The Incomplete History of Charles Mingus

The most widely read book review section in the country is in the Sunday New York Times; and on August 6, Gene Santoro’s biography of Charles Mingus, Myself When I Am Real (Oxford University Press), was reviewed by Daniel Mark Epstein. More people will now think they know who Mingus was than the total readers combined of Santoro’s work and the other books about Mingus.

Epstein has written a useful biography of Nat King Cole (Farrar Straus & Giroux), but what he says he has learned from Santoro’s book is that “Mingus was selfish and mean and violent... What made Mingus great was his discipline and maturity as a musician. His refusal to grow up made him nothing but newspaper copy, a sideshow and a heartache to everyone who loved him.”

Nothing in the review reveals what was “great” about Mingus’ music, and the still uninformed reader would have no idea why Gunther Schuller has said: “Mingus’ music is one of the widest ranging musics you can find, composed by one single human being. It covered the entire range of human emotions. So, he reflected exactly who he was in his music.” Schuller said that in the course of Don McGlynn’s film Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog (co-produced by Sue Mingus), which goes deeper into the indivisible life and music of Mingus than any writing about him so far.

As for Mingus the “sideshow” and “heartache to everyone who loved him,” I knew Charles from the time we were both in our twenties, first in Boston when he came there as a sideman. When he was on the road, we corresponded, and after I went to New York in 1953 to write for Down Beat, our lives, professional and personal, continually intersected.

One of the last times I saw him, trying to conquer Lou Gehrig’s disease, he could not move except to hum into a tape recorder a new composition that the remarkably attuned Sy Johnson would later orchestrate for a record date.

As a reporter and friend, I have known all kinds of people, from Supreme Court Justice William Brennan to John Cardinal O’Connor and Bayard Rustin, longtime strategist for Dr. Martin Luther King. I have never known anyone as nakedly honest as Mingus and as knowledgeable of the way the world works and as hopeful of how it should work if there were indeed “equal justice under the laws,” as the Constitution tries to guarantee.

Yes, Mingus was volcanic and sometimes exploded, but he was the closest, most stimulating and reliable friend I’ve ever had. In his New York Times review, Daniel Mark Epstein says with certainty that Mingus “blamed his troubles on racism.” Mingus was hardly passive whenever Jim Crow came around the corner, but it was Mingus who told me: “It’s only a question of color anymore. It’s getting deeper than that, I mean it’s getting more and more difficult for a man or woman just to love. People are getting so fragmented, and part of that is that fewer and fewer people are making a real effort anymore to find out exactly who they are. Most people are forced to do things they don’t want to most of the time, and so they get to the point where they no longer have any choice about anything important, including who they are. We create our own slavery. But I’m going to keep getting through and finding out the kind of man I am through my music.”

Epstein, I expect, can’t be blamed for the headline of his New York Times review, “The Big Bebopper,” but seeing that would have instantly impelled Mingus to send a stinging letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review.

This was “the big bebopper” who—when he was still unknown and playing in Kid Ory’s band on the West Coast—was told by Fats Navarro: “That’s not it, Mingus, that’s what they used to do.”

“Well,” Mingus recalled, “I’m not going to worry about that sort of thing anymore, I said to myself at the time. I’m going to be me. And nowadays, if Bird himself were to come back to life, I wouldn’t do something just because he did it. I’d have to feel it, too.”
Santoro’s book was reviewed in the Aug. 22 Wall Street Journal by Phil Pastras. What he thought of its deficiencies is indicated by Pastras’ first sentence: “Someday, someone will tell Charles Mingus’s story as it deserves to be told, will capture his gargantuan passions and appetites and show how they relate in some way to a body of work that expresses in music the fullness of the American experiences.”

Maybe no one book can do it, but there will soon be a memoir by Sue Mingus who has kept Charles’ music—and therefore the meaning of his life—alive through the Mingus bands and orchestras she keeps in motion. The depth of the man and his music is such that these musicians never tire of investigating Mingus—or his creations.

Originally published in November 2000

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