Charles Mingus (1922–79; see website, and wiki) was not only a great bass player (and here’s a jazz bass joke), but also (like Bach) an inspirational composer and bandleader—perhaps the least celebrated of the “Three M’s”: Miles, Monk, and Mingus.
Jazz biographies rarely stint on the sensational, and autobiography can never be “objective”. Deep in a dream, a life of Chet Baker, is mainly a chronicle of his constant sordid search for fixes; by extension, Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! is a work of art. Miles Davis’s autobiography, though far from comfortable, is relatively sober, evoking his constant musical explorations alongside the gritty details of the lifestyle.
But Mingus’s own take on his life—mainly on his first three decades—is highly novelistic, impressionistic, fantastical. Probably what I need is
- Brian Priestley, Mingus: a critical biography (1984), or
- Gene Santoro, Myself when I am real: the life and music of Charles Mingus (1994).
Instead, I’ve been reading his curious quasi-autobiography
- Beneath the underdog (1971/1995/2005), written in the early 60s and mercifully abbreviated for publication—well reviewed here.
While Mingus offers few details of his musical journey, the book does at least expose the psychic ravages caused by racism. The opening sets the tone, with the first of sessions with his psychologist, splitting his childhood personality into three. Throughout he refers to himself in the third person as “my boy”.
Punctuating the tortured self-analysis and catalogue of degrading sexual encounters are occasional vignettes such as his early experience of learning the cello without notation. His itinerant teacher
would teach anyone how to play anything even looking like a musical instrument that poor folks might beg or buy second-hand or on the instalment plan. Maybe he didn’t even admit to himself that he cheated his pupils but the truth was he took no time to give the fundamental principles of a good musical education [sic!]. His short weekly sessions had to result in satisfying sounds that proved to parents their children were really learning something in a status-building money-making field. So Mr Arson by-passed the essentials that even the most talented child must master if he is ever going to learn to read music well, and the parents, as usual, were paying for something their children were not getting.
Mr Arson saw at once Charles could sing the sounds he saw on paper. Without bothering to name the notes, he showed him where to put his fingers on the cello to make that sound. It was as if a bright child who could easily and rapidly pronounce syllables was never taught how syllables fit into words and words in syntax. I’m sure Mr Arson hadn’t any idea his shorthand method would turn out to be great for jazz improvisation, where the musician listens to the sounds he’s producing rather than making an intellectual transference from the score paper to the fingering process. Using simple scales and familiar tunes, Mr Arson would count as he bowed his muted, gypsy-sounding violin with its resin-caked surface and Charles would follow as best he could by ear, knowing only how it sounded and having no conception of the technical processes he should have been learning at that time.
He goes on to play in the LA Junior Phil, where he meets the angelic Lee-Marie. Through their teenage years it was a rather chaste relationship; later she came to embody his Madonna–whore complex.
Still in his teens, Mingus emerges from being bullied while becoming ever more disturbed by racism, and also discovers mysticism. He moves onto bass:
Not even knowing the names of the strings or how to tune his instrument, Charles began practicing hour after hour standing by the RCA Victor console radio in the front room and after a few weeks he began to get the feel of it.
He studies with Red Callender, learns piano with Lloyd Reese, and begins getting gigs. A constant parade of demeaning sexual encounters is graphically described in passages of explicit porn worthy of the Bad Sex Award. In a rare interlude, while working with Bird and Miles he discusses the world of sax mouthpieces with Lucky Thompson (cf. Keef’s rhapsody on open-string guitar tuning):
“Let’s catch a smoke outside, Mingus.”
“I wonder if Buddy still thinks Merle Johnson mouthpieces give a bigger sound. Some teacher’s been telling him that coloured cats don’t get big sounds with open lay mouthpieces.”
“Haw haw, Mingus! It takes effort is what they mean. Work. They don’t like to sweat. The white man ain’t satisfied till they take all the human element out. Like Bird—they made it this far and they give him horns with soft action. He says, “What for? Too late.” He likes working. He plays an old Conn with a number thirty open lay mouthpiece. I remember some kid telling Bird he heard Negroes used trick mouthpieces to make things easier. Bird reached in his case and said, “Here, try this Berg Larsen, son.” The kid put it on his horn and blew. Wheee! Nothing came out but air. He turned red and blue in the face. Not a sound came forth. Bird said, “Give it here, let’s see what’s wrong with it. Oh, the reed’s too soft.” He took out a fifty-cent piece and held the reed to it and burned around it with a cigarette lighter—burned it down almost to the stem. The he tries it out. “Plays beautiful,” Bird said. “Still a little soft but it will do.” If that kid had tried to blow a reed that stiff he’d passed out or died before he got it to play. You know who that was? A kid named Lee Konitz [R.I.P.]. Ask him when you meet him if you ever get to New York…
In 1947, working for the Lionel Hampton band, Mingus meets Fats Navarro, whose early death in 1950 deprived him of a soulmate.
Meanwhile, like Miles, he becomes a more or less inadvertent pimp, with a little help from Billie Holiday. Meeting up again with the erstwhile angelic Lee-Marie, he recruits her to his harem. Still his encounters with Bird, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge take a back seat to all the relentless balling.
Mingus finds a sympathetic friend in Nat Hentoff, “one of the few white guys you could really talk to in your life”. He checks himself into the psychiatric facility Bellevue, begging the guard to let him in. While there he digs a radio broadcast of the Juilliard quartet playing Bartók. When it turns out to be even harder to get out than in, he turns to Hentoff rather than his psychologist to help him get discharged.
Here’s Lock ‘em up (Hellview of Bellevue, 1960):
After another session with his psychologist, the book ends with Mingus going all mystical on Fats Navarro. But his most creative years were yet to come.
Now here’s a thing:
When Dizzy Gillespie ran his spoof presidential campaign in the early 60s, he nominated Duke Ellington for Secretary of State, Miles Davis for head of the CIA, Max Roach for Minister of Defence, Malcolm X for Attorney General, and Mingus for Minister of Peace.
If only the current lineup were so well qualified…
* * *
After such a pitiless exposé of Mingus’s troubled psyche, it comes as a relief to retreat to the amazing freedom and energy of his music—here’s a fabulous playlist, starting with the extraordinary Moanin’ (1959):
Going back, here’s his legendary 1953 Massey Hall gig with Bird, Dizzy, Max Roach, and Bud Powell:
Miles Davis’s own autobiography always has vivid and illuminating comments (p.83):
After Bird went off the scene, I would rehearse with Mingus a lot. He wrote tunes that Lucky and him and me would rehearse. Mingus didn’t give a fuck about what kind of ensemble it was; he just wanted to hear his shit played all the time. I used to argue with him about using all those abrupt changes in the chords in his tunes.
“Mingus, you so fucking lazy, man, that you won’t modulate. You just, bam!hit the chord, which is nice sometimes, you know, but not all the fucking time.”
He would just smile and say, “Miles, just play the shit like I wrote it.” And I would. It was some strange-sounding shit back then. But Mingus was like Duke Ellington, ahead of his time. […]
Mingus was something else, man, a pure genius. I loved him.
And it’s always worth going back to Paul Berliner, Thinking in jazz—not only for the social aspects of learning and performing, but for technical analysis of all the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic detail of the various instruments.
Mingus’s life and music are well evoked on film, notably Triumph of the underdog (Don McGlynn, 1998):
as well as Charlie Mingus 1968 (Thomas Reichman):
Do follow up with The spiritual path of John Coltrane!