Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus / Edition 2

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Charles Mingus has been hailed as a musical genius and a pioneer of modern jazz music, yet his turbulent personality and behavior have long made him a mystery to both fans and critics. In Myself When I Am Real, Santoro provides an incisive and revealing look at this enigmatic idol.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Santoro, who covers music for New York's Daily News, has attempted not only to capture the complex, contradictory character of jazz bassist and composer Mingus, but also to assert his music's towering significance in American culture as a whole. With such an ambitious goal in mind, it is hard to understand why he dispenses with a critical approach to the man and his music in favor of hagiography, portraying Mingus as a larger-than-life genius who was beyond reproach. Misdeeds often attributed to Mingus, whether they be numerous betrayals of friends and lovers or an alarming tendency to pull knives on people, are explained away as the eccentricities of an artist. This rambling book is not without revealing details about Mingus's life, however. In the Watts section of Los Angeles, where he grew up, Mingus, with his light complexion, could pass for neither black nor white, which, Santoro argues, cemented the feeling of being an outsider that both haunted and drove the musician for the rest of his life. When writing about Mingus's actual musicmaking, Santoro is in his element. He does an admirable job of describing the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the jazz workshops. There is also an abundance of anecdotes about Mingus's legendary onstage hijinks, including smashing his bass (he did it before Pete Townshend), haranguing the audience and sitting down to a steak dinner in the middle of a performance. Yet Santoro ultimately fails to marshal his sources into a nuanced portrait, producing a mythological figure, not the man himself. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Over the past few years, several exceptional biographies on key jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra have appeared. Santoro (music critic, the New York Daily News; Dancing in Your Head) has produced a work that belongs with this elite group. Mingus s super-human energy and creativity are the hinges of this work, which is filled out with numerous anecdotes and short, insightful quotes from family, friends, and colleagues. The historical setting is also valuable, showing how Mingus influenced and was affected by events and movements during his lifetime (e.g., the so-called 1960s counterculture). Other fascinating facets come to light, including Mingus s heritage (he had Native American, Chinese, black, and white ancestors). Mingus s opinionated, boisterous, and often mean-spirited personality was balanced by his desire to impart musical ideas and other thoughts to those willing to listen and learn it s amazing that there were so few who ended up totally antagonized after the Mingus treatment. After reading this work, Mingus s fictionalized account of his life, Beneath the Underdog (Vintage, 1991. reprint), makes much more sense. Highly recommended for public, academic, and music libraries. William G. Kenz, Moorhead State Univ., MN Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Saul
Santoro is both an eager interviewer and the first Mingus biographer to have been given access to the composer's archives. His book takes after the personality of its subject: it is sprawling, garrulous and oddly compelling in its attention to detail. Its revelations are many...sparkles with Mingusian flashes of joy and anger, even as it unwinds to its melancholy end.
Times Literary Supplement
Talk Magazine
In this comprehensive biography, Santoro delves passionately into the life and work of "Jazz's Angry Man." Through extensive research and discerning interviews he expores Mingus's influences, chaotic upbringing, and pivotal role in America's postwar cultural renaissance.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195147117
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 5.80 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

A former Fulbright scholar, book editor, and musician, Gene Santoro is a music critic at the New York Daily News and columnist atThe Nation and Chamber Music. The author of Dancing in Your Head and Stir It Up, he has written articles and essays for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, Rolling Stone, and Down Beat. He divides his time between New York City and Shokan, New York.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Growing Up Absurd


The baby, barely three months old and pudgy but with bright eyes and an inquiring air, was the center of attention as he fussed on the hot train. He was riding with his parents and two older sisters as they traveled from Fort Huachuca, the dusty desert army post outside Nogales, a grubby, boiling speck on the Arizona-Mexico border.

    Nogales was where the baby, Charles Mingus Jr., had been born on April 22, 1922.

    The Mingus family was heading to a larger dusty desert town—Los Angeles, California. For a decade, L.A. had rocketed through boomtown expansion fueled by a new industry called Hollywood. Like Nogales and the entire southwestern United States, it was part of the Spaniards' New World colonial legacy. Later, the baby would sometimes claim Mexican blood. Like many of his claims, he justified this one by his reading of his history and experience, even if it wasn't, strictly speaking, true.


