Jazz Institute of Chicago

Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus

Myself When I Am Real:
The Life and Music of Charles Mingus
By Gene Santoro
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 452 pp.
Reviewed by David Simpson

The media dubbed him “Jazz’s Angry Man,” and even his wives (all four of them), family, fellow musicians, and closest friends agree that he could be cantankerous, insulting, intimidating, and downright mean. Though, as they also point out, it was never easy to tell how much of this behavior was put-on and how much was due to actual anger or pent-up rage.

Privately he had another side (or was it another role?)—that of the laughing Black Buddha who loved wine, women, and Cuban cigars; who delighted in gospel music, slapstick comedy, and highbrow literature; who relished Hollywood westerns, late-night television, and bad puns.

Charles Mingus, Jr. was a bona fide jazz legend and musical genius capable of sudden descents into self-parody and caricature; a person of intellectual depth and spiritual inwardness, yet an avid publicity seeker remembered for his onstage rants and bullying public displays; a walking paradox, part clown, part ogre, part demon, part saint.

Mingus is the subject of a new critical biography by veteran jazz writer Gene Santoro. And what an extraordinary subject he is. If ever a figure cried out for bold critical assessment and in-depth biographical treatment it is Mingus. Talk about sure-fire material. In addition to the usual entertainment-world gossip and melodrama, you get a publisher’s bonanza—everything from mafia king-pins and FBI snoops to hospital psych wards and high society soirees, not to mention plenty of sex, violence, drugs, politics, and race.

With Mingus you also get a large cultural stage crowded with marquee characters. His career brought him into creative contact with a virtual who’s who of the avant-garde '50s and psychedelic '60s: Bird, Monk, Miles, and Coltrane and writers Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Ralph Ellison, and Ken Kesey.

Mingus dissected film-making and theater with actor John Cassavetes, grooved on Zen and holistic consciousness with spiritual guide Richard Alpert, and debated politics and art with drug guru Timothy Leary. Two of his earliest recording gigs were with Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie; his last two projects, initiated shortly before his death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1979, were with dance director Alvin Ailey and rock chanteuse Joni Mitchell.

Toss in those elements of circus farce and guerilla theatre that became a Mingus specialty (he once ate a steak dinner onstage during a live performance and on another occasion was arrested when he tried to pay his cab fare with a thousand dollar bill), blend in the signature touches of the absurd that only he could provide (he commissioned liner notes from his shrink), and you have material practically guaranteed to arouse reader interest.1 Finally, add a capable writer, which Santoro undoubtedly is, and you have the makings of a seemingly can’t miss biography.

Alas, this one misses. Remarkably, for all its built-in potential, Myself When I am Real is a disappointment. The main problem is that Santoro and his Oxford Press editors seem to have forgotten the first commandment of effective communication: Know thy audience.

Consequently, a biography that at first seems aimed, (reasonably enough) at an audience of informed jazz lovers, especially those with a particular interest in politics and the cultural avant-garde, unaccountably winds up treating those same readers as if they were mindless know-nothings—shallow adolescents whose breadth of cultural awareness and knowledge of American history begins and ends with Oprah or MTV.

Throughout much of this book I found myself looking back to the title page to make sure the subtitle wasn’t “The Mingus Era for Dummies.”
I kept wondering: do any adult readers, especially those familiar with Mingus and the modern jazz era, need to have concepts like the Cold War or Watergate defined for them? Can such readers be ignorant of who Richard Nixon was? Do they really need to be told that the Plaza Hotel is in New York or that Lou Gehrig’s disease was named for a New York Yankees baseball player who was a “teammate and pal” of Babe Ruth?

Along with this maddening urge to identify everything, Santoro’s narrative is further dumbed down and its flow all too frequently interrupted by numerous instances of what the British call “potted history,” i.e., brief digests of historical information or social background, which are intended to be helpful but turn out in almost all cases to be intrusive, superficial, and idiotically simplistic.

Consider this tabloid reduction of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Santoro apparently plugs in for no other reason than to add an extra bit of background excitement and international tension to his account of Mingus’s notorious Town Hall concert fiasco of Columbus Day, 1962:
In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis riveted the world. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev walked to the brink of thermonuclear holocaust over the issue of Soviet missiles in communist Cuba, ninety miles off the American coast. For forty-eight hours, the world waited to find out who would blink. Khruschev pulled the missiles out, and Kennedy unleashed a series of CIA assassination plots aimed at Cuban leader Fidel Castro. (p. 201).

