The dissonant life and times of Charlie Mingus.
May 6, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 33 • By HARRY SIEGEL
Tonight at Noon
FOR MANY, the name Charlie Mingus conjures the image of a goatee-sporting, jive-talking jazz bassist and composer, a mixture of New York beatnik and Angry Black Man. Mingus was all of those things. He hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, denounced the white race, and worked at moving past the cant and sentimentality of a racially defined identity. He wanted his autobiography, a semi-fictional work more about sex and pimping than music, to be entitled "Memoirs of a Half-Schitt-Colored Nigger" and have a gold cover with raised lettering, like the Bible. (It was published as "Beneath the Underdog," with a more ordinary cover.) He also wrote and performed some of the best and most significant American music of the twentieth century.
The son of lower-middle-class, racially mixed parents, he grew up on the West Coast. He received classical music training and wrote eloquent and penetrating jazz criticism. Different sources credit Mingus with between two and four wives, black and white, and the last of these women, Sue Mingus, a Milwaukee-bred WASP, has written "Tonight at Noon," a memoir of their life together. Early in the book, she describes the Mingus she'd heard of--"the ornery, sometimes violent, often unjust, blustery figure who fired his musicians onstage, hired them back, denounced the audience for inattention, picked fights, mastered his instrument, agitated for his political beliefs, created a larger-than-life personality, and created on-the-spot performances for all to see. He was the essence of a sixties 'happening' . . ." The man she reveals, though possessed of these traits, is not defined by them. By placing his explosive career in the context of their life together, Sue Mingus succeeds where his biographers have failed in showing how he transcended, personally and artistically, the anecdotes his outsized behavior generated.
The opening of his memoir reads "In other words, I am three," a self who waits "to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked," and the third Mingus is "an over-loving gentle person" who endlessly gets taken in by his enemies (promoters and record executives mainly) and then retreats back inside himself. Too many critics view Mingus's work in the murky light of his second, aggressive self, while at his best, Mingus incorporated all three selves into a polyphony.
Mingus was at the top of his musical game between 1956--when he released "Pithecanthropus Erectus," a "tone poem" about the rise and fall of the first hominoid to stand erect--and 1965, when he entered into half a decade of semi-retirement. Prior to 1956, he had been a sideman for, among others, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Kid Ory, Dinah Washington, Red Norvo, and Lionel Hampton, and he played briefly with two of his lifelong heroes, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. This apprenticeship in traditional jazz distinguished him from his avant-garde peers.
WORLD WAR II ended the big band era. As young musicians began reimagining jazz from a popular to a difficult music, Mingus avoided the hermetic self-involvement that waylaid many of his peers by expanding the technique and feeling of the big band sound. Where many bop musicians would turn their back on the crowd in disdain, Mingus would berate the audience for not paying enough attention to the music.
In 1955, four years after arriving in New York at the age of thirty-three, Mingus established his Jazz Workshop, which consisted of himself, Dannie Richmond--a rhythm and blues tenor saxophonist who Mingus converted into his personal drummer--and an ever rotating ensemble of players, some of whom, such as Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Ted Curson, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, themselves became important musicians. He also performed and recorded with writers like Jean Shepherd and Langston Hughes.