ESTELLA WILLIAMS, first cousin: He had a guilt complex: he felt he had killed his mother. He said that to me many times, sitting in his car. It seemed to affect him greatly. Sometimes he was on the verge of tears. Aunt Mamie was the only mother he knew. He said his father was really nasty, too harsh. The color differences, these can be serious things. My mother was very light and married a dark man. So my brothers and I came out on the dark side. Now, the Minguses all have different shades of lightness. Vivian was the lightest. But to me Grace looks like a dark white woman.


    The baby's mother, a light-skinned attractive black woman named Harriet Sophia Mingus, née Phillips, was almost forty. She got sick on the train and complained about her stomach and feeling generally poorly. Her spit-and-polish husband of five years, Staff Sergeant Charles Mingus of the U.S. Army Quartermasters Corps, didn't know that she was dying.

    The couple met and married in Brackettville, Texas, on April 14, 1917. It was eight days after the United States entered World War I, and a blink after the career military man divorced his first wife, Mary Taylor. He'd married Taylor in Gallup, New Mexico, and shed her in Holbrook, Arizona, as he went from post to post. In between, she bore him two daughters, and she kept them when he left. All that remained of Sergeant Mingus's first family was a picture that later sat on his second family's mantel.

    In his characteristic gruff, taciturn way, Mingus Sr. never explained the framed, faded photo. The people in it looked like white folks to his second set of kids as they grew up in Watts, outside Los Angeles. Only when they were nearly teens did the children discover the picture's cryptic historical significance, deciphered by their resentful and jealous stepmother.

    The Mingus family was riding the train to join Harriet's family in Los Angeles. There they, like the thousands and thousands of others who would double the Los Angeles population in the 1920s, meant to settle. There the forty-five-year-old ex-army lifer would collect his pension, find another government job, and raise his second family. But on September 7, 1922, Harriet died of myocarditis, or heart inflammation—and the tentative new world of the Mingus family tilted.


Around his family, Sergeant Charles Mingus Sr. was easily angered and often violent and closemouthed the rest of the time, except when he gave orders in a stentorian voice that carried the assumption of command. And he avoided telling his children much about his life. When he did, he altered and embroidered his stories.

    Storytellers often see to the heart of the matter at hand. It's why books are still being written and read, tales still being told and heeded. As it happens, the tales of the Mingus dynasty encapsulate a lot of American history.

    Springing from immigrant pioneers and slaves, the Mingus dynasty traced the twists and turns of American race relations firsthand. They mingled races and heritages in a literal rendition of the American melting pot. So as Charles Mingus Jr. walked the racial and cultural borders of America, he had repeated chances to see and experience what W. E. B. Du Bois at the turn of the century famously called "double consciousness."

    For Du Bois, all Americans of color were fundamentally split psychologically; they saw themselves at least partly through the eyes of the dominant culture, which excluded them and disparaged or patronized their ways of life. Ironically, being marginalized meant they could see the foundations, self-deceptions, and limits of the larger society in ways its more privileged members rarely could.

    With jazz as his main vehicle and his life as his inspiration, Charles Mingus Jr. would transform that double-edged gift into a lifetime's worth of adventures, and his own expansive, quintessentially American art.


Charles Mingus Sr. was born in Swain County, North Carolina, on February 4, 1877, the great-great-grandson of the family's founding patriarch, Jacob Mingus. Jacob and his wife Sarah were among the first whites to settle in North Carolina's Oconaluftee valley around 1790. By most accounts, Jacob was a German immigrant. But when the forty-year-old enlisted in the military in 1814, he declared he'd been born in Berks County, Pennsylvania. He could have migrated from there to Tennessee, then to the Blue Ridge of Carolina.

