In his compelling new book, Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus, jazz author and scholar Krin Gabbard mines fresh insights by homing in on specific, important elements of the Mingus phenomenon-from his relationship with the Third Stream movement to his participation in motion pictures, his rapport with certain trusted sidemen and, perhaps most important, his profound abilities as a wordsmith. In this excerpt, Gabbard details the publishing industry saga that resulted in Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog, the brilliant, notorious, wildly entertaining autobiography that is an essential title in the jazz-lit canon.
The achievements of bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus were not entirely musical. His written work includes poems, letters, manifestos, liner notes and lyrics, but he will be most remembered for his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1971. With this book, Mingus proved himself to be a master of literary form, switching back and forth from first to second to third person, usually as a means of telling his story in the most engaging fashion. The characters in Beneath the Underdog emerge as distinct individuals, even the ones who pass through the narrative only briefly. And even though he speaks with a variety of voices, Mingus is always a powerful presence as he expresses love, anger, disappointment and trust. At times he introduces characters who may seem to speak for him, especially Fats Navarro and the pimp Billy Bones. But Mingus is careful to distinguish his own feelings from those of the handful of outspoken men with whom he carries on a series of dialogues.
Mingus built his life story around a set of themes that unite this jazz musician’s predicament with sexuality and ultimately with prostitution. As a result, there is plenty of erotic writing in Beneath the Underdog, but very little of it is pornographic. The sex is always part of a larger tale that needs to be told, especially Mingus’ own development as a man seeking truth in the flesh as well as in the spirit. Frequently the sexual passages are connected to a critique of an entertainment business that requires serious musicians to prostitute themselves. And although sections of the book can only be fantasy, and his memory is not always completely accurate, Mingus is completely in control of this remarkable work of self-mythology.
Mingus told friends that he was inspired by Billie Holiday’s autobiography, not because he felt the need to tell his story but because he wanted to make some money. This may explain why Beneath the Underdog often reads like a potboiler. Yet the book is much too ingenious to be regarded as hackwork. Mingus was an uncompromising artist who rethought the role of the autobiographer, just as he constantly rethought the art of musical performance. He was incapable of grinding it out for a paycheck.
At first, Mingus wanted to call his book Memoirs of a Half Yellow Schitt-Colored Nigger. In a long letter to Regina Ryan, the editor at Alfred A. Knopf who acquired the book in 1969, Mingus’ collaborator, Nel King, tells the story of how the book took shape. (The letter, dated June 14, 1971, is now part of the Knopf archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas in Austin.) King says that Charles wrote the entire book over the space of six months in 1963. If this is true, Mingus was exceptionally creative in a year when he was also making his superb recordings for the Impulse! label. King says that Charles mostly wrote late at night when he was having trouble sleeping. She adds that he also spoke some material into a tape recorder.
Mingus probably wrote in a hurry because he had received a contract and a substantial advance from McGraw-Hill. In a 1971 interview with the critic Whitney Balliett, he said that he had been working on the book for 25 years. In another interview, he said that he had started writing the book in California but that Celia Zaentz, his second wife, lost what he had written. He may have had some notes and sketches going back to the 1940s, and this may have been the material that Celia “lost.” King, however, says that Mingus had nothing on paper when he first approached her in 1962 to ask for her help with his autobiography.
Today, Regina Ryan is a literary agent living in Manhattan. She remembers Nel King as a petite blonde with a pageboy haircut. In the 1940s, King worked as an apprentice editor in Hollywood, and in the 1950s she wrote a few short pieces for the New Yorker as well as scripts for various television programs. In a grant application for funds to help defray expenses while editing Mingus’ book, she notes that many of these television programs were documentaries about jazz musicians. King knew Mingus’ work well enough to insist in 1961 that he be brought over to England to participate in the making of the film All Night Long, for which she had co-written the screenplay. Her co-author was Paul Jarrico, a busy Hollywood screenwriter who struggled in the 1950s after he was blacklisted. On the release print of All Night Long he is identified as “Peter Achilles.” Mingus plays a character named “Charles Mingus” in the film, who looks exactly like Charles Mingus and speaks sentences that the real Mingus might have said, but probably did not.
