The Man That Was Mingus
Myself, When I Am Real
Oxford Univ Press
Charles Mingus stands as one of jazz music’s imposing figures. Imposing because of the breadth and depth of his music, but also for his charisma and at time tempestuous personality.
Like many great artists, his was a life not easily understood, in part because it is so multi-faceted and so many things go into the makeup of such people. Mingus stands among those figures as fascinating and infuriating. His rich and varied life and art are captured wonderfully in Gene Santoro’s latest book, “Myself, When I Am Real; The Life and Music of Charles Mingus.” (Oxford University Press).
Santoro, an accomplished jazz journalist, does a great job of presenting Mingus, Jazz’s Angry Man, and the people and events that shaped his life. It is a biography of compelling importance, presented with style and with a direct no-nonsense approach. It neither defends Mingus’ sometimes foul nature, nor over-praises his stature is music. It simply presents a good piece of the montage of Mingus’ life in a fresh and crisp style. At the end, one comes away knowing his place in the pantheon of artists as well as having some light shed on what made him tick.
Mingus’ work followed his life: quirky, unpredictable; sometimes turbulent and other times sweet; swinging and thunderous. And monumental. The music makes you take notice, as did its ebullient creator, whether he was dancing with his instrument on stage – his large girth an even match with the cumbersome contrabass; delivering a tirade on race relations to the audience or firing his band on the spot; or presiding with colleagues over a several-course meal in a restaurant.
The imposing, volatile and vulnerable figure of Charles Mingus is portrayed admirably by Santoro. The writing is vivid and captivating; passionate at times like Mingus was. It also, whether done consciously or not, has a rhythm that is at times like a bass solo; staccato, short direct phrases; then longer more flowing lines. Some patterns repeat, then are used to build longer statements. The book holds interest and should stand as a major work considering the competency with which it is accomplished and the stature of the subject artist.
The many loves of Mingus’ life are all here. Thoughts from his children. Anecdotes from musicians like Buddy College and Britt Woodman who knew him since childhood. Fearful and joyful stories from musicians that were employed by him. Reminiscence from Jimmy Knepper who had a tooth knocked out by Mingus in a dispute about copying music sheets for the band. His tenures with the greatest musical minds of his era – Duke, Dizzy, Miles and more. It’s all there.
Mingus was also a bass virtuoso, but it’s his place as a composer that puts him on a pedestal. “It was pieces of time metamorphosed into music,” Santoro writes about one composition. “Each section a different aspect of him, and yet all suggested his coherence and contradictions, his volatility, his sweetness, his irony, his swagger, his frustration, his humor and charm and childlike wonder, his dreams.”
Mingus pushed music to the limits at times, and along with it pushed the performance of that music into distant realms, refusing to use written charts and demanding that his musicians improvise collectively and individually. That process is described in good detail and can be followed in the book as a parallel, right along with the way Mingus lived his life.
From his rough childhood in the Watts section of Los Angeles to his introduction to a more Bohemian existence among poets and writers and painters that influenced him, the story is an interesting journey. Unlike many others of his time, he didn’t take to drugs like heroin. But prescription drugs did have an effect, though he never considered himself connected with a drug culture. He displayed strength in some areas and weakness in others. His rise to fame and fortune, his bizarre behaviors. His cruel treatment of others at times and ways in which he was treated cruelly by society are all part of the panorama of Charles Mingus’ life.
And then the illness.
Mingus was not allowed to grow old and continue to create, struck down instead by Lou Gehrig’s disease, which Santoro treats with stark bluntness.
”Throughout all the disease’s stages, the mind remains fully alive. The senses remain intact. The eye muscles are unaffected. Sexual functions remain. The patient watches himself die, slowly and inevitably buried alive in his decaying body,” Santoro states.
But while he lived, he did so colorfully and the book puts it all out for inspection. Mingus loved life and often lived well. Santoro portrays how he knew the human condition and brought it forth in his music.
”Most people are forced to do things they don’t want to do most of the time,” the author quotes Mingus as saying, “and so they get to the point where they feel they no longer have any choice about anything important, including who they are. We create our own slavery.”
Simple. And accurate. But Mingus resisted that bondage. His constant struggle against it, even when he was sick, is one of the fascinating aspects of his life and is part of the vivid tapestry Santoro paints about one of America’s musical legends. The book, which includes a detailed discography, is one to be valued.