    Jacob and Sarah's youngest son, whom everybody called Doctor John, was, by his own accounts, born in either North Carolina or Tennessee on September 15, 1798. The only one of five siblings to remain on the family homestead, he became fairly wealthy. John expanded the Mingus Corn Mill (its slogan: Great Smokies, Great Pancakes), which still draws 1,000 visitors a day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    In the hilly country that the Mingus clan settled, slaves were few, far from the hundreds that worked the flatland cotton plantations. Bookkeeping was rigorous in cotton country; the highly developed economic and social bureaucracy of slavery demanded a precise accounting. In the Blue Ridge, things were more casual. And so slave records are fragmentary.

    Besides, North Carolina wasn't pure pro-slave country. It had a history of internal divisions over slavery, and initially opposed southern secession in 1861. After the Civil War, it supported Radical Reconstruction. Many local leaders were businessmen rather than planters; they were less interested in slavery than protective tariffs and northern investment in railroads. But when the state constitution of 1868 established black suffrage, fierce Ku Klux Klan violence erupted. Within a few years, the state government was run by conservatives.

    A man of Doctor John's standing experienced all this firsthand. According to the 1870 census, David Mingus, age thirty-five, black, was working on John's farm. The 1880 census lists Daniel Mingus, black and probably the same person as David, married to Sarah, white. Their children were listed as mulatto. Miscegenation, the Old South's not-so-secret fear, was close by John Mingus. And would get closer still.

    John and Mary's granddaughter Clarinda lived in the big homestead with her grandparents. Like many southern white women, she had her own ideas about race. At nineteen, she conceived a child, possibly by Daniel. The baby had her fair skin and blue eyes, with barely a hint of his father's color or features. He was named Charles and was raised as a family member. The census of 1880, which lists him as John's grandson, does not mark him as mulatto or colored. It may have made a difference that Charles's great-uncle Abraham, unmarried and living with his parents at age fifty-three, was the local census enumerator.


Charles Mingus Sr. told his children almost none of this. But like his son, he regularly substituted psychological and emotional truth for accuracy.


GRACE MINGUS, sister. What he told us was, he was born on a plantation, and his father was an African, and he got one of the slaveowner's daughters pregnant. He said Mingus was an African name.

    So after a while, he didn't like the situation up there at the plantation, so he put his age up and joined the service. Somebody sent word to him in the service, and he went back one time on leave, and they had a big celebration. But he was leery of staying there; he was afraid for his life, because of the racial thing. So he left and went back into the service. During that time, he said he didn't know if he'd wake up dead or what.

    He looked like a white man. I have a picture of him and some of the buddies he was in the service with. I didn't know which was him because they were all so white.


VIVIAN MINGUS, sister: My dad said when he was small—this is translated from my stepmother, now—that he was treated so bad because he had black in him, that he ran away when he was about fourteen and joined the army. Then he went back and they treated him bad, and he swore that if he was going to go back he was going to kill them all. So he wrote them a letter and said he was coming back. He said when he got there they had a banquet table in one room with all kinds of food and stuff. He said they treated him so good, like a king coming home, he didn't have the nerve to even harm them.


    Mingus Sr. enlisted in the army at Richmond, Virginia, on December 30, 1897; he was twenty. His mother had married when he was fourteen. Did he leave the family estate again because of his stepfather? Or was it because of the Ku Klux Klan's dominance? Whatever happened, his first three-year hitch probably included a stint in the Tenth Cavalry in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Then he was discharged from Fort Wright in Washington.

    He was out of the service for eighteen months, long enough to head back to the Mingus family homestead to see where he fit, if at all. His stories make his ambivalence clear. What is known is that on June 12, 1902, he reenlisted, this time in the 24th Regiment of Infantry—a colored outfit, as it was called then. With it, he'd move from Montana to New York to the Southwest, until his twenty-year-plus time in was up and his second wife wanted to move to Los Angeles to be with her family.

    Harriet Sophia Phillips Mingus was, like her husband, multiracial. Her father, John, was Chinese from Hong Kong and a British subject; her mother was black. Charles Jr. and his sisters would dimly remember her almond-shaped eyes, her yellow-toned skin, her gentle voice—and not much more. Physically they'd all resemble their father, who was five feet, eight-and-a-half inches tall and heavyset. But their skin had a hint of hers—light with a yellowish cast. Her famous son, who inherited his father's extremely bowed legs, would later use as a working title for his autobiography Memoirs of a Half-Schitt-Colored Nigger.

