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Better Git It in Your Soul
An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus
By Krin Gabbard
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
PART I A Circus in a Bathtub
You had to see how difficult it was to cram himself into the confines of black or white American society. It was like putting a circus into a bathtub.
Janet Coleman, Mingus/Mingus
MODERNISM YEAR ONE
Charles Mingus was born in 1922, the same year that James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" appeared in print. On the basis of those two literary behemoths alone, Kevin Jackson has written an entire book about 1922, which he calls "Modernism Year One." Joyce and Eliot displayed so much erudition that even serious graduate students in English departments have failed to master their works. But without question, Joyce transformed the novel just as Eliot remade lyric poetry. In the same year, another modernist icon, Franz Kafka, published "The Hunger Artist," the allegorical tale of a circus performer whose death-defying art audiences ignore. Mingus's seminal recording from 1957, "The Clown," carries a similar message. Also in 1922, Marcel Proust published a section of Remembrances of Things Past, yet another novel that transformed the genre. Mingus, the shape-shifter, the genre-buster, and author of the most captivating autobiography by a major jazz artist, was born just as a new day was dawning in Western literature.
Mingus was also born in the same year that the tomb of King Tutankhamen was opened in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. It was the year Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy and Joseph Stalin was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1922, and construction began on Yankee stadium. The presidency of Warren G. Harding was upended by the Teapot Dome scandal, and Christian K. Nelson patented the Eskimo Pie. At the movie houses, Americans could see the first important documentary film, Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North, a view of the primitive life of an Inuit tribe. With life in the "civilized" world suddenly becoming faster, louder, and more mechanized, the world of Nanook must have offered pleasures both reassuring and nostalgic.
More significantly for the career of Charles Mingus, 1922 was the year that Bert Williams, possibly the most popular black entertainer of his day, who performed in a tattered tuxedo with black shoe polish on his face, passed away. Also that year, a new era in African American art began when Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago, where he joined the Creole Jazz Band and his idol, King Oliver. Less than a year later, Armstrong and Oliver went into a recording studio for the first time, and Jelly Roll Morton and his orchestra also made their first recordings. Many consider the music that these artists committed to vinyl in 1923 to be the first "real" jazz records.
But even without these epochal recordings, Mingus was born into the "Jazz Age," a term introduced by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Ulysses and "The Wasteland," Fitzgerald's Tales of the Jazz Age, was also published in 1922. Of course, Fitzgerald's "jazz" was about fast dancing, nightlife, and speakeasies, with music performed by the likes of Paul Whiteman, Sophie Tucker, and Al Jolson. Many black musicians in the early 1920s still called their music "ragtime." But by the time Mingus was coming of age as a musician in the late 1930s, even white people were learning what jazz was really about.
Mingus was much younger than Jelly Roll Morton (born 1885), Louis Armstrong (1901), and Duke Ellington (1899). He played very briefly with Armstrong and just as briefly with Ellington, and he always expressed great admiration for Morton, who died in 1941. Had Jelly Roll Morton lived longer, Mingus might have played with him as well. Mingus was a few years younger than two other giants with whom he later shared a stage, Charlie Parker (1920) and Dizzy Gillespie (1917). He was born before Bud Powell (1924), John Coltrane and Miles Davis (both 1926), and Ornette Coleman (1930), whose "free" jazz he anticipated by several years.
My mother, Lucina Paquet Gabbard, an actress, university professor, and the author of books about Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, was born in 1922. So was Jack Kerouac, who may have been as famous as Mingus but whose exclusive association with the Beat Generation reminds us that Mingus is not so easily connected with a single moment in American cultural history. Helen Gurley Brown, Judy Garland, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ava Gardner were also born in 1922, as were the film director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), the avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis, and Stan Lee, co-creator of the comic book superheroes Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Dr. Strange, and the Fantastic Four. These innovators may not have transformed their genres as dramatically as Joyce and Eliot transformed literature, but like Mingus, each took what was familiar and made it new.
Several black entertainers were born in the same year as Mingus. As a teenager, Redd Foxx (born September 9, 1922) played the washboard in a swing band in the 1930s, but he honed his craft as a comedian listening to the same radio programs that Mingus grew up with: Amos and Andy flourished in the late 1920s, and Jack Benny made Eddie "Rochester" Anderson part of his program in the early 1930s. Foxx took the humor and the colorful argot of these characters to a new level. Ralph Ellison said of Foxx, "When he, a black comedian, makes remarks about ugly white women which once were reserved only for black women, he allows us to bring attitudes and emotions that were once tabooed into the realm of the rational, where, protected by the comic mode, we may confront our guilt and prejudices and perhaps resolve them." Although Ellison and Mingus would have agreed on some important issues, Mingus was not so interested in resolving anything in a comic mode. For him, resolution had to be out front and up close. He was, however, more than happy to violate taboos. Foxx would strike it rich with the television comedy Sanford and Son (1972–77), in which he played an ignorant, cantankerous junk dealer possessed by get-rich schemes that inevitably failed. The sitcom was set in Watts, Los Angeles, where Mingus grew up.
