Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus
(University of California Press)
US: Feb 2016
See, what he does is, he lives out all his—most people don’t live as full a life as Charles does. He is inhibited about very few things, and he lives out his feelings, he lives out his doubts, he lives out his angers. See, most of us have learned to curb certain things, to control certain things.
And… that’s partly what an artist does anyway. You know, a lot of art is simply really being a loudmouth. Saying everything, spitting it all out, getting out all your feelings, examining them—and eventually certain truths become apparent. You know, most people don’t expose themselves all the time, but that’s how you do find art. You know, it can be at the expense of a lot of people around you when you’re doing this, but this is an artistic need.
- Sue Graham, from a 1972 interview with John Goodman included in Mingus Speaks.
”I never feel like I’m not the underdog. I never felt completely comfortable.”
- Kanye West, as quoted in Kanye West: God & Monster
In other words, ‘Ye is three.
One ‘Ye is relentlessly clever and innovative, possessed of both the desire and the ability to make big statements. Another ‘Ye isn’t satisfied with the bigness of the statements he’s already making, and has come to believe quite firmly that’s he’s capable of doing whatever he wakes up in the morning determined to do; he has previously declared himself a god. Then there’s the ‘Ye that sometimes can’t stay out of his own way, undercutting his brilliance and perception with ill-timed excesses that serve little apparent purpose besides keeping his name in the paper.
Which one is real? They’re all real.
There’s a reason Kanye West’s career to date lends itself to a summary recalling the opening lines of Beneath the Underdog (1971), the autobiography of the jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus. West’s rap acuity is unquestioned, as was Mingus’ on his bass, but the common bonds they share have relatively little to do with music. Both of them were highly restless and creative. Both of them were concerned with control and the means of production. Both of them were prodigious commentators on the state of their industry.
Further, both West and Mingus were anything but meek and mild about all that. They both represent an extreme form of the complicated-and-proud-of-it black man, within a society that prefers its black men as uncomplicated and untroubling as possible. There have been black men not at all shy about daring America to accept them in all their audacious blackness since at least Jack Johnson a century ago, but West and Mingus represent a separate strain within that swaggering lineage: their public lives represent their working out in real time the contradictions and frustrations of being an outspoken black artist, and outspoken black man, in America. Yes, they channel their complications through their art, but they also give voice to them outside their art, and they aren’t particularly concerned with how it sounds.
As West drove the Internet crazy for a couple of weeks this year upon the release of The Life of Pablo, or at least its first public iteration, it would have been helpful to understand that while the whole sh-bang (Is it finished? Who’s on it? What the eff is Tidal?) was outrageous, there was a way to process it without getting caught in the must-respond-to-every-last-tweet-NOW frenzy that burned away hours of life that will never be recovered. We’ve seen a variation of this before. ‘Ye is not the first to not only let his freak flag fly, nor is he the first to be unafraid if it unravels.
After those opening lines of Underdog, Mingus continued, in dialogue after his therapist asked which of the three Minguses he wanted the world to see:
”What do I care what the world sees, I’m only trying to find out how I should feel about myself. I can’t change the fact that they’re all against me—that they don’t want me to be a success.”
“Agents and businessmen with big offices who tell me, a black man, that I’m abnormal for thinking we should have our share of the crop we produce…”
In other words:
Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine
So we cook it, cut it, measure it, bag it, sell it
The fiends cop it
Nowadays they can’t tell if that’s that good shit / We ain’t sure man
Put the CD on your tongue yeah, that’s pure man.
- Kanye West, “Crack Music”
* * *
“Prodigious” is as good a word as any to describe Charles Mingus (1922-1979), in several respects: his talent, his legacy, his appetites, his passions, his will. And yet, when it comes to Mingus, even a word that big can seem too small.
Born in Arizona near the Mexican border, and raised in Los Angeles, Mingus took to music quickly. He started out on cello in a youth orchestra, but by his teens, he was making gigs as a bass player in the L.A. jazz scene. He cut his first records as a leader in the mid-‘40s, briefly christening himself “Baron” to follow in the path of “Duke” Ellington, “Count” Basie and Nat “King” Cole. But it was Ellington’s composing and arranging for his big band that was Mingus’ greatest fascination, throughout much of his career.
Although his first records featured some of his own compositions, it would be a while before he became known as a composer. His first big break was with the Red Norvo Trio, a drummer-less combo that gave Mingus plenty of room to show off his bass skills. Although he wasn’t part of the bebop revolution from day one, he fell in with its architects upon moving to New York City. Along with drummer Max Roach, he formed Debut Records, one of the first artist-owned labels in any genre (the politics of the music business was a theme Mingus sounded on a regular basis). Among the records Debut released was a 1952 concert in Toronto featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Mingus and Roach. It would be the first and only time that all-legend configuration ever performed together.
