“Mingus was feeling the Zeitgeist.” This phrase – which recurs throughout Gene Santoro’s biography of the composer, bandleader and bassist Charles Mingus – perfectly captures the main theme of this thoroughly researched and lovingly written book.
Not only is this phrase a unifying motive which holds the book together, it also expresses how much Mingus’ emotional inner life, motivations, relationships and music were so much a product of the times and circumstances in which he lived.
The title comes from one of Mingus’ own compositions which Santoro uses in the hope of conveying his intent to write a book which “let[s] Mingus unfold as who he was, in his special moment in American history’s flow.” It is clear from the get-go that Mingus’ music is very close to Santoro’s heart and this affinity is a key motivation for the meticulously researched and insightful work which Santoro delivers here.
While Santoro is described on the back cover as a book editor, musician, music critic and columnist, some of the writing does come off like he’s trying a little too hard to be a musician talking about music rather than a well-informed music journalist. In this way, some passages can sound strained or phony.
From the musician’s (especially the jazz musician’s) perspective, there is very little in the way of technical or detailed writing about the music or Mingus’ approach to composition or improvisation. There are also disconcerting jumps in the narrative thread of the book which make the reader wonder how we got from one topic (say, how Mingus was fusing several aspects of post-World War II jazz into his music) to another (how good Mingus was on camera) to yet another (how Dan Morgenstern became aware of Mingus’ semi-autobiographical manuscript which was eventually published as “Beneath The Underdog”) in the space of three paragraphs.
There are also odd turns of phrase like “next store” for “next door” which make the reader wonder if Santoro just needed a better proofreader or if he is deliberately trying to write in an eccentric style.
From the best of the book the reader learns of Mingus’ birth into a family which was a microcosm of America. Both parents had African ancestry; his father also had German roots while his mother’s family came from Hong Kong.
Santoro offers powerful insight into how Mingus’ background deeply affected his self-image, relationships and politics. He vividly portrays how Mingus’ father aspired for his children to embrace middle class and European values. This determined the kind of education and cultural upbringing Mingus received as a child.
Mingus had a contentious relationship with the AFM and Local 802, and there are a number of stories in the book about grievances which the local brought against him – as well as grievances which some of Mingus’ sidemen brought against Mingus himself. Santoro paints an unflattering picture of the way Mingus would sometimes bully and intimidate the musicians he hired. But the book also highlights a larger situation – Local 802’s poor treatment of Mingus in particular and the jazz community at large. (It is good to know that, through the efforts of Local 802’s “Justice For Jazz Artists” campaign, the union is rectifying this situation for current and future generations of jazz performers.)
The book contains testimonies about Mingus from other musicians, and it was very gratifying for me to read the words of Jimmy Owens, Howard Johnson, Eddie Bert and Britt Woodman. Reading the words of my colleagues – who I am honored to know personally – brings alive not only Mingus, but the vibrancy and vitality of the New York jazz tradition.
Mingus had musical brilliance, a nurturing childhood and education, unrelenting determination and an acute sense of showmanship and charisma. Through it all he struggled with his own personal demons, a need for love and recognition and the constant spectre of prejudice and marginalization.
As musicians, we can take tremendous inspiration from Mingus’ life. We can create meaningful and compelling work out of all of life’s joyful and painful aspects. We can surround ourselves with people who will believe in us and support us in our creative endeavors. And we can “feel the Zeitgiest” in our own way.
–Reviewed by Arun Luthra
Arun Luthra is a saxophonist, composer, arranger, educator and 802 member. He has performed or recorded with Billy Harper, Bobby Short, the Temptations, Eddie Henderson, Bernard Purdie, Steve Wilson, Danny Bank, Lonnie Plaxico and Kenny Garrett among others. He is an adjunct professor at the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program where he is the shop steward for the faculty bargaining unit.