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I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus by Todd S. Jenkins

Todd S. Jenkins’ I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus is the kind of book reserved for the best of the best. Few musicians can expect their musical output (excluding tales of lovers, spouses, money problems and children) to become the sole topic of a book. But Charlie Mingus, for a variety of reasons, is that type of figure now.

Jenkins states routine facts about Mingus’ recordings and performances in a simple manner, and only now and then digs deeper to tell the stories behind the songs. It works for the most part; literary riffing, what many jazz critics are prone to, is absent here. This is a quick-hit book, Mingus for Dummies, but written carefully.

In just the first nine pages, Mingus gets out of military duty, joins up with legendary Ellington clarinet player Barney Bigard, is schooled by Duke’s immortal bass player Jimmy Blanton, and jams with Art Tatum. Bebop, according to Jenkins, is “ugly noise” to Mingus. The radical diversion created in heroin-soaked jazz joints in New York City by the music’s most talented and accomplished African-American swing players comes into Mingus’ life a page or two later, and before you know it, Mingus, the L.A.-born product of a double biracial union, is on his way to New York to join the “ugly noise” movement. But mostly, Mingus tries to be Duke Ellington with every fiber of his being.

Then the book begins for real. Jenkins slows down his narrative. In the chapter entitled “The Poetic Blues of Mingus,” Mingus, who, according to Jenkins, “has the heart of a poet,” teams up with the poet Langston Hughes and pianist-critic Leonard Feather to record an LP. Considering that jazz-poetry performances are routine now, it is intriguing to know that Mingus helped innovate that format.

Jenkins also spends important time discussing Mingus’ output in 1959, jazz’s most impressive year historically. Blues and Roots, complete with the famous composition “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” is dissected here, as is the 1959 album Mingus Ah Um, which includes Mingus’ famous ode to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Jenkins hits his stride.

Some drawbacks: Jenkins states the musical facts-who played what, when and where-but the book leaves a gnawing desire for new inside information, some source not yet tapped. Also, some of Mingus’ landmark moments receive sparse coverage; for example, only three lines are devoted to Mingus’ famous 1962 collaboration with Ellington and Max Roach, Money Jungle.

But I Know What I Know is a very good work. Like Mark Tucker’s The Duke Ellington Reader, it will become the starting point for other books and studies on the life of an artistic giant.

Originally Published