had worked for the Workshoppers, who were used to it. But for a band as large as the one that was about to perform at Town Hall, he needed stacks of written music. He told Wein to advertise the event as a rehearsal rather than a concert, and at the actual event he surprised everyone, most notably Wein, by telling the audience they could get their money back if they had come expecting a concert.

Mingus had a good reason for hiring Knepper to write out parts for the musicians. Mingus’s handwritten scores look like cat scratches compared to Knepper’s elegant handwriting. But during the years when Knepper was Mingus’s copyist, the music was often arranged differently from what Mingus had originally intended. Mingus seldom acknowledged the contributions that Knepper was making to his music, but he continued to employ him as a copyist. Bill Crow told me that Mingus may have thought that Knepper would be his Billy Strayhorn4. Strayhorn, who was Duke Ellington’s composing and arranging partner from 1939 until his death in 1967, was gay and fairly open about it at a time when people were regularly losing their jobs because of their sexual orientations. Realizing that he ran certain risks as “Billy Strayhorn and His Orchestra,” he effectively concealed his musical as well as his personal identity within the Ellington organization. Although Ellington never paid Strayhorn a salary, he treated him like a son, taking care of his rent, his bills, and his travel expenses. Later, Duke made sure that Stayhorn received a portion of the royalties from Ellington’s publishing company. But Ellington never had trouble taking credit for much of what Strayhorn contributed. The two men definitely loved each other, but Strayhorn was not always entirely happy with his decision to let Ellington take the bows that should have gone to him. As David Hajdu points out in his definitive biography of Strayhorn, the arrangement with Ellington may have been one reason why Strayhorn effectively drank himself to death (Hajdu). He died of esophageal cancer at the age of forty-one.

Knepper, however, never intended to be Mingus’s Strayhorn. Although he did receive wages for his work as a copyist, Knepper thought Mingus should pay him for his arrangements as well. It all came to a terrible conclusion on the day of the Town Hall event. Knepper was working quickly to produce the individual parts from the music that Mingus was giving him. When Mingus asked Jimmy to write some figures for the band to play behind soloists, Knepper balked. He later told Whitney Balliett, “I told him it was his music and he should do it, it should be his composition, and suddenly he called me a white faggot and punched me” (Balliett 57). I cannot help wondering if Mingus’s use of the term “faggot” to describe the heterosexual Knepper was an unintentional acknowledgement of Mingus’s fantasy of making Knepper his Strayhorn. Knepper’s refusal to write the accompanying figures surely reflected his conviction that he should be paid for arranging and composing as well as for copying parts.

When Mingus wrote his autobiography in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he included a paragraph about Knepper that adds detail to the story of their altercation before the Town Hall event. Nel King and Regina Ryan, who edited the book for Mingus, reduced the typescript that eventually became Beneath the Underdog by more than a third before it was published in 1971 (Mingus 1971). The typescript, running to nearly one thousand pages, is now in the Mingus collection at the Library of Congress. In a passage that does not appear in the published autobiography, Mingus says this to his friend and confessor, the trumpeter Fats Navarro:

Like the latest joke that the white man was telling on studio sets not long ago was that the slogan “Brotherhood Week” was “Take a nigger to lunch.” My famed white trombonist, Jimmy Knepper, told me this as though he were an innocent child without the proper mental faculties to place himself in the position of a black man seeking freedom that’s long past overdue, having to sit with a stupid white man like him and pay him a salary besides. (Mingus typescript 218)

Clearly, beneath the affection and profound musical sympathy between Mingus and Knepper, there was some unresolved tension. The punch that Mingus delivered to Knepper’s face was severe enough to knock out one of Knepper’s teeth. Knepper says that at this point he chose to fall down so that Mingus could not punch him again. Mingus would later tell the judge that Knepper had come to his apartment drunk and fallen down. He also said that Knepper had called him a nigger (Santoro 212).