Dorothy Dandridge (born November 9, 1922) won an Academy Award nomination in 1954 for her dazzling performance in Carmen Jones. Yet despite her sensuous beauty, Dandridge was unable to find regular work as a performer primarily because of her color. She died of barbiturate poisoning in 1965.
Juanita Moore (October 19, 1922) co-starred with Lana Turner in Imitation of Life (1959), playing the Turner character's loyal maid and the mother of a tragic mulatto (Susan Kohner) who pays a high price when she tries to pass for white. Unlike Dandridge, Moore worked regularly in film and television but almost always as a servant, a maid, or a mammy.
Mingus was one of the first black artists to build an important career even as he consistently and aggressively asserted himself as an African American. Although the jazz life took its toll on Mingus, the entertainment business did not destroy him as it did Dandridge, nor did it force him to live with racist representations as it did Moore.
FROM NOGALES TO WATTS
Charles Mingus Sr. was a noncommissioned army officer stationed in Nogales, Arizona, a small village on the Mexican border. His daughters, Grace and Vivian, were born in 1919 and 1920; Charles Jr. was born on the numerologically auspicious date of April 22, 1922. He would later tell Whitney Balliett, "My birth date is four, two two, two two. The astrologists have never been able to get over that." The proximity of Nogales, Arizona, to Mexico was also auspicious in that Mingus would eventually die in that country.
Another connection to Mexico appears early in Mingus's published autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Before he begins unspooling his life story, Charles claims to have had sex with twenty-three women in a Tijuana brothel, all on the same night. Claims such as this have led many to read Beneath the Underdog as autofiction rather than autobiography. But as I hope to demonstrate in part II of this book, artists can tell their stories in many ways, and much can be learned if readers allow for a bit of hyperbole — even self-mythologizing — in the telling.
Regardless of what actually happened that night at the brothel, only a few days would go by before Mingus recorded an extraordinary LP, Tijuana Moods. Tijuana, of course, is near the western coast of Mexico in the Baja region, not at all close to the Nortena town also known as Nogales, across the border from Arizona. For that matter, "Tijuana Moods" does not specifically suggest the music of Tijuana. It's Mingus Music.
The elder Charles Mingus left home at fourteen to join the army. At least according to a passage in Beneath the Underdog, Mingus Sr. was the son of a Swedish woman and a former slave. Because of his light skin, his mother's family assumed that he was the son of her white husband. When they learned the identity of his real father, Mingus Sr. effectively had to run for his life. He became a "Buffalo Soldier," one of the many blacks in an American army that was segregated for more than a hundred years after the Civil War. Congress officially formed regiments of black soldiers in 1866 to fight Native Americans, who may have coined the term "Buffalo Soldier" because the men's hair resembled the coat of a buffalo. The Indians also admired the tenacity and bravery of the black soldiers and compared them to an animal that was an essential part of their culture.
Mingus Senior was assigned to a black regiment stationed at Camp Little near the Mexican border to stop people from crossing the border "illegally." Then as now, if not for the soldiers and their guns, the border at Nogales would provide a pleasant pathway into the US not at all like the many miles of forbidding desert west and east of the town. Today, an enormous, ugly iron fence separates the two Nogaleses and stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction (figure 1).
With blue eyes and pale skin, Charles Mingus Sr. could pass for white. Mingus's mother, Harriet, had a black mother and a Chinese father who was born in Hong Kong. But for most white people in the 1920s and 1930s, Charles Mingus Jr. was African American. He spoke the argot of the black culture and eventually self-identified as black. But the vaguely yellow hue of Mingus's skin marked him as different among the black people with whom he grew up. Charles said that he did not dare use the world black, even calling the blackboard a chalkboard in order to prevent certain aggressive young black men from punishing him for using a word he was not fully entitled to deploy. From birth Mingus was a true American creole with a small c, every bit as small-c creole as the music then coming of age in New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles — a music that combined elements from the Pentecostal church, country blues, Italian opera, military marches, South of the Border musics with their "Latin tinge," and the polite dance music of the late nineteenth century.