    Grace, the oldest of the three children, sketchily remembers the trip to Los Angeles, to her grandmother's house at 1545 East 52nd Street. She recalls her mother complaining on the train ride, and says wistfully, "Her pictures show a beautiful woman."


Several weeks after Harriet's death, Staff Sergeant Charles Mingus Sr. retired from the army, after logging in twenty-seven years, eleven months, and twenty-one days—including his two years, one month, and twenty-seven days in the Philippines. (Foreign service counted for double time; Sergeant Mingus actually spent some twenty-three years on active duty.) So he was entitled to a full pension.

    Two days after his son was born, he'd joined the Benevolent Proud Order of Elks. Once Harriet died, he showed up at the Los Angeles lodge, and also joined the Masonic Order, where he'd eventually rise to the twentieth degree. And he signed on at the post office right after his discharge.

    These posts and his passion for bridge, a long-standing hobby from his army career, were the pillars of his daily life. Twenty years as a high-ranking NCO in the daily grind of the peacetime army quartermaster's corp left him with a clear sense of his right to command. Unbuffered by his children's mother, he usually ordered them around, and often bullied them.

    Enter Mamie Newton Carson Mingus, his third and final wife. Born in South Carolina, half black and half American Indian, barely five feet tall, Mamie added another darker strain to the Mingus household's racial melange. Her arrival on the scene—along with her son Odell, a dozen or more years older than the Mingus kids and disliked by them and their father—rerouted the family's always fragile internal dynamics.


VIVIAN MINGUS: She told my daddy she'd had a dream. The Lord had told her she'd be the one to take care of his children; she'd dreamt she had Charles in her arms. And then she turned out to be a witch.


GRACE MINGUS: Mamie was crazy about my brother. She called him Baby. I thought Mama was a beautiful person to take a man's three children and raise them up, dedicate her life to that. She didn't go anywhere. Daddy, he'd go out and play bridge with his friends and Mama would stay with us. We were no kin to her. She was just good like that.


    When the Reverend Holbrook married Mamie and Charles Mingus Sr. on July 1, 1923, they seemed like the odd couple. Mingus's bulk and carefully invulnerable air of frowning authority contrasted sharply with the tiny Mamie's passivity. The gulf in personality eventually helped undermine their marriage. It could sour even the good times with tensions and arguments and frustrations.

    But they started off well-meaning enough. Mamie was plain and down-home, but she was willing to mother three kids who weren't hers in exchange for financial security. That Mingus Sr. could provide. He would rise to supervisor at the post office. His circle of old army buddies and his fraternal orders' memberships created a network of friends. Playing bridge with them would more and more keep him out of the new Mingus home.

    Right after the wedding, the family moved into a bungalow at 1621 East 108th Street. It was large enough to fit them comfortably, even with Mamie's son Odell. In the early 1920s, Watts, like most of the region around Los Angeles, was still semirural. Its population was racially mixed—blacks, Mexicans, Japanese, whites. Most of them gardened on their land to supplement store-bought groceries.

    Thanks to Mamie, the Minguses had a bountiful truck farm. The arbor in the backyard doubled as a playhouse; beneath the hanging grapes, Vivian and Charles, thick as thieves, would play house or preacher, taking turns as the man of God. Near the garage stood the fig tree, then the pond, then the peach trees farther back. Chickens and turkeys and ducks shared the plot with the crops: corn, string beans, tomatoes, and the usual greens, including collard greens. Says Vivian, "White people would come by and ask for them, they'd be so tall, so high. Mama'd give them some."


Mamie seems to have done her best for the Mingus children, though she could sometimes be as gruff and dismissive in her peevish way as their father. But she'd also make them treats and tip them for doing errands or tasks for her. And she tried to shield them, usually ineffectually, from their father's furious temper. The confrontations could explode into beatings. Grace says her father hit her last when she was sixteen.