Mingus was part of the Third Stream Music movement, which sought compositional approaches that merged jazz and classical. He briefly—and I do mean briefly—recorded with his idol Ellington. But he made his breakthrough with a series of inspired albums of his own compositions in the late ‘50s, beginning with Pithecanthropus Erectus for Atlantic in 1956. His earthy, full-bodied approach to playing, and his expectation that the musicians in his bands reject clichés and play the emotions of what Mingus was writing, made for numerous volatile moments on stage and in the studio. It also brought to life several lasting jazz standards: “Better Git It In Your Soul”, “Haitian Fight Song”, the indelible “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, and many more.
His music was “jazz” if that’s where it needed to be filed, but it defied any further categorization. It was neither big-band nor bebop nor Third Stream nor post-bop nor soul jazz nor New Thing, but drew on all those elements, with the whole swirling brew colored by Mingus’ exposure to the joyful noise of Pentacostal worship and love of Ellington. Critic Nat Hentoff, who produced some excellent Mingus albums in the early ‘60s, coined the phrase that best describes it to this day: Mingus music.
The ‘60s were tempestuous years for Mingus, professionally and personally. His first attempt at large-scale jazz was a controversial concert at Town Hall in New York in 1962, but just a few months later, he would record the magisterial suite The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, one of those handful of jazz albums everyone (rightly) says you should know. He would take a smaller group that included fellow Los Angeleno Eric Dolphy throughout Europe, but was devastated when Dolphy, whom he had worked with extensively, died suddenly in 1964. Despite the artistic success, Mingus wasn’t exactly rich, and that exacerbated his inner demons. His eviction from his New York apartment was captured on film, and he spent the late’60s in a deep depression, not making any music.
At the turn of the decade, he slowly made his way back, and by late 1971 was ready to issue yet another masterpiece—or two. He published Beneath the Underdog, his long-awaited autobiography, which was heralded for his frankness on all things Mingus even it if was much longer on his relationships with women than with jazz. In 1972 came Let My Children Hear Music, the orchestral opus (six bassists!) Mingus considered his best work. A new quintet made a pair of well-received records in the mid-‘70s, and he had yet another large-scale triumph with Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, recorded in 1977.
Not long after that, Mingus began to show the onset of ALS, which eventually robbed him of the ability to play his bass. A collaborative project with Joni Mitchell served neither his music nor her career much good, but it was a moot point by then. Mingus passed away in Mexico, as he and his wife were chasing a rumoured miracle cure for his ailment. It seems impossible that a man who lived as much life and made as much music as Mingus did was only 57 when he died.
Krin Gabbard saw that ‘70s Mingus quintet, and says it changed his life. That declaration is the title of the introduction to Better Git It in Your Soul, his new Mingus biography. Gabbard builds on the work of previous Mingus biographers Brian Priestly and Gene Santoro, drawing from archival material, recently published Mingus interviews, and memoirs from various Mingus associates—most importantly, his wife Sue, who was Mingus’ companion for the last years of his life, and helped steer the celebration and preservation of his music after his death.
This isn’t simply a new telling of Mingus’ life story, although Gabbard does an excellent job of that in just under 100 concise and nicely paced pages. Gabbard also takes a deep dive into specific aspects of Mingus’ output. Most notably, he performs forensic work in exploring how Beneath the Underdog came to be. He shows how the book came together over several years, and was slimmed down from the original 870-page manuscript. He details whose names were changed (damn never everyone who wasn’t already a well-known musician), and discusses why the book is so redolent with passages about pimping and sex (Mingus wasn’t a pimp per se, or at least for major stretches of time, but he saw the jazz industry as similarly reductive to its creators).
Gabbard does his best to elevate Underdog into the upper tier of autobiographical writing. Much of it is indeed brilliant, and its opening line—“In other words I am three”—is perhaps the most memorable in all of music’s literature. He proceeds to showcase Mingus, as, in fact, a gifted and prolific writer: he wrote the poem “The Chill of Death” as a teenager, although it never saw the light of day until he recorded it for Let My Children Hear Music. Speaking of, that album’s liner notes were his clearest distillation of his musical philosophy: part autobiography, part music theory lesson, and part manifesto on the importance of knowing one’s stuff (he considered many of the avant-garde/free jazz musicians who emerged in the ‘60s as musical charlatans).
Perhaps someone will work up the nerve someday to write about Mingus’ many female relationships with as much focus as Gabbard gave to his writing (something Mingus didn’t do in his autobiography; one crucial ex-wife is never mentioned). For now, Better Git It in Your Soul, Gabbard takes us everywhere else within Mingus’ world. That world was simultaneously sacred and profane, given to psychological depths and emotional transcendence, and driven by a furious passion—not at all unlike his music.