When Camp Little closed and Charles Sr. left the army, Harriet, the mother of baby Charles, was in good health. But when the family began its journey to California, she became ill and died shortly after, less than six months after the birth of Charles Jr. At first the family lived with Harriet's mother while Charles Sr. went to work at the post office. There was talk of breaking up the motherless family and leaving the children with their grandmother. Primarily in order to keep his family together, Charles Sr. married Mamie Newton Carson, a woman he met in church only a few months after Harriet's death. In 1923, the newly reconstituted family moved to Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles made up of African Americans, Mexicans, Irish, Italians, and even a few Asian families. In the 1920s, Watts was not exclusively a ghetto for blacks. Not until the 1930s did more and more black people move in while everyone else moved out. In the 1920s, except for a handful of middle-class blacks, the one thing the residents of Watts had in common was poverty. Mingus's family was somewhat more affluent than most residents of Watts, but when Charles Sr. married a woman who was clearly not white, he had very few other options about where he could live.
In 2001, when Vivian and Grace Mingus were interviewed extensively, they described a childhood with very little love. Charles Sr. was a withholding father who was not reluctant to beat his children, even with his fist. Grace said she could not remember him ever kissing her or holding her on his lap. Mamie, their stepmother, was "old-fashioned" and willing to accept the role of subservient wife. She had been married once before and had a son, Odell, who was about twelve years older than Vivian and Grace. Charles Jr. speaks affectionately of Odell in Beneath the Underdog, but the sisters recalled with bitterness Odell and his acts of sexual molestation.
At dinner Mamie served rice, beans, coleslaw, and whatever was growing in her backyard garden. As children, the sisters never saw steak or even pork chops. Daddy, however, ate much better. He was receiving a pension after twenty-seven years in the army, and he was making a good salary as a supervisor in the local post office. Grace said that she reproached her father years later for withholding love and enforcing penurious conditions on the family. She said that he began crying and insisted that in those days he did not know any better.
Charles Jr. was not exempt from beatings and harsh discipline. When he brought a note home from school accusing him of looking up a girl's skirt, his father shaved all the hair off his head. "That's the way they do convicts," he said. But in general, Charles Jr. received much better treatment than his sisters. As Vivian Mingus phrased it, "He was it." The father took much more interest in his son and would later tell him that he was "twenty years ahead of his time."
When the sisters tell the story of baby Charles falling and cutting the flesh above his eye, they include a significant detail that Charles omits in his own account of the incident. When Charles Sr. took his son to the hospital, it was the only time anyone in the family had ever seen a doctor. Grace broke her arm at about this same time, and Mamie wrapped it in brown paper soaked in vinegar: that was the extent of her treatment. Grace lived with a partially disabled, often painful arm for the rest of her life. Charles Jr. was unquestionably the favorite of his father, and his stepmother pampered him. And yet his older sisters expressed no jealousy or anger.
This did not mean, however, that Charles and his father had a positive relationship. Several pages in Beneath the Underdog are devoted to the abuse that young Charles received for urinating in his bed. In fact, Charles Jr. had a kidney disorder, but Charles Sr. punished the boy with a belt strap rather than stopping to wonder if there was a medical reason for the bedwetting. Later Charles Sr. abandoned his children and their stepmother and moved in with Pearl Garrett, a woman he met in church. In one of the more affecting chapters in Beneath the Underdog, a twenty-one-year-old Charles goes to visit his father at Pearl's house, and the two men make awkward gestures toward reconciliation.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWERS
The Mingus family lived close by the Watts Towers (figure 2), a stunning example of outsider art constructed by an illiterate Italian immigrant named Sabato Rodia, usually known as Simon or Sam Rodia. Begun in 1920 and abandoned in 1954, the towers were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. The tallest of the several structures in the triangular lot where Rodia also built his house is nearly one hundred feet tall. Smaller structures in the lot resemble a giant wedding cake, an oven, and a birdbath, all of them extravagantly decorated with seashells, broken tiles, and glass bottles. For the cage of each tower, Rodia wrapped wire around steel rods and then covered it all with concrete. The decorative items set in elaborate patterns were mostly junk that Rodia found in his neighborhood. He nearly exhausted the supply of seashells on the shore a few miles from his house. Because he would give a penny to any child who brought him items he could use, and because a candy store was just around the corner, the neighborhood children called him "the Candy Man."
Excerpted from Better Git It in Your Soul by Krin Gabbard. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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