MYSELF WHEN I AM REAL: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus

Myself When I Am Real Gene Santoro
Oxford University Press ($30)

by Jon Rodine

Although Charles Mingus died in January of 1979, in twenty-one years he hasn't lost momentum. Groups like the Mingus Big Band are still out there, playing nothing but his music, and there are still brand new albums (most recently "Pussycat Dues" by singer Kevin Mahogany, and "Peggy's Blue Skylight" by guitarist Andy Summers) devoted entirely to his songs. The legendary bassist/composer, whose brilliance was as immense as his own rotund self, obviously left his mark on the world of jazz, even though he never quite attained the commercial status of someone like Ellington or Armstrong or Miles Davis. And if Mingus was larger-than-life, no stranger to controversy and tall tales and bonafide far-out behavior, it's also plain that his myth won't be his ultimate legacy. What he'll be remembered for, into this new century, is his music: the turbulent, passionate and evocative body of songs that, even while they borrowed from gospel, blues, swing, be-bop, movie scores, Latin and classical music (often within the same song,) always came out sounding utterly unique.

Music and myth and a whole lot more figure into Myself When I Am Real, Gene Santoro's excellent new Mingus biography, a stylized and egalitarian book that takes on an epic life but reads like a breeze. Santoro takes a long narrative and breaks it down into fragments, tight little segments that play off one another, but often describe widely different subjects or ideas, scenes or stories. This occurs from paragraph to paragraph, even sentence to sentence, perpetuating a kind of written collage that builds on itself almost like a jazz solo, creating a flow that seems to echo the nervous energy in Mingus' own psyche, the spontaneity of his actual mind.

That mind, as Santoro portrays it, was expansive and romantic, with a fondness for elaboration. Mingus liked to fashion his own life story in the interests of convenience or showmanship, but Santoro shows the pimping and sexual exploits which filled Beneath the Underdog (Mingus' own "autobiography," originally titled Memoirs of a Half-Schitt-Colored Nigger) to be largely fiction, a more extravagant and sensational version of a somewhat less decadent reality. Mingus did have appetites: for food and argument, for knowledge and experience, but his swagger and antagonism often masked a sensitivity and vulnerability that kept him constantly wary and affected by life, even as he barreled through it with the kind of self-counsel that was construed as arrogance. He had an unpredictable temper, a penchant for accosting band-members, club owners, and audiences, but even as a troublesome leader and performer, with outbursts that became a kind of sideshow to his vast musical gifts, he still exuded considerable magnetism and charm. Women loved him; musicians whom he alienated and even attacked were known to return to his fold over the years, seduced by his persuasions or the potency of his vision. As saxophonist John Handy puts it, "It wasn't that he was evil, he just had a mental problem. He hadn't grown up, in some ways."

Santoro also reveals a Mingus for whom little distinction existed between private, social and creative realms. Personal affections and calamities; social relationships and responses to culture at large; impressions of friends and intellectual obsessions: all these and more became sources for the music that Santoro calls "autobiography in sound." Mingus' work was an aural, hand-crafted assemblage, an emotion-charged song-spectrum that channeled the panorama of 20th-century music through a highly individualized and imaginative voice. "Hog Callin' Blues," "The Chill of Death," "Reincarnation of a Lovebird," "New Now Know How," "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too," "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers," "Put Me In That Dungeon," "Taurus in the Arena of Life." Even the titles paint a picture of the wide, wild landscape across which "The Man Who Never Sleeps" (another song title) took his listeners, a landscape that was both playful and dead serious, filled with both conflict and celebration. He wrote and rewrote pieces, giving them new titles and new personalities, always pointing in forward directions while simultaneously and stubbornly looking back at tradition: at Jelly Roll Morton, at Ellington, at European composers. He was slow to embrace the be-bop renegades, though he came to revere Parker and Gillespie, and at times he recorded and distributed his own records, rather than getting ripped off like so many others. He always went his own way.

That way was also fiercely fixated on the thornier details of race and race relations. Although light enough to sometimes sneak into a segregated gig (he claimed on occasion to be Mexican), his background included Asian-, German- and African-American blood, and Mingus was acutely aware, as Santoro says, of what W.E.B. DuBois termed "double consciousness:" the psychic duality that results from black survival in white, racist America. Race was always there for Mingus, and it was the main topic in many a dialogue or speech or tirade that he embarked upon, with club-owners, audiences, journalists, lovers, family and friends. And since his years of ascent were the incendiary years of civil rights and "Black Power," his song titles once again reflected his culture and the scope of his concerns: "Meditations on Integration," (also entitled "Meditations on a Pair of Wire-Cutters,") "Remember Rockefeller At Attica," "Free Cell-Block F, ‘Tis Nazi U.S.A.," "Fables of Faubus," (named for the segregationist governor of Arkansas) "A Lonely Day in Selma Alabama," and his recitation simply titled "Freedom."

His private life, though, was strictly integrated, to the curiosity of some. Britt Woodman (a childhood friend who eventually gained notoriety as a core-member of Duke Ellington's band) said "Most of the black musicians never knew him. When you'd go to his pad there was nothing but white folks, white chicks." Mingus had a succession of white wives and lovers, whom he enthralled and battled with, and although he kept close to allies from his youth (like Woodman, or musician Buddy Collette,) his friends and acquaintances were more likely to be Beatnik-types like poet Allen Ginsberg, or artist Farwell Taylor, even pop singer Peggy Lee. And while it could be that some white admirers were more taken in by the kind of eccentric behavior with which Mingus liked to entertain his followers, it's also true that he simply enjoyed the kind of bohemian, art-for-art's-sake lifestyle that a lot of white hipsters allowed themselves and could afford to pursue. And the Greenwich Village cafe-types, who painted and smoked pot and hung out in coffee shops, may have romanticized the world of jazz and jazz musicians, but they also bought the records and took the music seriously, more seriously than many black audiences.

Santoro (a veteran of The NationVillage Voice, and numerous other publications) has put together a book that isn't merely a critical biography or personal expose. He examines Mingus in all his kaleidoscopic difficulty and charm, his pathos and vitality, and he looks without sensation at the years of weight problems, pills, prescription drugs, and mental instability. What he mainly affirms is that if there were times when Mingus' mind was troubled, or his body incapacitated, his spirit was never in less than fighting shape. Sue Mingus (his fourth wife, and the tireless promoter of his legacy) is quoted as saying "He had more energy than ninety people running down the block when he was frozen in a wheelchair" (speaking of his final days in Mexico, after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease). And Miles Davis, never known for superlatives, once remarked (though not in Santoro's book) that Mingus had been "a real man," because "he wasn't afraid to make a fool of himself."

Mingus was indeed a fighter, unafraid to risk his reputation for the sake of his own instincts, and like an epic film director (or like Orson Welles, whom he revered in his youth) he lived a life of grand triumphs and grand mistakes. If that made him a real man, than Santoro's is an equally real book, a fitting tribute to a man whose epitaph could fittingly be the words from his own notes to the 1971 album Let My Children Hear Music:

Let my children have music! Let them hear live music. Not noise. My children! You do what you want with your own!

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000