“It was kind of like jazz.” That’s what Nancy said when I asked her how Krista’s conversation with E. Ethelbert Miller went. Prior to the interview, Trent began paging through Miller’s second memoir, The 5th Inning, and seemed taken by the book’s honesty and willingness to acknowledge the darker corners of life. From the introduction:

“How do we cope with failure in life? How do we live when everyday we open our eyes to death? This memoir is about how I coped with failure and disappointment in career, marriage, and life. We fail as lovers, parents, and friends.”

Charles Mingus
Painting of Charles Mingus by Matthew Rigsby Smith

With this in mind, I sent an email to Chris suggesting he give Charles Mingus’ Mingus Plays Piano a listen when scoring the program’s soundtrack. The album has a contemplative and improvisational sound that I really enjoy — an enjoyment that’s enhanced knowing a bit of the story behind it. Appearing in the liner notes to the compilation, The Impulse Story, here’s an account from inside the studio when Mingus recorded the album:

“Somebody was playing the piano in there very hauntingly — very beautifully. Then it would stop, and start again. It didn’t sound like practicing. It sounded like somebody was just thinking on the piano. That’s the best way I could say it. I looked in the music room and it was pitch black. The lights weren’t on. So I went into Thiele’s office and said, ‘Who’s playing in there?’ ‘It’s Charlie Mingus. A very close friend of his died.’ I never knew who he was grieving over. But about a half-hour later Thiele said, ‘Charles, let’s go into a studio.’ That became Mingus Plays Piano.”

“Thinking on the piano.” Replace notes with words and you might say that reading (and hearing) E. Ethelbert Miller can be a similar experience.

My suggestion didn’t make its way into the program. Miller dropped enough musical references during the interview to easily fill the program’s 50 minutes. But you can listen to the first track from the album — “Myself When I Am Real” — to get a taste of what “thinking on the piano” sounds like.

Share Your Reflection



As a former DC resident and English prof, I adore the sensibilities of Ethelbert Miller. I appreciate his notion of black being universal. I remember being in my mid-twenties and discovering the concept of the black diaspora as a grad student at UMCP. It broaden my horizons by giving me permission to be black on my own terms, fluidly, unapologetically. It allows me to swell with pride when I tell people my husband is french. It catches them off guard. He is. And, senegalese. And wolof and mandika. Miller's thinking affirms him too here in America and beyond. It affirms by nieces and nephews who are biracial as well.