    Charles Jr. grew up relatively coddled and indulged. He bore the brunt of his father's rage less than the girls. As the sole boy, Charles was the apple of his father's eye. Not for nothing was he called Baby by his family until he was in his early teens. "We were raised to stay kids, even when we got big," says Vivian. For Sergeant Mingus, it was another form of control.

    Most of Baby's early adventures were trivial, typical exurban childhood escapades. He'd climb up onto the kitchen counter and eat the stuffing out of Mamie's delicious sweet potato pies, or catch a cat or a field mouse and toss it against the side of the house. He'd wet the bed, and his father's temper would flare, and he'd get a whipping. He'd disappoint his sister Vivian by telling her there was no Easter Bunny, despite their parents' elaborate charades. He'd go pony-riding at a neighbor's.

    He was Baby, a pudgy, bowlegged child so much the center of attention that any threat to his well-being was seen as a catastrophe. If he got a stomachache or got clawed, it was his sisters' fault, and they'd get hit. "Girls were nothing," recalls Vivian. "He was the prize. He was carrying the Mingus name."

    When Baby was three or four, the Mingus kids were playing tag inside the house. To escape his sisters, Baby lunged into the corner of a dresser, opening a small gash over his eye. With all the blood, the family thought he was dying. They raced him to the doctor, where he got a couple of stitches, leaving a small scar.

    Only a couple of years later, Baby was at a Tom Thumb wedding, a widespread church event for kids, when he fell in love with Mary Ellen Kelly, daughter of a local cop. She was the first in a long, long series of females to fix Charles Mingus Jr.'s focus.

    One of the harshest punishments the boy got from his father was caused by girls. Around third grade, Baby started looking up girls' dresses in class, in the schoolyard, in the playground. Some girls told the teachers. Baby was sent home from school, and his father was called in to see the principal. Mingus Sr. was incensed: his sense of morality ran deep and conservative, even if he didn't always apply it to himself. And so he came home from the principal's office and shaved his son's gentle curls to shame him.

    "He sat in the back of church all embarrassed," remembers Vivian. For the congregation at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church around the corner from the Mingus house, shaving your head meant physically defiling your body, God's temple. It was a vivid sign of Baby's sinful ways, a scarlet A.

    Every Sunday, the Mingus family went to the AME church. The music at the services went from the old hymnals to Baptist-style shouts, while the sermons touched the usual chords of hellfire and damnation.

    For the Mingus children, the weekly churchgoing became an empty ritual of righteousness. For years, each Sunday morning before church, their house rocked with their parents' bitter arguing. Sometimes things got physical. Mamie started dressing more and more like a mammy, acting more and more down-home country, knowing it enraged and disgusted her husband. She took a fancy new dress he bought her and cut it up into underwear. She nagged him about being away so much, about running around. One Sunday, Sergeant Mingus hit her, and she ran around to show and tell all the neighbors.

    She started going to other churches beside the AME, including the Baptist Church. She was superstitious. For her, evil was a vivid presence in the world.

    When the kids were almost teenagers, the main source of argument between Mamie and Sergeant Mingus was one Miss Garrett, choir member at the AME church. By the time Baby was in high school, the goings-on between his father and Miss Garrett had long been an open secret.


Baby never stopped wanting female attention. Growing up with his mother dead, a doting if unpredictable stepmother, and two sisters made him aware early of the opposite sex. They protected him, cuddled him, solved his problems when they could. He didn't have to compete with them. They listened to him, hung on his bright sayings, cheered his triumphs, like his getting honorable mention in a Community Chest poster contest for coining the slogan, "Give and let live." For the rest of his life, he'd trust women instinctively and generously, with little hesitation.

    Males were a different matter. Lots of things provoked his father. But then the old man sometimes backed him to the hilt. The way he remembered it, his grade-school teachers thought "he was dumb. And he wasn't learning much. It was decided to send him to a dumb school, as he described it. Mingus's father, light-skinned and scornful of the intelligence of most whites, came to instruct the principal." When they checked the boy's IQ scores, his father told him, "Even by white man's standards, you're a genius."

    Then there were the boys at school, who called him names and left him out of recess games and stole his lunch almost every day. They inspired only dreams of revenge.