Because Mingus had damaged his embouchure, Knepper was unable to play for several weeks. When he went back to the trombone after the wounds had healed, he found that, at least at first, he had lost some notes in the upper register. Lawsuits and recriminations followed. Surprisingly, like Jackie McLean, who also lost a tooth in an altercation with Mingus, Knepper agreed to play with Mingus again, but not until nine years had passed. When contractor Alan Raph brought in Knepper to play in a large ensemble to record the music for Mingus’s Let My Children Hear Music LP in 1971, the two men did not reconcile. Knepper said that when he saw Mingus in the studio, “Mingus didn’t say a word. He just sat over in the corner” (Balliett 58). Gene Santoro, however, has written that Knepper reached out to Mingus during the last months of his life when Charles was partially paralyzed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. When Knepper called to wish Mingus a happy birthday, Charles complained about the arrangements that were being assembled for the LP that Joni Mitchell was recording (Santoro 376). Mitchell’s LP Mingus would be released shortly after Mingus’s death, and there is every reason to believe that Mingus would not have enjoyed hearing his music played in a non-Mingus style by a group of musicians who had for many years played a more a marketable brand of jazz. It is possible, however, that at least one of the tracks on the LP was arranged by Knepper.

Jimmy Knepper would continue to play in the larger ensembles that Mingus or his surrogates led in the last years of his life. He was also regularly employed by Gil Evans, Chuck Israel’s National Jazz Ensemble, and the Smithsonian Masterworks Orchestra. He had a long residency at the Village Vanguard as a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. In 1988 he would record memorably with an early incarnation of the Mingus Big Band at a concert at the Théâtre Boulogne-Billancourt in Paris.

The White Trombonist as Sideman

In an unpublished paper, “Notes on Tromboning Whiteness,” the musical anthropologist Steven Feld has observed that jazz history includes three prominent examples of white trombonists playing with black leaders. First, there was Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden. They played together on many occasions, most notably when Teagarden recorded and toured with Armstrong and his All-Stars from 1947 until 1951. Teagarden was often the only white person in Armstrong’s group throughout most of that period. He was frequently disgusted when he was in a good, segregated hotel while the band was in a mediocre place on the other side of the tracks. When the band performed, Armstrong and Teagarden would often sing together and cut up on stage. There is a delightful video of the two singing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” when they were reunited for a television broadcast in 1957. They engage in their own brand of call and response, with Armstrong making side remarks after each of Teagarden’s phrases, and then Teagarden doing the same while Armstrong takes over the song. When Teagarden sings, “Hand me that gin, son, ‘fore I tan your hide,” Armstrong sings back, “My hide’s already tan, Fatha.” Of the Armstrong/Teagarden collaboration, Feld writes

In the All Stars, Jack Teagarden was the completing complement of LouisArmstrong. Whether he played the shil, the bantering sidekick, the straight man, the co-mugger, the clown, or the swinging hipster accomplice, he was always the ultimate noncompetitive supporter, the consummate accompanying front man, the very definition of a principal second, someone secure enough in his own musical strengths to delight in playing alongside a stylistic powerhouse. (Feld 10)

According to those who knew them, the two men greatly admired each other enough, and neither was disturbed by the idea of a white man being employed by a black man. And neither were many in the audience.

The white trombonist Roswell Rudd made great music in the 1960s in groups led by the avant-garde saxophonist Archie Shepp. As of this writing the two are still alive and have staged several reunions over the years. Shepp was especially militant in the 1960s, frequently denouncing white owners of record companies and jazz clubs for their mistreatment of black musicians. When I asked Rudd if there was ever any racial tension when he played or recorded with Shepp, he assured me that whatever hatred for whites Shepp expressed in public was never turned on him. In fact, he referred to his recording sessions with Shepp as “party time.”5 Writing about the recording of “Naima” on Shepp’s 1964 Impulse LP, Four For Trane, Feld praises Rudd’s arrangement of the song for its evocation of the spirit of both Charles Ives and Duke Ellington: “Forms of musical modernism then largely coded as ‘white experimentalism’ are allowed to linger and develop eloquently in the theatre of black avant-gardism” (Feld 18).

