Charles Mingus was one of the most innovative jazz musicians of the 20th Century, and ranks with Ives and Ellington as one of America's greatest composers. By temperament, he was a high-strung and sensitive romantic, a towering figure whose tempestuous personal life found powerfully coherent expression in the ever-shifting textures of his music. Now, acclaimed music critic Gene Santoro strips away the myths shrouding "Jazz's Angry Man," revealing Mingus as more complex than even his lovers and close friends knew.
A pioneering bassist and composer, Mingus redefined jazz's terrain. He penned over 300 works spanning gutbucket gospel, Colombian cumbias, orchestral tone poems, multimedia performance, and chamber jazz. By the time he was 35, his growing body of music won increasing attention as it unfolded into one pioneering musical venture after another, from classical-meets-jazz extended pieces to spoken-word and dramatic performances and television and movie soundtracks. Though critics and musicians debated his musical merits and his personality, by the late 1950s he was widely recognized as a major jazz star, a bellwether whose combined grasp of tradition and feel for change poured his inventive creativity into new musical outlets.
But Mingus got headlines less for his art than for his volatile and often provocative behavior, which drew fans who wanted to watch his temper suddenly flare onstage. Impromptu outbursts and speeches formed an integral part of his long-running jazz workshop, modeled partly on dramatic models like Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre. Keeping up with the organized chaos of Mingus's art demanded gymnastic improvisational skills and openness from his musicians-which is why some of them called it "the Sweatshop." He hired and fired musicians on the bandstand, attacked a few musicians physically and many more verbally, twice threw Lionel Hampton's drummer off the stage, and routinely harangued chattering audiences, once chasing a table of inattentive patrons out of the FIVE SPOT with a meat cleaver. But the musical and mental challenges this volcanic man set his bands also nurtured deep loyalties. Key sidemen stayed with him for years and even decades.
In this biography, Santoro probes the sore spots in Mingus's easily wounded nature that helped make him so explosive: his bullying father, his interracial background, his vulnerability to women and distrust of men, his views of political and social issues, his overwhelming need for love and acceptance. Of black, white, and Asian descent, Mingus made race a central issue in his life as well as a crucial aspect of his music, becoming an outspoken (and often misunderstood) critic of racial injustice.
Santoro gives us a vivid portrait of Mingus's development, from the racially mixed Watts where he mingled with artists and writers as well as mobsters, union toughs, and pimps to the artistic ferment of postwar Greenwich Village, where he absorbed and extended the radical improvisation flowing through the work of Allen Ginsberg, Jackson Pollock, and Charlie Parker. Indeed, unlike Most jazz biographers, Santoro examines Mingus's extra-musical influences--from Orson Welles to Langston Hughes, Farwell Taylor, and Timothy Leary--and illuminates his achievement in the broader cultural context it demands.
Written in a lively, novelistic style, Myself When I Am Real draws on dozens of new interviews and previously untapped letters and archival materials to explore the intricate connections between this extraordinary man and the extraordinary music he made.
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In an art form known for its outrageous characters, Charles Mingus stood out. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, he was a man of "multitudes." He was a forceful, virtuosic bassist. He was an imaginative and original composer and arranger second only to Duke Ellington. He was also a social critic, bully, lady's man, father, and hypersensitive man-child who simply wanted to be appreciated for his work. Making sense of this larger-than-life personality presents an imposing challenge to any biographer. Enter Gene Santoro. The author of Dancing in Your Head and Stir It Up: Musical Mixes from Roots to Jazz, Santoro updates Brian Priestley's Mingus: A Critical Biography; separates the fact from the fiction of Mingus's rowdy autobiography, Beneath the Underdog; and produces the literary equivalent of a masterful Mingus composition, complete with labyrinthine surprises and complexities.
A light-skinned African American with Native American and Asian bloodlines who was born in 1922, Mingus endured a difficult childhood in Los Angeles, forever stung by the rampant racism that halted his dreams of a career in the classical music field. Undaunted, Mingus went on to work with several jazz giants, including Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington, before creating his own record company (Debut) and composing over 300 iconoclastic compositions, including "Eclipse," "Haitian Fight Song," "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," "Cumbia and Jazz Fusion," and many other jazz standards. Santoro writes that the music "is overwhelming in its torrent of musical styles and psychological switchbacks and emotional punch, its tumble of raucous gospel swing, luminous melodies, European classical threads, bebop tributes, Mexican and Colombian and Indian music and sounds from anywhere and everywhere."
In addition to his keen insights into the music (including a thorough discography), Santoro deftly analyzes Mingus's mercurial personality. From the highs (his celebrated recordings Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um) to the lows (his horrible Epitaph concert, his eviction from his New York apartment, his numerous assaults on sidemen, and his slow death from Lou Gehrig's disease in 1979), Santoro fairly and faithfully lays bare the mind, body, soul, and art of an American original who influenced everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Joni Mitchell. "Mingus' music was autobiography in sound," Santoro writes. "Everyone in his life had a role. His portraits, his musical tributes, his insistence on forcing his sidemen to find themselves in what he imagined, his clamor for recognition, his emphasis on his originality ... these were more than stylistic trademarks. They were the essence of who he was." Myself When I Am Real captures this essence brilliantly. --Eugene Holley Jr.From the Back Cover:
"The best examination yet of an American Original" -The Washington Post
"The great bassist and composer's wild, turbulent life [is] wonderfully captured by Santoro." -Rolling Stone
"Santoro's unconventional but meticulously researched biography is deliciously entertaining examination not only of jazz's 'angry man' and his music, but of the times in which both flourished. Santoro casts Mingus as a central character in the restless drama of a postwar America wrestling to find its identity politically, socially, and artistically." -The Boston Globe
"Santoro brings his readers into the mind of this conflicted genius." -Philadelphia Inquirer
"Santoro's ambitious and engrossing biography has the vivd force of a bravura performance by one of its subject's classic Jazz Workship ensembles." -The San Francisco Chronicle
"The definitive Mingus biography." -The Boston Book Review
"Written with the elegant hand of an experienced journalist and the insight of a musician with first-rate ears, the book accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of casting a revealing light upon the inner life of its enigmatic subject." -Los Angeles Times
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