In her 1971 letter to Ryan, King says that she was away for the several months in 1963 when Mingus was writing. When she next saw him, he had a manuscript of 870 pages. Mingus wrote out his story and his convictions on yellow legal paper, which he then gave to his third wife, Judy, a skilled typist. (This typescript is now available to researchers as part of the Mingus Collection at the Library of Congress.)
An editor at McGraw-Hill offered Mingus an advance of $5,500 in August 1962. A letter in the Knopf archive says that a book with the working title “Mingus Autobiography” was contracted to be co-written by Mingus and Louis E. Lomax, an African-American journalist who had recently published a fairly successful book, The Negro Revolt. But any working relationship between the two quickly dissolved when Charles began to suspect that Lomax was only interested in taking his money. Regardless, with the promise of $5,500 upfront, Mingus announced in August 1962 that he was retiring and moving to Majorca, Spain, “perhaps forever,” where he would write a symphony. An article in Jet magazine, also published in August 1962, said that Mingus was moving to Majorca “to work on his autobiography and composition.” In any event, he probably had very little to show McGraw-Hill in 1962.
The McGraw-Hill editors canceled the contract in 1964, at least in part because they did not like what Mingus had written in his burst of activity in 1963. They may also have objected to his demand that the book be bound in white with the title in gold lettering so that it would resemble the Bible. Mingus himself said that the book was rejected because it had too many dirty words. But he had also used the actual names of many people in his life, which meant that lawsuits and reprisals were inevitable. Some of the people he named in the book had read sections of the typescript after the book was rejected by McGraw-Hill. They would walk up to him on the street to complain. Mingus suspected that Louis Lomax had given the typescript to people who had put the book “on the fucking market.”
After McGraw-Hill canceled the agreement, Charles said he would publish the book himself and sell it door to door. He ended up carrying the typescript around New York on and off between 1964 and 1969 in search of a publisher. His inability to find one surely contributed to his severe psychological problems during this period.
After Sue Graham met Mingus in 1964 she maintained a professional relationship with him, serving as his literary agent even when their on-again, off-again romance was at its nadir. During this period Sue was editing a journal called Changes, devoted to avant-garde culture and politics. In the third issue of the magazine, dated August 1968, Sue published a segment of what Mingus was still calling Memoirs of a Half Yellow Schitt-Colored Nigger.
Regina Ryan did not see the issue of Changes, but the magazine may have given the book enough buzz that she began hearing rumors about it. She was definitely intrigued. Then a friend who was a Mingus fanatic wanted to play the Mingus at Monterey LP for her, and when he pulled the record from its sleeve, a little piece of paper came fluttering out. Mingus (or someone) had put the paper in with the record to ask people to send him money so that that he could publish his book. In February 1969, Ryan wrote to Mingus at the post office address she found on the piece of paper.
After several years of carrying the book around in boxes and suitcases to publishers who were never interested, Mingus suddenly heard from an editor he had not even approached. But by this time Mingus had become gun shy; he refused to let Ryan see the book for fear that she or someone in her office would make copies and share them with friends, which is what he assumed Louis Lomax had done. Just as Mingus had formed his own record companies to avoid being ripped off by corporate masters, he now wanted to keep people from reading his book in “pirated” form.
But Ryan persisted. After several months of back-and-forth, mostly between Sue Graham and Ryan, an agreement was reached: Ryan could see the manuscript, but only if Sue was present while she read it. In a 1972 interview, Ryan said, “We had one day, and she brought this thing in-in Pan Am bags, I mean dripping with paper, you just couldn’t believe it-and for about four hours I sat there and read. He doesn’t know this, but I put her in another office. … I would grab up a handful and I’d run into our editor-in-chief and say, ‘Look, this is pretty exciting stuff. What do you think?'”