Chronologically in between these two pairs of white trombonists and black leaders are Knepper and Mingus, certainly the most complicated of the three. As Knepper himself put it, Mingus “had trouble with black and white, and he was childish and all the rest, but he had exuberance and warmth” (Balliett 55). Mingus’s “trouble with black and white” may explain his decision to feature Knepper on “The Clown” on the very first day they were in a studio together after that early Los Angeles session in 1949. It may also explain the reverse minstrelsy that was part of Mingus’s “act” when Knepper was in his band.

For “The Clown,” Mingus had brought in the radio personality Jean Shepherd to improvise some narration around a story by Mingus about a clown whose success with the public improved dramatically after mishaps such as falling down and bloodying his nose. Although Shepherd creates a compelling narrative, Knepper does such a good job of playing the clown with his trombone that the narration is almost irrelevant. As Jennifer Griffith has pointed out, some of the other sounds coming out of the Mingus’s quintet recall the vaudeville sound effects on recordings from the 1920s by Jelly Roll Morton, one of Mingus’s idols and role models, who emerged from a minstrel tradition (Griffith 362). On the 1957 recording of “The Clown,” saxophonist Curtis Porter and pianist Wade Legge have some straight-ahead solo space, but Knepper’s trombone is the dominant voice behind Shepherd’s voice. He is the one who is playing the clown, consistently finding effects – some less musical than others – to suggest a clown’s antics.

Mingus’s recording of “The Clown” was neither the first nor the last example of a trombone being associated with clowns. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (1920) is named for the clown-like trickster in Commedia dell’Arte and includes wide glissandi from the trombones to represent his persona. At least at first, symphony trombonists who performed the piece were loath to use the slide in this way, surely because they associated it with the vernacular music played by jazz and African American musicians. As Trevor Herbert has pointed out, some trombonists even refused to enter the despised realm of the jazz artist and played a series of descending eighth notes instead of the glissando (Herbert 248). But when executed according to Stravinsky’s instructions, the glissandi are completely compatible with the composer’s gnomish humor.

In 1934, the French director Jean Vigo made L’Atalante in which a clown-like intruder tries to woo the heroine with his trombone. In Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada, a character called Il Matto or The Fool (Richard Basehart) works a trombone into his circus act. The Fool is much more devoted to his trombone and his clown act than he is to Gelsomina, the enchanting waif played by Giulietta Masina who would have run off with The Fool had he not told her to stay with the abusive strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). And in 1966, the Italian composer Luciano Berio wrote Sequenza 5, a feature for a trombonist who is directed to stand in front of the orchestra in a clown suit while he solos.

Clowns had been important to Mingus for a long time. Like anyone, he had seen paintings by Picasso and circus posters. But his eastern-flavored religious readings had led him to see Christ as a “holy fool” and to appreciate lost innocents like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (Santoro 127). In 1971 Mingus recorded a piece he claimed to have written much earlier, “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too.” There is a definite connection between clowns and minstrel men, if only because many of the first performers who invented minstrelsy in early nineteenth-century America had previously worked as circus clowns. In minstrelsy, white men put burnt cork on their faces and acted out stereotypical images of African Americans and their music. Later, black people themselves took prominent roles in minstrel shows.

By the late nineteenth century, minstrelsy was the dominant form of entertainment in the United States, especially for black performers. Well into the twentieth century, many actors were still performing in blackface. Al Jolson was only the most famous for The Jazz Singer (1927) and his subsequent film, The Singing Fool (1928), which culminated with Jolson’s character singing “Sonny Boy” in blackface shortly after the demise of his young son. The Singing Fool would be America’s biggest box office hit for the next eleven years, surpassed in 1939 by no less than Gone with the Wind. But in addition to Jolson, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland all blacked up in movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Even Doris Day appeared in blackface when she imitated Jolson in I’ll See You in My Dreams, a film released in 1952. Minstrelsy had provided a path into show business for many black performers, including Bert Williams, one of the most popular entertainers of the early twentieth century. Although he was dark-skinned, Williams performed with burnt cork all over his face except for his lips, which he painted white. Long after Williams died in 1922, many black performers retained minstrel mannerisms, even if burnt cork was no longer being applied to their faces.

