I saw Thomas Reichman’s 1968 film Mingus last weekend. It documents Charles Mingus’s last night before eviction from his New York City apartment. He philosophizes, shoots his rifle (“this is the same kind of gun that killed Kennedy”) at the ceiling, and gives his five-year-old daughter wine. But true to the documentary’s verite style, we never find out why he is evicted. And no review or coverage of the film I could find gives any background information.
I wondered because of the role the City of New York plays in the film and the eviction: Mingus discusses them as if they are the only party involved. I imagined it must have been connected to urban renewal, and this being the sixties, in Greenwich Village, maybe even an order handed down by Robert Moses. (This might have been a nice echo to Beneath the Underdog, the recent Moses-centered exhibition that name checked Mingus’s 1971 memoir).
The truth had more to do with standard downtown gentrification than bureaucratic conspiracy. Mingus was evicted from his loft at 5 Great Jones Street on November 22, 1966 by city marshals. Mingus had been getting fewer engagements and was on a downward trajectory. Jazz clubs had begun booking pop groups as audiences developed other interests and recoiled from avant-garde jazz’s increasing militancy. (The concert footage was filmed at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike outside Boston: Roast Beef and Cocktails. Next week Nina Simone.) But Mingus was hopeful enough about the documentary to drop out of an already booked Rollins-Mingus-Roach trio tour of Europe.
Mingus had moved into 5 Jones Street in the spring of 1966. He was subletting through a friend of his wife Sue, Judith Nathanson. Desperate for a place, since he owed back rent on his old apartment, he paid Nathanson $2000 upfront as “key money” (a common practice in loft sublets at the time). He was unaware at the time that the landlord was planning to void Nathanson’s lease. Mingus blamed the city, which was involved in his earlier dispute and approved the 5 Jones Street move.
The last scene of the film is Mingus being taken away under arrest, after the city marshals found a gun and hypodermic needles in their sweep of his apartment. He was released after producing his permits and prescription. “It isn’t every day that you see a Negro walk out of a police station with a box of hypodermic needles and a shotgun.”
“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 want to, but 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.”