Life for the Mingus children was materially comfortable and relatively undemanding. There were weekend outings to Lincoln Park and Santa Monica, where they'd picnic and their father would swim and terrorize them into trying. Neither Vivian nor Baby learned. But the boy loved to watch the shows on the Santa Monica pier.

    Every year, the three children had to go to the Colosseum, where Los Angeles veterans marched and caroused to honor themselves and their memories. "My daddy would put his uniform on, with all the stripes and ribbons," says Vivian. "He seemed to have a lot of friends." His old-boy network dictated the children's caroling rounds every Christmas. Every year on Christmas morning, he'd get up early and make egg nog, with the bottle of whiskey, not rum, he'd buy once a year just for that. He'd leave a little; spiked with sugar, it doubled as cold medicine year-round. Every year, after they drank the eggnog on Christmas morning, their father took them and a couple of friends to sing at veterans' homes.

    Sergeant Mingus's world ran on rails, and on time.


VIVIAN MINGUS: He didn't like people disagreeing with him. Very stern. He just sorta delivered orders. Every day, he'd come home, and we'd open the gate, and he'd come in. He'd take his shoes off and put his house shoes on, every day. He'd take the newspaper and start reading, every day. There wasn't much communication. Me, I was the type of person who wanted to be affectionate. But when I'd sit on his lap, my stepmother would make me get off. She broke up the relationship between my father and me. She didn't like it. I thought it was kind of evil.


    Baby's bicycle gave him enviable freedom; the girls, who weren't allowed to go out alone, got in trouble if they didn't stay together or wandered too far. Their father would send them to look for his son, calling "Baby" along the streets—though they never knew where they'd find him. He wandered all over the neighborhood, and sometimes made it clear into L.A.

    He met some interesting characters. A local autodidact recited excerpts from the encyclopedia about far-flung topics like Julius Caesar and Buffalo Bill. Fascinated, Baby started reading the encyclopedia at home. He began going to the library.

    Then there was Sabato, better known as Simon, Rodia, the builder of the now-famed Watts Tower. The old Italian immigrant built a castlelike fortification around his house, a maze of birdbaths and fountains and the like topped by towers stretching skyward. He worked texture and color into the mortar and cement with heterogeneous bits of found junk, from seashells and stones to busted chunks of Phillips' Milk of Magnesia bottles. Slowly, over thirty-three years, the towers arose as Rodia worked slowly, steadily, all by himself, all by hand. Now the Towers, with their sprawling rhythms and triumph of romantic artistic vision over formalism, are a monument to so-called primitive art, a tourist stop that's an ironic Disneyland. Don DeLillo has aptly dubbed it a "jazz cathedral." In Depression-era Watts, though, Rodia was just another local eccentric. Like other local kids, Baby earned pennies and nickels for bringing him anything from soda bottles to bits of tile and glass or pebbles for his ever-growing sculpture.

    All the Mingus household studied music. In the 1920s, radio was still more idea and hobby than business. As the children grew, it matured into mass media. In any case, Sergeant Mingus was uninterested in it. But studying music—European classical music—had status, bourgeois respectability. Besides, music lessons were easily available, thanks to cheap itinerant teachers, who varied wildly in talent. And then there were the public schools, where music lessons were free, as part of the curriculum with accredited activities like orchestra.


GRACE MINGUS: My father's the one that started all of us on music. For him, it was part of being an educated person. He didn't seem to care about music himself. He never played an instrument. I never even heard him try to sing. But you had to be doing something with music: Charles on the trombone and me on the violin, my sister on the piano. I hated it.


    Grace wanted to sing, but her father insisted on the violin. Vivian wanted to paint and draw, but Mingus Sr. made her study piano. When he was eight or so, Charles took up the trombone—his father got him one via the Sears-Roebuck catalogue—for a few weeks and dropped it, then picked up the cello. He was surprisingly quick at it; he had natural talent, an ear. His first teacher was a mediocre itinerant. But Vivian's teacher, an African woman named Miss Loketi, was a disciplined pedagogue. Soon Baby too was studying with her.