Mingus was surely aware of minstrelsy. He parodies it raucously in his 1961 recording of “Eat That Chicken.” Griffith has found phrases in “Eat That Chicken” that are strikingly similar to passages in a song by the white minstrel Frank Dumont called “Bake Dat Chicken Pie,” first recorded in 1907 (Griffith 365). Mingus may not have known the original recording, but he surely could have heard some version of the tune at a performance or on a record. Mingus’s “Eat That Chicken” includes references to the verbal asides of Fats Waller and the gravel-voice of Armstrong, all of them performed broadly by Mingus himself. He knew that both Waller and Armstrong had to include minstrel practices in their acts or risk losing their audiences. “Mingus commented on the contemporary modality of white misconceptions imposed on black identity while simultaneously nodding to precursor black entertainers who had had to restrict their overt parodies of these misconceptions to black audiences” (366).

Part of Mingus’s habit of lecturing and hectoring his audiences grew out of his desire to distinguish black entertainers like himself from the old minstrel men but also from more contemporary black performers who could not completely abandon minstrel gestures. But Mingus was also unwilling to emulate Miles Davis, whose rejection of minstrelsy meant ignoring the audience. Griffith writes, “Mingus’s alternative to the stage strategies/personae of Armstrong and Davis refused the white construction of black masculinity, neither kow-towing in the way he perceived Armstrong had, nor silently resisting as did Davis. He acted out a narrative of personal struggle with race rather than acting out a personality onstage, or an enigma” (358).

Mingus’s anti-minstrel habit of berating his audiences often invoked racial issues that virtually every other jazz artist scrupulously avoided. On the recordings of “The Clown” and “Eat That Chicken” and at many performances in the late 1950s, Jimmy Knepper was the only white musician in the band. It would have been completely unlike Mingus for him to imitate other jazz artists – white and black – and feign color-blindness. In the liner notes to The Clown, Mingus described how he felt about the bass solo with which he begins “Haitian Fight Song”: “I can’t play it unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is.” He could not resist turning some of this toward Knepper. His anger at America’s appalling history of persecuting African Americans surely trumped any affection and admiration he had for the trombonist.

Of course, there are other ways of interpreting “The Clown.” It can also be heard as a race-free allegory of the artist’s predicament. I would compare it to Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” whose protagonist gives everything to his craft, even putting his life at risk, and all for an audience that is largely oblivious. Whether or not he knew the Kafka story, Mingus knew that the jazz artist was in a similar predicament. Nevertheless, there is no way around the fact that Mingus was asking a white man to play the clown. The fact that Knepper played the trombone made Mingus’s job easier, in spite of the fact that Knepper was among the most accomplished musicians ever to take up the instrument. At least at first, Knepper did not mind because he knew that he was in on the joke, as when he engaged in another kind of reverse minstrelsy and served as the white chauffeur for two black passengers. And of course, he also knew that he and Mingus were making extraordinary music together.

In addition to his work in anthropology and music studies, Steven Feld is a trombonist. He took a few lessons with Knepper in the 1970s and was consistently impressed by his devotion to his music. Feld told me that “Knepper really knew Mingus’s music as well as anyone could know it — as a player, arranger, re-arranger, and historian. That was the bottom line for me. He was such a committed and professional musician that once he was in the music he could put aside the crappy life-with-Mingus chapters and just play his ass off.”6

Indeed, all of the people with whom I spoke about Jimmy Knepper expressed great affection for the man. Although he rarely smiled, everyone mentioned his wry, perfectly pointed sense of humor. Once, when the two were traveling to a gig in a bus together, Loren Schoenberg told me that he was sitting across the aisle from Knepper. Schoenberg was saying that his plans for the evening were simple: he was going straight to his hotel room and curl up with the New York Times crossword puzzle. Later that day, when Schoenberg opened up his newspaper, he found that Knepper had completely filled in all the boxes on the puzzle. But he did so with very light pencil marks so that Loren could easily erase them and start from scratch on his own.7

Sam Burtis told me that at some point in the 1970s Knepper essentially gave up any hope of being recognized as an important artist, let alone making a good living as a jazz musician. He bought some property in Staten Island where he lived in one house and rented out another. In one year he made more money as a landlord than as a musician8. When he took the jobs playing with his old antagonist Mingus in the 1970s, it was primarily because he needed the money. He was not too proud to take any number of jobs well outside the domain of an accomplished jazz artist. During a stretch of three years and nine months, he played in the pit orchestra for the Broadway show Funny Girl. Jeff Nussbaum says that he once saw Knepper playing in a religious parade band in an Italian American section of Brooklyn9. It is not too extreme to say that Knepper died in obscurity in 2003.

