Charles Mingus did not do small.
He was a big man, with big appetites, big ambitions, big grievances, big passions, big skills, and above all, a big vision.
By any reasonable criteria, he easily ranks as one of the foremost musicians and composers in American history: the scope of his recorded works is vast, varied and awe-inspiring. He can—and should—be included on any list alongside his hero Duke Ellington, and only Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk led as many remarkable bands and produced such a staggering body of work.
Like Ellington, Mingus wrote his autobiography in his music. Unlike Ellington, Mingus was never accorded remotely the same measure of respect, money and corresponding opportunities. As a result he was a constant cauldron of insecurity, anger and, more than occasionally, fear. Certainly not the first or last man in America to see his brilliance misconstrued, undermined or (worst by far) ignored, Mingus, as much as any 20th Century icon, had sufficient cause to feel aggrieved.
That this man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a skyscraper was able to remain as productive and positive as he did is a testament to his will, and a defiant commentary on our not-so-awesome American tradition of failing to appreciate or embrace our geniuses while they share air with us.
It is, therefore, instructive to learn more about the forces that drove Mingus, and the impulses that, at times, derailed him. He could be his own worst enemy, as the burnt bridges, ruined relationships, and botched business deals demonstrate. Still, if he occasionally terrified the musicians in his employ, he frequently drove them to do their best work. The list of artists and industry veterans who stood by him (some of whom, like his widow Sue Mingus, actively promote his legacy to this day) is considerable.
John Goodman’s Mingus Speaks is a collection of previously unpublished interviews and recollections from bandmates, club owners, and jazz critics. While the various biographies on Mingus (Gene Santoro’s Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus is especially recommended) are illuminating, and the liner notes from his albums occasionally revelatory, there can be no substitute for hearing the colossus account for himself. Beneath the Underdog, his infamous autobiography, is required reading for any Mingus (or jazz) fan, but its digressions and frequent forays into obvious fiction fail to provide sufficient perception or clarity.
In these collected interviews, mostly conducted in the early ‘70s when Mingus was rebounding from years of turmoil, we get everything we’d expect: tall tales, candid insights, score settling, and the full range of topics that fascinated and inspired him. We get, in short, Mingus’s side of the story, which is particularly poignant considering he would succumb to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1979 (at the entirely too young age of 56).
For people like myself, who can never get enough of Mingus, much of this book is an exhilarating ride, an essential addition to our understanding of what made him such a unique and enduring iconoclast. He accounts for his proficiency, and the decades of practice, false starts, frustration and triumphs. He also takes every opportunity to discuss the men who encouraged him, ranging from obscure or unheard of to acknowledged masters like Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker. His theories (some fascinating; some preposterous) on everything from the Watts Riots to his controversial eviction from his loft (in 1968) are like many of his compositions: breathless, all-encompassing, unswerving. His consummate abilities (as a bassist, songwriter, jazz ambassador) are acknowledged by everyone who speaks of him.
Here are a handful of the literally hundreds of quotes I could pick from, which confirm what we know and, if anything, add additional layers to a man whose heart hung on every utterance—yet often managed to remain an enigma:
Mingus is a peculiar combination of perfectionist and… someone who always wants to experiment (Dan Morgenstern).
Well, Bud (Powell), Fats (Navarro) and Bird—they’re like saints to me. They gave everything. I think they really thought they were telling the people…the message, the spirit to live (Mingus).
I don’t think there is anybody in the music field who… he has not threatened to kill at one time or another, including his best friends (Dan Morgenstern).
He’s such a beautiful man. I’m glad he doesn’t talk, man, he says more with his silence and his music (Mingus, on Monk).
I feel a divine connection with eternal life when I write. I feel like something better than me is coming out of me (Mingus).
John Goodman deserves credit and praise for his work here. For starters, most of the interviews (with Mingus; with others) were conducted when he was a jazz critic for Playboy, and the intent was to compile them for a book. For a variety of factors, it was not meant to be, but Goodman was never able to stop thinking about it. The result, finally, provides something for everyone: it contains the history of Mingus, a history of jazz (which can also be found in his discography), astute reflections on American culture—from Mingus; from others, especially Goodman himself—and yet another testament to a titan who looms ever larger. Perhaps in the final analysis, this difficult project, an obvious labor of love, further sets the record straight and stands as something Mingus himself would undoubtedly endorse.
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