Bob Gottlieb, who was then editor-in-chief at Knopf, was as impressed as Ryan. They bypassed the usual acquisition process and immediately offered Mingus an advance against royalties of $25,000. When Ryan suggested that a third party be brought in to do the bulk of the editing, Mingus told her that he had already asked Nel King to help him edit the 870-page manuscript. In a letter to King signed by Mingus and dated Sept. 1, 1969, he promises her one-half of all advances against one-third of the royalties. The letter also indicates that the title of the book had already been changed to Beneath the Underdog: His World According to Mingus. The contract that Mingus, Nel King and Sue Graham eventually signed with Regina Ryan states that 45 percent of the advance should go to Mingus, 45 percent to King and 10 percent to Graham. If the book made back its $25,000 advance, royalties would be split 60/30/10, respectively. Ryan told me that this was the largest advance she ever offered anyone during her career at Knopf, which began in 1964 and ended in 1975.
King worked diligently during the latter part of 1969 and the early months of 1970 to edit the book down to a little more than half its original length. Making sure that she regularly checked in with Charles for his approval, she skillfully rearranged the material to follow a more coherent chronology. At some point King made the excellent decision to move the segment beginning with “In other words, I am three” to the opening chapter.
The correspondence among Mingus, King and Ryan in the Knopf archive is voluminous, and revealing. Ryan is concerned primarily that the writing be clear and accessible and that there be no question of anyone named in the book filing legal charges. King is more focused on preserving Mingus’ voice and making sure that he is comfortable with the editorial changes. After King and Ryan produced a draft on which everyone could agree, King wrote a letter to Charles dated Sept. 6, 1970, asking him to go over the text as carefully as possible and to make notes where he thought changes should be made.
In the letter of Sept. 6, King tells Mingus to read the new draft carefully and make whatever changes he wanted. “When we’ve done this, you and I will get together with your notes for a last and final polish. It is extremely important that you do it, Charles. It may take you a couple of days [and don’t underestimate the time it will take], but you must be completely satisfied before the book goes to typesetting. Please don’t let anything interfere with your doing it: Plan on setting aside the time you will need immediately after Sept. 22. This will be our last chance to make the book as good as we can.” King’s language suggests that Mingus was reluctant to devote more time to a project that was still dragging on long after he had finished the draft of 1963. But the letter also reveals how determined King was to make sure the book really was Mingus’. And Mingus did indeed send in the letter approving her draft three weeks later.
One of the documents in the Knopf archive is a 47-page letter from King to Ryan in which King responds page-by-page to the many changes that Ryan had made to King’s first edit of Beneath the Underdog. King agrees to many of Ryan’s suggestions, but she frequently states that Mingus wishes her to reject or modify others. Like the letter from Sept. 6, 1970, this document also reveals the extent to which Mingus was responsible for writing his own book, even if King had to coax some of it out of him. There are plenty of lines in King’s long letter that begin, “CM says insert…,” as well as several instances where Mingus rejects Ryan’s editing of passages she considered unclear. For example, “Mingus says this makes perfect sense to him, and he likes it exactly the way it is.”
Mingus occasionally appears to have given in on certain changes. For example, Ryan asked that the names of the pimp Bobby Bell and his girlfriend be changed in order to avoid lawsuits. King responded, “CM believes that true pimps and whores will never come forward and sue anybody for calling them such and maybe he’s right. [It’s not a chance I care to take.] So we’ve changed his name to William Bones, known as Billy Bones, and changed his description.” Mingus may have resisted, but he saw the logic of what Ryan was suggesting. He also knew that changing a name hardly changes the story or the multilayered account of pimping that runs through a large portion of the book.