“What Is This Music?”

Elsewhere I have written about the Hollywood film industry’s habit of keeping black faces off the screen while making abundant use of the romantic potential in their voices (Gabbard 2004). There is a long list of American films in which white people fall in love on the screen while audiences hear the voices of invisible black singers. In Jerry Maguire the white couple played by Tom Cruise and Renée Zellweger do in fact make love while black music plays in the background. The lovers are listening to Mingus’s 1957 recording of “Haitian Fight Song,” specifically to the trombone solo by Jimmy Knepper. But this scene should not be confused with the moment in Groundhog Day (1993) when Bill Murray and Andie McDowell fall in love while Ray Charles’s voice is heard on the soundtrack. Or in Before Sunset (2004), when Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy decide they are made for each other as they listen to Nina Simone. Or with any number of other films that similarly appropriate black voices for white romance.

The crucial scene in Jerry Maguire is set up when it has become clear that Jerry (Cruise) and Dorothy (Zellweger) are about to consummate their relationship. Dorothy is a single mother who has entrusted her child to “Chad the Nanny,” played by Todd Luiso, who gives the most nuanced performance of anyone in the cast. Having served as her nanny long enough to feel a special affinity with Dorothy, Chad meets Jerry at the door on the evening when he knows that Jerry is about to make love to Dorothy for the first time. Before Jerry can enter the house, Chad hands him a cassette tape. With a great deal of flourish and detail, he suggests that Jerry and Dorothy listen to Miles Davis while they make love. Although Jerry is not the least bit interested, Chad lectures to him about the importance of jazz in general and of Miles in particular. He even provides some discographical details, telling Jerry that the music on the cassette comes from a 1963 Swedish concert when John Coltrane was part of Davis’s group. (Every jazz nerd in the audience, most notably me, gasped at this moment. The Davis/Coltrane performance in Stockholm was recorded in 1960, not 1963.) As Chad hands the tape to Jerry, he can be heard off-camera saying, “I put a little Mingus on there too.”

In a 1997 interview with Chris Willman of Entertainment Weekly, director Cameron Crowe said that he originally intended to have Jerry and Dorothy make love to “So What” from the Stockholm concert with Davis and Coltrane. “But when I put it on that day, it was too languid and wasn’t as good as Mingus’s ‘Haitian Fight Song,’ which sounded like a herd of elephants mating. We’d already filmed the nanny saying the music was on a tape of ‘Miles and Coltrane’ – so we later dubbed [the nanny] saying ‘And I put some Mingus on there too.’” I understand why Crowe was not interested in reshooting. Luiso’s imitation of a proselytizing jazz enthusiast who firmly believes that sex can be enhanced by his music is so spot-on that it had to be retained.

Immediately after Chad hands the tape to Jerry, the film jumps ahead to a close-up of Dorothy in her bathroom preparing to join Jerry in the bedroom. At this point the audience can hear the bass solo with which Mingus opens “Haitian Fight Song.” It sounds extremely modern in spite of the fact that it was recorded in 1957. Within a few seconds we see Jerry and Dorothy undressed and in bed together while Knepper’s solo plays in the background. For audience members who cannot connect Chad’s line about putting “a little Mingus” on the tape to what they are hearing at this moment, “Haitian Fight Song” could be part of the soundtrack and not something the characters can hear, especially because neither Jerry nor Dorothy acknowledges the music in any way. But then, Knepper’s amazing solo becomes even more amazing when he breaks into double time. At this moment Jerry gives Dorothy an incredulous look and says, “What is this music?” Jerry and Dorothy both begin laughing, even more united now that they can share a complete inability to understand what Mingus and Knepper (with Curtis Porter, Wade Legge, and Dannie Richmond) have achieved.