The clichéd writing is bad enough, but what makes this paragraph extra bad is that it is irrelevant, since Santoro makes no effort to connect these events to Mingus’s music or political views, and unnecessary (once again, how many potential readers of this biography are likely to need the circumstances of the Cuban crisis spelled out for them in such a shallow, rudimentary way?). After about a dozen of these capsule history lessons in TV Guide prose, readers who are even the least bit familiar with the era or have any political sophistication at all can only shake their heads.

Like an over-long solo (Mingus believed that any solo longer than two choruses was sure to lapse into repetition and banality) this biography starts strong: the preface, introduction, and opening chapters are excellent, but eventually settles into easy grooves and predictable patterns.

Santoro’s prose, at first brisk and sharp, lapses into flaccid, merely competent journalese. Remarkably, in the final chapters even the content becomes dull—boring as a resume or expense account voucher which is what Santoro’s treatment at this point with its endless recitations of Mingus’s concert dates, record sales, royalties, and pay stubs, all too often reduces to.

Santoro devotes a considerable effort to probing his subject’s dark and complex interior, however, he never comes up with a unifying theme or insight that might bring Mingus’s entire career into focus or illuminate his inner world. The closest he comes is to offer Mingus as a recent example of the Romantic artist-hero, a figure who is part celebrity, part revolutionary, part intellectual, part mountebank—in the attention-grabbing tradition of Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Andy Warhol.

This is a plausible characterization, though to me it makes better sense to view Mingus not as the Last Romantic, but as the Last Modernist and the true disciple and musical heir of Duke Ellington. Like Ellington in his later years, Mingus experimented with different media (from dance and choral works to movie soundtracks and pieces for live theater) and saw himself as a virtuoso craftsman dedicated to bringing together a variety of musical styles (including sacred, classical, African, Latin, Oriental, blues, pop, and gospel) to produce a rich, serious, symphonic jazz that would truly be “beyond category.”2

Trained in the modernist classical works, Mingus’s favorite composers, besides Ellington, were Ravel, Stravinsky, and Debussy, all of whom exercised a lifelong influence on his music. The literary styles and, more significantly, the austere artistic personas of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot were also important influences.3

Gary Giddens has described Mingus’s style at its peak as that of “disciplined turmoil.” It is precisely this sense of an inner turmoil that has been disciplined—that is, of personal rage and bitterness that have been grappled with and subdued—that marks Mingus’s style and aesthetic sense as essentially modernist.

The true romantic artist simply follows his instincts. A modernist like Mingus, instead of venting his emotions, seeks to restrain them within a formal structure that is intricate, cerebral, and technically complex.

Mingus was eventually able to break through as a composer—and mature as an individual—by learning to channel his anger, reworking his private demons into expressions of caustic social satire, dark humor, and his own brand of bemused pessimism. Somehow, behind all that anger, beyond the scolding of patrons (think those on-stage diatribes weren’t partly pre-meditated?) and scowling at critics (Mingus used to practice his famous “menacing look” in a mirror), it seems certain that Jazz’s Angry Man was secretly relishing his own performance.

1. The Mingus legend abounds in memorable anecdotes, most of them tragicomic or bizarre. My own favorite is when Mingus checked himself into New York City’s Belleview Hospital (source of his composition “Hellview from Belleview”). The Angry Man was diagnosed as a full-blown paranoid when he complained to staff physicians that notorious mob hit man Joey Gallo was after him. Later on the diagnosis had to be modified when the doctors learned that Gallo, a record label owner, was indeed trying to sign Mingus to an exclusive contract. In any consideration of Mingus, the phrase “crazy like a fox” comes quickly to mind.
2. Santoro quotes Dizzy Gillespie, who saw the similarities to Ellington early on: “[Mingus] reminds me of a young Duke. As a matter of fact, his music sounds like Duke Ellington. I think that’s the main thing: his organizational genius.”
3. Mingus’s wild, brilliant, utterly fantastical autobiography Beneath the Underdog is full of Joycean improvisation and wordplay. His last large-scale musical work was to have been a multi-media jazz setting for Eliot’s Four Quartets, which Santoro refers to as a “dense modernist poem about the decline of Western civilization” (375), apparently confusing it with Eliot’s The Waste Land. Four Quartets is a complex work of personal recollection and spiritual autobiography as well as a philosophical poem about time and eternity, life and death, loss and recovery. A Mingus composition along these themes would have been interesting, to say the least.

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