January 15, 2002
Myself When I Am Real
The Life and Music of Charles Mingus
By Gene Santoro
Oxford University Press
The most surprising revelation of Gene Santoro's new biography is that bassist Charles Mingus was barely five foot nine inches tall. It's noteworthy because mercurial Mingus (1922-1979), gave the impression of being someone much larger. Through sheer force of personality, he was able to dominate any ensemble he was in.
Jazz's most distinctive composer after Duke Ellington, Mingus was a gargantuan figure in every other respect. Bearded and massive (his weight frequently edged towards 300 pounds), and as selfish and self-obsessed as he was prodigiously talented, the bassist became famous for his excesses as much as his music.
Light-skinned, but infused with African American pride, the Watts, California-raised Mingus was quick to turn any slight into a racial confrontation and escalate even petty criticism into major donnybrooks.
Settled in New York from the early 1950s, Mingus worked with every major Jazz figures from trumpeter Miles Davis to alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. But, by the later part of the decade, he put together bands called Jazz Workshops as outlets for his compositions. In them he single-mindedly spurred to their highest musical levels an ever-shifting cast of characters who ranged from visionary multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy to modern gutbucket trombonist Jimmy Knepper.
A strong proponent of musician-control of their own music, Mingus co-founded Debut, a record label; helped organize a counter festival to the "commercial" Newport Jazz Festival of 1960; and rarely let a night club or concert performance pass without needling owners as mob-controlled cheapskates and audience members as noisy, preoccupied dilettantes. Manifestos and angry letters to unfavored critics, editors, unfortunate musicians and even politicians flowed from his pen as easily as compositions. Meanwhile he oversaw groups ranging from big bands to trios; turned out a series of memorable LPs, embraced than rejected the European classical tradition and Jazz's traditional rhythms; turned his hand to piano as well as bass and constantly displayed his deepest feelings and emotions to his audiences.
His eccentricities once caused Mingus to commit himself to Bellevue Mental Hospital and later to have his personal psychologist write the liner notes for one LP. Another time he punched Knepper in the mouth — ruining his range — when the skinny trombonist was in the midst of helping him transcribe music for one unsuccessful concert cum recording session. A man who spent more money than he made, Mingus ended the 1960s with his belongings scattered all over the street, as he was forcibly evicted from his Lower East Side apartment/studio. But even that tragedy became part of a filmed documentary about his life.
Shortly after that, when he was in a tranquilizer-induced depression, he finally achieved his ambition of publishing his autobiography, Beneath The Underdog. A Rabelasian tale, Underdog, skewered racists and jazz critics for ignorance, yet was spiced with frankly fanciful sexual detail about mythic Black sexuality, which was as fanciful as Frank Harris' My Life And Loves.
By the time he finally died from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a few years later, however, Mingus was back band leading. In fact, he was so revered and — more notably — rewarded by the rock music generation which acknowledged the strength of his sound, that on his death bed he agreed to a less-than-successful collaboration with singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, to help pay for his palliative care.
With a life like this, an exciting biography would seem to practically write itself. Unfortunately Santoro doesn't seem to be able to harness any of Mingus' fabled energy. For a start he has to compete not only with Underdog, but also Brian Priestly's excellent Mingus, first published in 1982, which relied mostly on secondary sources and concentrated more on the music than the bassist's life.
Santoro tried hard, though, sometimes too hard. He seems to have read every article and book relating to Mingus, combed through the bassist's archives at the Library of Congress and Rutgers Institute for Jazz Studies and, most significantly, interviewed most meaningful figures in Mingus' life. He also tries to relate the extramusical tenor of eras with whatever Mingus was composing, playing or thinking at the time.
Yet the book ends up resembling a line from an Incredible String Band song, which goes something like: "you know all the words and read all the notes, but never quite learned the song". Santoro's tome is so overweighed with minutia that he often loses the thread of the story.
There's no fact, no matter how mundane, that he appears able to not mention, no tangent along which he can't get lost, and no non sequitur he won't follow to its illogical conclusion. For instance, at one point, he writes that in 1961 Mingus was talking about signing with Reprise records, which "in the late 1960s became home to rockers like Jimi Hendrix". Elsewhere he notes that in 1975 Mingus played a club in Ohio "A few years later New Wave rocker Elvis Costello would call Ray Charles a nigger from the stage there".
Probably to prove his access to the archives Santoro endlessly reports on the size of Mingus' royalty statements, the dollar amount of his bills that went unpaid or the monetary take at particular nightclub engagements. Moreover, his attempts at pop sociology, placing happenings on the Jazz scene into a broader American context, more often than not fail. Concerns about simplistically defining the conflicts involved in the war in Viet Nam, the civil right movement or recreational drug use, invariably interrupt the narrative flow. Plus Santoro never seems to see a list he doesn't want to reprint.
Despite all this, ignorance, disinterest or just plain bad editing ends up studding the book with very obvious gaffes. One is a characterization of the 1956 Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott that reads as if local Blacks avoided the bus because federal courts ordered the system desegregated.
Additionally, the number of obvious inaccuracies printed here brings into question Santoro knowledge of Jazz in general. Twice he refers to pianist Oscar Peterson as having recorded for Debut when he means bassist Oscar Pettiford, with the second mention more egregious since he's trying to make a point about Mingus' piano playing. Tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards is referred to as a vibes player; West Coast band leader Gerald Wilson is confused with pianist Gerald Wiggins; saxophonist Lester Young, a star of the pre-war Count Basie is said to "now" be in the Basie band in 1943; pianist Les McCann's name is misspelled; and he calls Candid records, which Mingus recorded for in the 1960s, Cadence records, which didn't come into existence until the 1970s.
Mingus' own work doesn't escape bungling either. New Tijuana Moods, the name of the reissue of a 1957 LP is written about as if it was the original title, while another recording session never issued as Alice's Wonderland is referred to that way throughout the book.
The only time Santoro really seems to have any control of the story is in the final chapter when he movingly reports how Mingus and his family marshalled themselves to cope with the degenerative effect of ALS on the formerly more than self-sufficient man. Nevertheless, this too is more extra musical musings in what should have been a clear overview of a musician's career.
Mingus once characterized a liner note scribe who displeased him as writing like "a cross between a low-rent Tom Wolfe and a dusty academic." One would hate to paint Santoro the same way. But with this book, at least, what should have been a Picasso or a Jackson Pollock, is more the literary equivalent of a beginning art student's efforts.