Charlie Mingus, who died 38 years ago Thursday of Lou Gehrig's disease, was three jazz legends, not just one.

A larger-than-life figure physically and artistically, he was an astonishing instrumentalist - sometimes called "the Segovia of the bass" - an inspirational, driving bandleader, and a totally original composer.

He was also a volcanic, short-tempered man who was fired from Duke Ellington's orchestra for an altercation with a fellow band member and once severely injured his group's trombonist by punching the man's horn while he was playing it.

My memory of him goes back more than a half century and could not be more different.

I was a sophomore in college, a jazz DJ on the school's FM station, and a serious Mingus acolyte when Downbeat magazine published a negative review of a Mingus record.

The critic actually gave the album three stars but downplayed Mingus' importance because not many jazzmen were stylistically influenced by him or played his tunes.

Seeing the criticism as ridiculous, I dashed off a sophomorically sarcastic - or sarcastically sophomoric - letter to the magazine, which printed it.

I was listed in the New York phone book at the time, but my younger sister had custody of the phone in my absence, so she was the one who took The Call.

"Hello. Is Paul Jablow there?"

"No, he's not."

"Is this his wife?"

"No, I'm his sister."

"Is he coming back soon?"

"Well, no. He's away at college."

"Oh. Well do you know if he wrote a letter to Downbeat magazine?"

"Gee. I have no idea."

"Well, does he like jazz?"

"Omigosh yes. He's got hundreds of records and he ..."

"That's gotta be him. . . . Listen, this is Charlie Mingus. And when you talk to your brother give him a message. Tell him that when I read that review, I got so angry that I couldn't put my anger into words. But your brother found the right words and I want to thank him.

"And tell him the next time he's in New York and I'm playing to come see me. I want to meet him."

Fast forward about three weeks and Mingus is playing at Birdland.

Flashing my draft card at the club entrance - you could drink at 18 in New York State at the time - I walked in and saw it was between sets. Mingus was standing at the bar, alone, sipping a drink.

I tentatively walked up to him. "Uh, Mr. Mingus?"

He turned his head and grunted, his downward-pointing facial expression that of a grizzly bear disturbed in mid-meal.

"I ... I'm Paul Jablow."

The frown vanished, his mouth popped open, and he shouted. "You the guy wrote the letter!" Spreading his arms, he enveloped me in a gigantic hug. "Oh, man! Thank you, man!"

He motioned me to a booth, yelling over his shoulder, "Bartender! Bring this man a beer!"

Half the club seemed to be staring at us, expressions asking the silent question "Who the heck is the little white kid with Mingus?"

We talked for perhaps 15 minutes, before he had to go back on stage, and I can remember almost none of it, although I do recall him mentioning his pending autobiography.

Maybe it took years to sink in, hundreds of bylines after I had embarked on a lifelong career as a journalist.

It was the first time I had ever written something that deeply affected another human being, if only for a brief moment.

Nothing like starting at the top.

Paul Jablow is a former Inquirer reporter and editor.