The correspondence reveals that Mingus had a variety of reactions to his editors’ requests for more material. When I read the typescript for the first time, I was surprised that I did not see three of the most memorable passages in Beneath the Underdog: the sexual advice from Pop Collette, the story of Mingus’ self-commitment to Bellevue Hospital, and his notorious encounter with Juan Tizol during his days with the Ellington Orchestra. King would later explain that these and other anecdotes “were extracted from him in conversation, and sometimes it took a number of his infrequent visits to get enough for a rough, which was slowly converted to Mingus-ese.”
When King told Charles that stories of his professional and musical life were essential to give the book “some balance,” he replied, “I don’t want that stuff in, Nel-the book is about sex and religion.” The book was indeed about sex, but it was only slightly about religion. At least at that point in the writing and editing process, Mingus was not prepared to talk about those aspects of his life that ultimately made the book so distinctive, including his long conversations about politics, economics and spirituality with Nat Hentoff, Fats Navarro and Billy Bones.
The many months of the editing process took its toll on everyone involved. In her own correspondence, Ryan is consistently reasonable, professional and occasionally firm in her convictions. Mingus and King both had their outbursts. In a letter written a few months after her 47-page response to Ryan’s edits, King writes about a phrase that Ryan wanted her to “bring up with Charles once again.” Mingus had written “c.p. time” as an abbreviation for “colored people’s time,” a phrase that black people used to joke about their supposed tendency to be less punctual than white people would like them to be. Ryan had apparently asked on more than one occasion that it be changed or omitted. Here is what King says happened after she did in fact bring it up again: “Boy! Did my boy react with rage! He said, ‘I told you I didn’t want to explain it. The whole fucking book has been destroyed by your making me explain on every page to WHITE PEOPLE what things mean. Either leave it the way it is or fuck it!-Take it out!'”
Increasingly irritated by the many calls he was getting from King, Mingus followed his usual practice of lashing out in racial terms. Although the book was his work, Mingus was becoming disenchanted with the process of getting it published. And despite the period of generally successful collaboration with King, he ultimately grew disenchanted with her as well. A good deal of correspondence in the Knopf archive addresses the question of how King should be represented in the front of the book. At first she insisted that “With Nel King” be placed immediately after Mingus’ name. Ryan and Gottlieb talked her out of that, saying that “with” indicated the work of a second-rate ghostwriter. At one point she asked to be listed as co-author. She eventually agreed that the phrase “Edited by Nel King” appear below the subtitle, “His World as Composed by Mingus.” She then began asking for a larger share of the advance against royalties, finding ambiguities in the wording of the contract she had signed.
As Mingus’ manager at this stage, Sue was caught in the middle. In her correspondence just before and after the book was published, King consistently refers to Sue as “Mrs. Ungaro,” her previous married name. By the time the book finally came out, Nel was pointedly not invited to the publication party. She came anyway.
Nel King passed away in California in 1977. An obituary in Variety states that she was in her mid-50s and had written for television shows such as Mike and Buff and Look Up and Live. Regina Ryan says she once encountered her working as a sales clerk at Gimbels department store during Christmas sales. She also recalls that King pitched a book about director/screenwriter Preston Sturges to Bob Gottlieb when he was at Knopf. King apparently worked with Sturges in the 1940s, but the book never happened.
In Knopf’s promotional literature, Beneath the Underdog is called “the wild, shocking, anguished, dirty, sexy, funny, and above all, profoundly moving autobiography of the great black jazz composer and bassist.” Whoever wrote the “Fact Sheet” for the book also says that it would attract the same kind of reader who had bought Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, another autobiography by an African-American that had been published a few years earlier and sold several million copies. Beneath the Underdog did not sell nearly as well. Ryan told me that the hardback version of the book probably did not earn back its advance against royalties. However, the paperback edition has sold steadily for more than 40 years now.
Beneath the Underdog proves that Mingus-with or without editors-had a genuine gift as a writer. He fought with editors who wanted to change his work, and sometimes he had to give in, but his commitment to every aspect of the book’s genesis affirms that the book is truly his.
Excerpted with permission from Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus, by Krin Gabbard. University of California Press, 2016.