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.