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.
Most of his musicians, however, produced nothing significant separate from their work with Mingus, who was a most demanding band leader. Rather than fully writing out compositions, Mingus brought in only sketches, lines, and chords to be used and moods to be conveyed. He expected collective improvisation and spontaneous composition from his players. Many accomplished musicians lacked the chops necessary for his technically demanding pieces. His music employed difficult and unconventional time signatures, keys, and changes, and constantly forced players to discover elegant solutions to musical conundrums, without missing a beat, and to do it differently every night. As he explained it, "As a youth I read a book by Debussy and he said that as soon as he finished a composition he had to forget it because it got in the way of his doing anything else new and different. And I believed him." Mingus pushed his players hard, and thought nothing of stopping a performance midsong to fire or physically attack a sideman if he was dissatisfied with his performance.
MINGUS'S COMPOSITIONS were a group affair, giving the music a wholeness too often lacking in jazz, where many groups feature soloists playing their own, scarcely related ideas each after the other. He formed a full, often big-band-like sound from a small unit. Where one recognizes Monk by his piano, or Armstrong by his trumpet, Mingus's calling card is his band; not one instrument, but the interrelation of the instruments. He constantly pushed towards new and unexploited modes of musical expression, and expressed his admiration for ". . . anyone who can come up with something original. But not originality alone, because there can be originality in stupidity, with no musical description of any emotion or any beauty the man has seen, or any kind of life he has lived."
Mingus balanced his love and respect for tradition with a hatred of the fossilized and the derivative. Thus did he produce an evolving, yet unmistakable sound. For all its range and eclecticism, and despite the frequent lack of one prominent voice, a Mingus tune can hardly be taken for anything else. This quest for a singular and evolving musical style left Mingus feeling frustrated and hemmed in by anyone he thought was defining him, be it as a clown, a bop musician, or a black man.
He saw enemies everywhere, and confronted them in order to confirm or dispel his paranoia, and as often as not ended up befriending them. For a time, he carried pepper in a napkin to blind any attackers. He attempted to use the pepper on a heckler, but ended up hurting only Sue. By the time she recovered, Mingus was making plans to go out drinking with the heckler. Not that he didn't have real foes, including club owners who didn't want to pay (he was not above using physical intimidation to get his money), TV executives who didn't want black musicians (he was replaced by a white bassist for a televised appearance of the Red Norvo trio, and quit the outfit), and record executives who shorted royalties (he started his own music label with Sue).
In his life as in his music he usually eschewed gimmickry. In response to Tim Leary's acid gospel, Mingus replied, "You've got nothing for Harlem, . . . for the workers, the people who go to their jobs, the people who get up at six."
And yet he sometimes fell under the spell of countercultural pranksters, as when he asked Allen Ginsberg to "marry" him to Sue, a decade before they were married in law. Ginsberg complied by smacking two Indian cymbals together, shaking his hair and beard, and chanting Hare Krishna. Such antics, ironically but not unexpectedly, made it even harder for Mingus to avoid getting penned in by definitions.
Of course, characterizations and definitions and labels are exactly what Mingus's behavior invited. Charles Mingus wanted people to notice him, to listen closely to his music, and so he allowed himself to become a character, the wild, angry, black jazzman.
But as "Tonight at Noon" makes clear, Mingus's lashing out at whites was more showmanship and personal defensiveness than racial angst. In this regard, the fact that he married a white woman was no more telling than his having many white friends. Sue's relationship with Charles wasn't much more than a romance between two people who happened to have different colored skin.
LIKE RALPH ELLISON (who was an aspiring jazz trumpeter before becoming a novelist), Mingus created brave new art from well-established forms. The service Sue's memoir performs is to portray the man as distinct from his music, giving us a chance to appreciate his craft and, if we like, his life. But the man could no more easily be summed up than one could whistle one of his songs. In this sense, Mingus himself was right about the problem of being defined.
Harry Siegel is an editorial assistant at the New York Sun.