Charles Mingus' Monkey

Charles Mingus wrestled with one big fucking monkey. Just when his life seemed to be settling into something approaching constancy, the monkey would snort and squall: reprisal, retribution, punishment. The monkey was a wicked hybrid of high-pitched sensitivities, racism, a gnarled childhood and Mingus' uneven reputation as a jazzman. The result was some of the most dynamic, volatile, energetic and sprawling music this side of Duke Ellington. And also this: Mingus pushed fellow musicians off stages, threatened audience members with meat cleavers, cuffed trombonists in the mouth, caroused and cajoled, whined and wailed, pulled knives on club owners, smashed his bass (inspiring the Who and Jimi Hendrix), and generally mucked around in whatever tempest he could find or concoct.

During his lifetime, Mingus was undoubtedly among the world's most talented and infamous bassists and one of its most ambitious composers (certainly Ellington's most illustrious compositional protégé). Yet his monkey ran amok, creating the only image of Mingus that stays with many of us: a beret-wearing, vodka-swilling, pot-smoking, ill-tempered, bass-whacking lard-ass and motherfucker.

Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1922; raised in Watts by his mixed-race parents; grew up playing classical cello and then jazz bass at the suggestion of longtime friend Buddy Collette; heard Duke Ellington's "Jumpin' Pumpkins" in 1941 and decided he would learn to play the bass like that cat Jimmy Blanton. He would become one of the most prodigious performers and recording artists in jazz history; from the 1950s until his death in 1979, Mingus played and recorded with anyone who was anyone. In 1959 alone, he crafted three landmark albums-Blues and Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty. He wrote film scores, accompanied Langston Hughes and Joni Mitchell, proctored the next wave of great bassists, started his own label (Debut) and the alternative Newport Festival, and even recorded an album of symphonic airs (as Baron Mingus).

But in Myself When I Am Real, Gene Santoro shifts our attention from a man of obvious professional accomplishments to a man of remarkable depth. We learn that Mingus' influences ranged from Orson Welles and Dostoyevsky to Béla Bartok, Jelly Roll Morton and El Greco. We learn that Mingus developed a running squabble with Miles Davis. We learn that Mingus had four wives, numerous children and a squadron of lovers.

The Mingus that Santoro (of The Nation and the New York Daily News) portrays certainly breathes new life into the legend. This is no humdrum recitation of biographical fact; Santoro is on a mission. In one corner are the rumors, tall tales and half-truths surrounding the musician's life; in the other, the dry musical scholarship (e.g. Brian Priestley's Mingus) that exalts the music while ignoring the man. Santoro tries to stake out a middle ground by mimicking the call-and-response patterns of jazz itself, quoting his sources directly, documentary-style. At times, the quotes Santoro samples into the biography illuminate Mingus' life; at other times, the structure itself confines and overwhelms Santoro in his maddening resolve to be encyclopedic. The cut-and-paste structure might have been easy-it might even be art-but it sure seems to have been produced with little thought for how readers might experience the book.

So this is how we experience Myself When I Am Real: it opts for breadth instead of depth, quantity instead of quality; the prose is infested with clichés ("He stood on the cusp of greatness"), repetitive phrasing ("Mingus was pushing the limits" and "Mingus was feeling the Zeitgeist" over and over and over again) and name-dropping (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Pollack, blah, blah, blah) and is often historically simplistic and oddly muddled. Santoro titles Chapter 10 "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" and then spends all but one page of the chapter precisely pinpointing Mingus' escapades and measly royalty checks, ignoring the blistering album of the same name. It's almost as if Santoro is so busy trying to clarify the precise nature of Mingus' debauchery that he forgets the point of his project: the man could play, the man could compose, and the man could lead.

Myself When I Am Real by Gene Santoro; Oxford University Press. 462 pages, Hardcover, $30.

 
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