An Argument With Instruments: On Charles Mingus
Mingus wasn’t afraid of the new, but he didn’t see why it should come at the expense of the past, as the slogans of the avant-garde seemed to imply. He was a rebel in defense of tradition. In his liner notes to Mingus Dynasty (1959)—on the cover of which he appeared in Chinese imperial robes, with a Fu Manchu mustache—he grumbled, “ten to fifteen year cycles in jazz are camouflages for insecure musicians who hide behind the current style.” (“Camouflage” was the ultimate insult for Mingus, for whom art was nothing without self-exposure.) Just as “sham copies” had dishonored Parker’s genius, so young jazz musicians were now “hanging on to a few of the rhythmic phrases Coleman has been able to create.” In 1959, the year Coleman announced The Shape of Jazz to Come, Mingus called one of his records Blues & Roots: black music, as he saw it, was a continuum, a bottomless source of renewal; you couldn’t move into the future without a thorough knowledge of the past. “Those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland,” he told Goodman, “are the same and as important as classical music styles are.” Gospel and blues, the New Orleans polyphony of Jelly Roll Morton and the urbane sophistication of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the stride piano of James P. Johnson and the dazzling harmonizations of Art Tatum: all went into the Mingus cauldron, seasoned with dashes of circus music, obscure pop tunes, B-movie scores, flamenco, scraps of Mozart and Richard Strauss. To listen to Mingus is to hear the black American musical tradition talking to itself. Jazz had always been an art of quotation and allusion, a palimpsest of commentaries on other musicians’ interpretations of the same material. But with Mingus, who came into his own as jazz reached middle age, it acquired a more acute sense of historicity, even if his own work—a one-man genre he called “Mingus music,” as expansive and restless as the man himself—seemed to defy periodization.
Mingus’s reverence for the tradition—and his mockery of free jazz musicians as unschooled dilettantes—made it easy to mistake him for a conservative: a “black Stan Kenton,” in the dismissive phrase of Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), the high priest of black nationalist jazz critics. In fact, Mingus’s music was precisely the kind of vernacular modernism that Baraka had championed in his 1963 study Blues People, as well as a textbook illustration of his argument that black musical styles, however superficially divergent, were joined at the hip by a blues impulse that Baraka called “the changing same.” Like Baraka, Mingus viewed music as a surrogate church for black Americans. “James Brown was their church,” he told Goodman, “but they got a church in jazz, too. As long as there’s the blues.” Blues feeling saturates Mingus’s work: as Sy Johnson notes, “it’s always got its feet in the dirt.” His music immerses us in the blues rituals of black American life, while at the same time depicting them from a warm and playful distance.
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Mingus spent nearly as much time talking about his music as he did performing it, as if he were running a permanent anti-establishment campaign. He regularly fired off letters to jazz magazines, jousting over reviews of his work. “Critics! How did they get here? I know. It’s Freudian,” he wrote. “I even know one who can hear. I mean he can actually hear the difference between a major triad and A minor…. And this man works while musicians who just play music are scuffling to pay rent or have their wives bury them in dirt with the few dollars the American Federation of Musicians calls insurance.” He even wrote to Eisenhower, demanding unemployment benefits for jazz musicians. Onstage, he was always sounding off about music, about racism, about the corruptions of the record industry—and about the audience, who learned that the twinkle in his eye could suddenly turn into a glare. “You don’t want to see your ugly selves,” he told one audience. “So you come to me, you sit in the front row, as noisy as can be. I listen to your millions of conversations, sometimes pulling them all up and putting them together and writing a symphony. But you never hear that symphony…. You’re here because jazz has publicity, jazz is popular, the word jazz, and you like to associate yourself with this sort of thing. But it doesn’t make you a connoisseur of the art because you follow it around. You’re dilettantes of style.”
These harangues weren’t prepared, but they were standards of the show. So were his outfits—a Mexican sombrero and serape one night, a kimono and headband the next. From the mid-1950s through the ’60s, a Mingus happening was as much a part of Village bohemia as Lenny Bruce’s stand-up or Norman Mailer’s drunken provocations. When Mingus came onstage, you never knew what he might do, except that he wouldn’t ignore you. If you applauded before a piece ended—or, worse, talked during the set—he might turn up at your table with a cleaver, kick your drink to the floor or smash his bass. (“I’m sorry but I’m neurotic,” he apologized after one such stunt. “My only defense is that I know it.”) But unlike Miles, Mingus never turned his back to the audience, even if he had an unusual way of engaging it. Members of the Workshop—some called it the Sweatshop—weren’t immune from his onstage antics. If he was disappointed with your playing, he might fire you in the middle of a set; if he was really disappointed, he’d fire the whole band, including himself. As Nat Hentoff wrote, “this huge cauldron of emotions at the center of a band can be taxing to a sideman.” It could also result in serious injury. Jimmy Knepper, Mingus’s longtime trombonist, lost an octave of range when Mingus punched him in the mouth and capped one of his teeth. When Knepper filed suit, Mingus sent him a package with a bag of heroin inside and no return address, then called the cops on him. Knepper eventually forgave him; everyone did. In the words of Bobby Jones, a white tenor saxophonist who played with Mingus in the early 1970s and was a frequent target of his screaming fits, “he’s the easiest person in the world to love.”
Mingus’s defenders often romanticized his outbursts as an expression of existential authenticity. Mingus, they said, wasn’t angry; he was misunderstood. One critic who misunderstood him, John S. Wilson of The New York Times, received a response from Mingus in the countercultural magazine Changes: “The title of this article should read ‘John Ass Wilson is full of shit.’ You stay away from my job and I’ll stay away from yours.” Wilson came back to hear him—with a newly grown beard. Mingus was a son of a bitch, but it was hard for critics to hate a man who called one of his pieces—an ingenious reworking of “All the Things You Are,” the Jerome Kern standard—“All the Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.” Mingus loved words as much as they did, and they recognized a kindred spirit.
In 1971, Mingus published his long-anticipated memoir, Beneath the Underdog, which he’d been writing on and off since the mid-1950s. (Jason Epstein considered publishing it at Random House, until Mingus insisted on white binding with gold letters so that it would look like the Bible.) Beneath the Underdog caused a splash for its lurid tales of pimping and group sex. Here, it seemed, was proof that jazz really was orgasm, as Mailer, a Mingus fan, had proposed in his 1957 essay “The White Negro.” But much of the memoir was fabricated in order to play on white fantasies about black sexuality. Mingus was never a pimp and was sexually rather shy as a young man. He was married four times, and by his own account in Mingus Speaks he much preferred monogamy. Still, Beneath the Underdog is interesting for other reasons, not least as a jazz bildungsroman. It opens with a boast that is also a confession: “In other words, I am three.” Like Philip Roth’s Portnoy, he’s talking to his psychiatrist, who deciphers the identities of Mingus One, Two and Three: “The man who watches and waits, the man who attacks because he’s afraid, and the man who wants to trust and love but retreats each time he finds himself betrayed.” Mingus’s psychiatrist, Dr. Edmund Pollock, contributed liner notes to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (“Mr. Mingus is not yet complete…. Hopefully the integration in society will keep pace with his”); it was the only time Mingus ever paid him for his services. The three Minguses never quite became one, but music allowed them to co-exist in a state of controlled turbulence. Mingus, who had himself committed to a mental hospital more than once, needed art to tame his demons—particularly the demons of race.
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