    He liked music—the rising and falling cadences at church, the crackly broadcasts of big bands like Duke Ellington's. When he was twelve, he heard Ellington over the radio and fell instantly in love with Duke's music. It was just around then, when Charles Mingus Jr. hit junior high school, that he decided he was black.


During Baby's childhood, the black population in Los Angeles nearly doubled. The largest influx of immigrants came, like Sergeant Mingus, from the Southwest, especially Texas, and brought the blues to Los Angeles as they looked for work. The railroads helped draw them. Blacks worked on the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific, which nineteenth-century Anglos had built with Irish, Chinese, and black labor to connect L.A. with the rest of the former Spanish New World.

    Still, the City of Angels was pretty strictly segregated. There was zoning and restricted housing, housing covenants. It wasn't southern Jim Crow, where the streets had to be cleared at sundown. But the strong streak of nativism in the local white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) elites ensured that blacks and whites mixed freely only in out-of-the-way, limited sites.

    As black immigrants poured into South Central Los Angeles, it changed from a racially mixed semirural exurb to a predominantly black, increasingly lower-class suburb. Where the Mingus family lived, in Watts, would change color and be absorbed as a result.


Mingus Sr. had it good: an enviable government job and an army pension. In Depression-era Watts, he was solidly bourgeois. To some kids, the Mingus kids were rich. They had milk every day.

    Their father had ambitions for them, aspirations that suited his memories of childhood, his sense of entitlement and worth. Music was only part of them. Grace recalls, "When me and my sister were maybe twelve or thirteen, he would introduce us to different young men, from families that were upper-crust. `Miz so-and-so's son is gonna be a doctor or lawyer.' He was ambitious for us."

    W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." The Mingus family lived that problem.


VIVIAN MINGUS: Grace was the darkest. We always called her the blackest one in the family. Charles and I were always picking on her. My momma had to come in there and whip all three of us, break up the fight.


GRACE MINGUS: My sister was more or less Daddy's girl. I always thought my daddy didn't like me, because I was the darkest one. They used to kid me: blackest in the family. And I grew up and found out I wasn't black, and I used to cry like a baby.


    Sergeant Mingus kept his two daughters close and carefully monitored their friends. "He didn't want us playing with certain kids," says Grace, "He'd say, `I don't want you playing with those black niggers.'" Yet she also recalls how he fought to amalgamate the separate-but-equal unions at the post office, heavy since Reconstruction with black workers: "Daddy had friends who were dark-skinned and light-skinned. I could never understand that."

    Vivian never reconciled her father's membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with his wanting his daughters to marry white men. When she brought home her first dark boyfriend, Sergeant Mingus blustered at her about having black children. When she met a few members of her extended family, she got more confused. Part of her mother's family came from New Mexico and spoke Spanish; her uncle looked white. Her New York cousins, Rudy and Estella Williams, were dark black.

    And then there was Mamie. Vivian recalls, "It's sad. I remember how, just walking down the streets of Watts, Momma would say, `Those two little black kids look like monkeys to me. And you belong to that race.' I felt real bad. It was because of my father's attitudes. He didn't like people disagreeing with him."

    Nor did his son—particularly about race. For Charles Mingus Jr., the neurotic contradictions of American racism were personal—highly personal. Paradox was at the heart of his darkness. He talked about it endlessly, not always coherently, at times thoughtfully, often provocatively. Race was painfully complex for him, though that complexity came out at times as self-contradiction. It was a matter of fierce pride and bitter resentment because his appearance could be so racially ambiguous—because his skin was not black.

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Table of Contents

Preface vii
Introduction 3
Prologue: Better Get It in Your Soul 9
1 Growing Up Absurd 13
2 Black Like Me 25
3 Making the Scene 33
4 Life During Wartime 47
5 Portrait of the Artist 65
6 The Big Apple, or On the Road 87
7 Pithecanthropus Erectus 121
8 Mingus Dynasty 149
9 Camelot 177
10 The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady 209
11 One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest 243
12 Beneath the Underdog 277
13 Let My Children Hear Music 297
14 Changes 325
15 Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid, Too 353
Notes 385
Bibliography 391
Discography 401
Acknowledgments 425
Index 429
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