It's hard to go wrong with a book about Charles Mingus. The simple facts of his life speak volumes about racial politics in the United States. He revolutionised the playing of his chosen instrument, made a lasting legacy of powerful music, and spawned hundreds of legendary tales. He orchestrated his life as a drama of his own making and left no room for tedium.
Gene Santoro gets to the heart of the matter in his introduction. He describes Mingus's half white, half black father as a bully with strong opinions on black issues at odds with his actions. The ex-U.S. army officer Mingus family patriarch was a member and supporter of the N.A.A.C.P. yet pushed his children (two daughters and Charles) into white culture and into thinking that they should be involved socially only with whites and avoid "black niggers" as being beneath them. He ruled the house like a general and hid his own confused past¨the former wives and family, the racially ambiguous upbringing. Mingus Sr. sought respectability for his kids and raised them to feel superior to their surroundings in Watts, Los Angeles. Music lessons were a part of the cultural package and they provided an unexpected key to Mingus' personality and fulfillment as a person. Mingus' mother was largely a foil for his father and protected the children from his more violent tendencies as much as possible, but she was also petty by nature and could be as hurtful as her husband. It was not a happy home. Mingus paid the price by struggling all his life to have positive relationships with others, leaving a legacy of numerous wives, all white, and children scattered among them with whom he failed to establish a bond.
Mingus turned to music early on with a mix of an artist's obsession and a desperate need to make a name for himself, while simultaneously finding a way out of Watts. Throughout his teens and twenties he honed his skills on the double bass to the point of revolutionizing the way his instrument was played. He also developed an artistic vision and broad understanding of music that allowed him to create a unique body of work unrivaled to this day. As a man, he was expansive, but volatile, and unpredictable¨qualities reflected in his music. Mingus's music is filled with real, emotional power that is palpable to anyone open enough to hear it. Mingus was a highly sensitive man, for all his bravado, and showed us our world, reflected and abstracted in a way that can only be done by a great artist
I thought, as I sat down with the book, that one of the greater pleasures would be to see how Mingus' life would drive me back to his recordings. I was right. To listen again to "Blues and Roots", "The Clown", "Mingus Ah Um", and "Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus", while acquiring detailed facts about the creation of these astounding works was just as enlightening as I had hoped.
As I said, you can't go too wrong with a subject like Charles Mingus. Unfortunately you can still go wrong in matters of style. For instance, there can be unnecessary distractions which detract from the reading experience. Santoro employs a technique which would be quite sound if writing were the same as improvising music. He riffs, he regenerates, he uses motifs in the way that musicians do to bind an improvisation or a composition together and give it a cohesive feel. In the book, however, I found it quite distracting and couldn't shake the feeling that I, as a reader, was being patronized. We hear "he was feeling the Zeitgeist", "he was a teacher", "he liked playing street", "everything was collapsing", and "he was closing circles" often enough that these descriptions feel more common than Homer's rosy-fingered-dawn. Santoro ends countless sections with the quick one sentence paragraph meant for dramatic finishes. It wears you down.
One aspect that is very entertaining, and points to thorough research, is Santoro's continuous citing of exact dollar figures. We learn what Mingus and his sidemen were paid for concerts and gigs, for recording sessions. We learn the exact financial history of Mingus' Debut Records, what Mingus paid for his cars, what he sent to ex-wives and children, and what he paid in rent. This sort of detail feels correct in the context of Mingus' life. He was a self-described "stone capitalist" and painfully honest about the details of his life¨especially the dramatic details; the mundane ones he always embellished.
Santoro does an excellent job of providing an antidote to Mingus's autobiography, Beneath The Underdog, which is full of hyperbole, apparent even to the casual reader. Beneath The Underdog is an entertaining read and must be seen as part of the artistic fabric that Mingus wove, but it is not terribly helpful on the biographical front; tellingly, Santoro cites it infrequently in his notes. Some of that is the fault of callous editors putting the book together out of Mingus's "suitcase" full of writings on his own life and much of it is Mingus's fault for being more concerned with the art of writing than reporting the facts. In this sense, Santoro's Myself When I Am Real becomes a welcome companion to Mingus's own work. Santoro has done an extremely thorough job of researching his subject and delights in the details of Mingus's youth in ways I've not seen elsewhere. He took great pains to interview the people in Mingus's early life, uncovering the convoluted tale of growing up in the Mingus home.
Santoro also manages to put Mingus's volatility in perspective. Many outbursts were genuine expressions of rage at the ineptitude of others, racial injustice, and professional disrespect. Other legendary fights came out of nothing more than his need for theatre in all arenas of his life. Santoro does nice work of reporting various events which give the reader a feel for the whirlwind that was Mingus' life while debunking a number of tales by placing them in their proper context. And at times, it is just good fun reading about such incidents as Mingus smashing a prized Italian bass on a barroom table, playing his records for a crowd while they watched him eat dinner, as well as the many fights and episodes of street theatre. His life was such that other musicians will never tire talking of it.
If you had to choose between the story of Mingus's life and his music, there would be no contest. Mingus's soul was always in the music he wrote and recorded and Santoro doesn't lose sight of this. He discusses some of Mingus' compositional techniques and puts them in historical perspective in a way that is accurate and detailed enough to satisfy the musically literate and, I think, broad enough to engage the enthusiast. Like jazz's first great braggart and idol of Mingus's, Jelly Roll Morton, Mingus claims to have done things long before the individuals that made them famous. There is good evidence that both these characters were correct on a number of accounts and had every right to be angered and saddened not to have received their due for these innovations. Santoro provides specifics about what Mingus did in his early career before he was recorded on tape, by talking to the musicians who were present, and we are left with a portrait of a fascinating musician who pushed musical boundaries from an early age. Mingus's use of pedal point, recurring bass notes beneath shifting harmonies, was evident long before the 1960s when it became common. His compositions which used modal, or relatively stationary harmonic movement, were known early enough for Miles Davis to make fun of him in the 1940s for not having a band that could play chord changes. Miles is credited, nearly universally, for the modal revolution in jazz with his recording "Kind Of Blue" in 1959, and the irony was far from lost on Mingus. I found it particularly amusing to note his lack of diminished chords (largely used to transfer smoothly from one key centre to another) something I'd never registered before, and his comment to Miles when asked "why he didn't modulate, just went blam from this key to that" was a smiling "Miles, just play the shit like I wrote it."
The painful story of the end of Mingus's life, his struggle with ALS, the frustrations of a changing musical scene that he felt the need to be part of in order to revive a sagging career, is told sympathetically, with an emphasis on facts that pleasantly removes the element of pathos.
There are copious notes and references for every chapter, an excellent multi-media bibliography, and a discography that is, for the fan of Mingus's music, as fascinating as the book itself.
If you're unfamiliar with Mingus's music, the first thing you should do is buy copies of Blues & Roots, and Mingus Ah Um. If that doesn't whet your appetite for the other records, you probably don't need this book. If you are turned on, you'll be buying CDs for a long time and will greatly enjoy what Santoro has accomplished in Myself When I Am Real. ˛