I have not been able to interview Cameron Crowe, but I have a few questions for him. First, I would like to know why he associates the music of Mingus’s stripped-down unit of five musicians with a herd of elephants. Second, did he know how profoundly he was revising, perhaps even ridiculing the standard use of black music in Hollywood films? And third, did he know that “Haitian Fight Song” celebrates slave rebellions? And if so, did he wish to associate the song with the relationship between Jerry Maguire and the black football player Rod Tidwell? Although Rod has employed Jerry as his agent, a black athlete demanding multiple repetitions of a shouted “Show me the money” from a representative of the white power structure that controls his career almost suggests a slave rebellion. But Tidwell’s demand for multiple affirmations from Jerry has even more in common with “Haitian Fight Song.” In both a white man is performing for a black man. Just as Jerry is required to look ridiculous as he loudly exclaims all the phrases that Tod demands, Knepper is putting all his creativity to work at the request of Mingus, just as he was willingly playing the clown on the earlier recording.

In my fourth question for Crowe, I would ask if he knew that Jimmy Knepper was the only white member in the group that recorded “Haitian Fight Song.” Crowe did, after all, begin his career as a music journalist. He most certainly knew the work of Mingus because he interviewed singer Joni Mitchell when she was working on her unfortunate Mingus LP. It is possible that Crowe was in fact using “Haitian Fight Song” to comment on the racial dynamics of his film. If he was intentionally doing this without letting the audience know the name of the tune or the identity of the players, then I salute him.

Jerry Maguire is still a Hollywood film, so it is no surprise that the white man’s story is central by the end. And more importantly, the black man eventually becomes an inspiration for the white hero, providing an example of how love works when Jerry witnesses the powerful bond between Tod and his wife Marcee (Regina King). The permissible racism behind the notion that blacks lead richer emotional lives and that they can give life lessons to whites is much more typical of the post-minstrel age of white/black interaction in Hollywood films. Of course, by the end of Jerry Maguire, the white man is no longer playing the clown for the black man. Jerry has become his own man and is no longer being asked to perform by Tod or any other black character.

In “Haitian Fight Song,” Mingus asked a great deal of Jimmy Knepper, and Knepper proves that he was more than capable of delivering the goods. Mingus, who would not hesitate to lecture his audiences on how they must listen to his music, must have known that not everyone would understand, certainly not clueless white people like the Jerry and Dorothy of Jerry Maguire. In a club, they might have obeyed Mingus by sitting quietly, but they were not likely to be moved or challenged by any of it. I do not think Mingus would have been upset when Jerry says, “What is this music?” At least they were listening.

When I interviewed Sue Mingus, the widow who has for many years kept Mingus’s memory alive by staging weekly night club events with musicians playing nothing but Mingus’s music, I asked her about Jerry Maguire. She was not upset by the film. In fact, she was delighted to receive the royalty check. She told me that it was the biggest royalty check she had ever received for the use of her husband’s music.10 I wish there were a more significant testament to the extraordinary music that Mingus and Knepper made together, but there is at least a touch of poetic justice in that fat royalty check going out to Mingus’s widow.

There was, of course, no royalty check for Jimmy Knepper. He was still alive when Jerry Maguire was in theaters. I do not know if he saw it, but if he did, I hope that it at least gave him a chuckle.


Works Cited

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  • Willman, Chris. 1997. “He Shoots, He Scores: Making the ‘Jerry Maguire’ Soundtrack,” Entertainment Weekly, January 17,1997, accessed August 3, 2013, at http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,286483,00.html.



1 Burtis, Sam. Personal interview. 20 August. 2012.

2 Schoenberg, Loren. Personal interview. 19 March 2013.

3 Burtis, Interview.

4 Crow, Bill. Personal interview. 19 March 2013.

5 Rudd, Roswell. Personal interview. 15 January 2013.

6 Feld, Steven. E-mail message to author. 31 August, 2013.

7 Schoenberg. Interview.

8 Burtis. Interview.

9 Nussbaum, Jeffrey. Personal interview. 12 July 2012.

10 Mingus, Sue. Personal interview. 3 September 2009.