In this thoroughly enlightening and revealing biography of Charles Mingus, writer Gene Santoro applies the same meticulous journalistic detective work to his imposing subject as Woodward and Bernstein applied to Richard Nixon and the Watergate cover-up. No stone is unturned in his pursuit of facts, causal events and relationships along the way regarding the enigmatic bassist-composer, whose awesome, sprawling body of work encompassed blues, gospel, trad jazz, fusion, swing, avant-garde, Afro-Latin, orchestral tone poems, chamber jazz and bebop and stands second only in scope to that of his hero, Duke Ellington.
Much has already been written about Mingus’ music, including his own outrageous autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. But in Myself When I Am Real, Santoro digs up the motives behind the myth of Mingus, the root causes for his anger, hostility and pent-up rage, the sources for the creative vision and impulses that fueled such masterworks as Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, Blues and Roots, Mingus Ah Um, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion and Epitaph. In some cases, Santoro finds the key to this larger-than-life figure-like discovering Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud-by tracing the family ancestry back to Mingus’ multiracial roots. He inherited his light, yellowish skin from his mother (whose own father was Chinese from a Hong Kong Chinese man and a British subject) while his stern, violent streak (and extremely bowed legs) came from his domineering and aloof father, Staff Sergeant Charles Mingus Sr., a career Army man. The product of that union was a child who got beat up and harassed by white kids for being black, beat up and harassed by black kids for not being black enough. As Santoro elucidates in one of many perceptive observations: “For Charles Mingus Jr., the neurotic contradictions of American racism were personal-highly personal. Paradox was at the heart of his darkness. He talked about it endlessly, not always coherently, at times thoughtfully, often provocatively. Race was painfully complex for him, though that complexity came out at times as self-contradiction. It was a matter of fierce pride and bitter resentment because his appearance could be so racially ambiguous-because his skin was not black.”
Aside from probing the depths of Mingus’ easily wounded and explosive nature, he traces the development of the man’s music-from his formative years in Watts to early apprenticeships with Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, to the formation of The Jazz Workshop and the eventual realization of magnum opuses like “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” and “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”-through an endless series of personal testimony from key colleagues like Buddy Collette, Chico Hamilton and Britt Woodman, along with insights from critics, former wives, friends and family members. There are vivid anecdotes and vignettes depicting Mingus’ struggles with record companies and nightclub owners, his working relationships and strained friendships, his musical triumphs and failures. And again, the degree of detail-right down to precisely what Dannie Richmond was drinking on a given night at The Five Spot-is mind boggling.
In providing a broad cultural context for Mingus’ muse, Santoro also examines such extra-musical influences as Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater Company, poets Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg,
LSD guru Timothy Leary, writer H.G. Wells and his first significant mentor figure, artist Farwell Taylor. His handling of Mingus’ gradual deterioration and eventual death from Lou Gehrig’s disease is thoughtful and moving. The scene he paints of Sue Mingus spreading her husband’s ashes on the Ganges River in India is particularly poignant.
A major work written in a lively and entertaining style, Myself When I Am Real gets beyond the myth and goes right to the core of one of the most formidable and fascinating figures in jazz history.
Q&A with Gene Santoro (author of Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus)