Mingus, A Critical Biography by Brian Priestley - review by Richard Williams

Richard Williams

A True Composer

Mingus, A Critical Biography


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For some readers, perhaps the name of Charles Mingus will shake free a chain of recollection undisturbed in twenty years: coffee bars, beatniks, baggy sweaters, leather sandals, the solemnised union of jazz and poetry, a world whose high priests included the three ‘M’s: Miles and Monk and Mingus.

Jazz has often been pressed into service as a symbol for non-conformist values. The Jazz Age, obviously, was the first such occasion; the arrival of the Beat Generation was another; as it happens, another minor eruption is taking place even now among the present set of bohemian youth, whose avant-garde is discovering for itself that piquant combination of primitive origins and intellectual illegitimacy, emotional generosity and technical rigour.

Such passing fancies have not done jazz musicians, particularly black jazz musicians, much good. They have always had an idea of their own worth, knowing that their tradition and training equips them for certain achievements beyond the dreams of their counterparts in the European ‘classical’ sphere: as instant composers, masters of the moment, the best of them stand unrivalled in world music. That knowledge has consistently been undercut by their social standing, particularly so in the post-war years when jazz made its fateful turn away from dance-hall entertainment into the realm of concert-hall art, a change whose implications are still far from resolved.

Feelings of injustice, inferiority and insecurity have resulted from the cultural hierarchy’s unwillingness to grant jazz more than the status of a novelty. Late in his life, Duke Ellington was refused a Pulitzer award; now how are you going to explain that, except in terms of fundamental racism? Some musicians gave themselves up to commerce, while others found it necessary to devise shields and masks for their pride and intransigence: Miles Davis developed a bullet-proof arrogance which defined the concept of cool; Thelonious Monk retreated behind an abstracted taciturnity. Engineered as self-defence mechanisms, these became, paradoxically, marketing handles.

Charles Mingus’s technique was to get his retaliation in first. Incapable of cool, he confronted. A quadroon of African, Swedish, Chinese and English descent, raised in black Los Angeles, throughout his fifty-eight years he expressed himself in turbulently paranoid personal behaviour. Just as audiences went to see Miles turn his back on them, or to watch Monk doing his funny little dances by the piano, so they paid to see if Mingus would explode his anger in the face of their alleged insensitivity, or whether he would stop his musicians in mid-flight and perhaps fire a few of them on the spot. For Mingus, these were the only targets within reach.

Hand in hand with his tantrums went music of outstanding beauty, by turns frighteningly volatile and breathtakingly gentle. One is forced to wonder what effect adequate patronage might have exerted: perhaps the attentions of the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers and the Pulitzers might have drawn its teeth, depriving it of its enormous passion and potent aloneness.

Mingus was that rarest of creatures, the true jazz composer. Combining improvisation with pre-composition in such a way that the former is enhanced and provided with further inspirational freedoms is nothing to do with tune-writing or arranging. To judge by the handful who have succeeded (including Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington and Gil Evans), such symbiosis requires completely original thinking. In the thrust of his best work, which began in the middle Fifties and lasted less than a decade, Mingus achieved a perfect reconciliation of organisation with spontaneity: those who know the albums called Tijuana Moods, Blues and Roots, Mingus Presents Mingus and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, or the individual performances of ‘Reincarnation of a Love Bird’, ‘Haitian Fight Song’ and ‘Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat’, will attest to their extraordinary magnetism, created by an imaginative reference to the entire history of jazz at a time when retrospection was deeply unfashionable.

Although his finest achievements were fashioned solely from the materials of jazz, Mingus – like others before and after him – could not divest himself of the notional intellectual supremacy of European-derived techniques. His very first, almost prehistoric recording was credited to ‘Baron Mingus and his Symphonic Airs’; he wrote string quartets and died with a symphony in his brain, complaining to the end of the supposed inadequacy of the jazz instrumentalists who had served him brilliantly.

He also wrote an autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, a hugely swollen, fantasy-ridden, utterly unreliable, tragically compelling document of self-examination. Its existence presents few problems for Brian Priestley, Mingus’s first serious biographer, since it is almost completely empty of fact. Priestley takes a more conventional approach, assembling carefully researched historical detail, personal testimony and musical analysis.

Priestley was known to his fellow contributors on one jazz periodical as ‘The Inspector’, for his habit of dispatching notes informing them of factual and musicological errors; casual readers of the present book may find themselves put off by the amount of musical detail: for those with both some musical literacy and a basic knowledge of Mingus’s key recordings, the balance will be about right. I pounced somewhat gleefully on the misattribution of the composition ‘Moanin” to Art Blakey (it was written by the pianist Bobby Timmons); this was the first and the last error I could find.

So frequent are the cross-references to Beneath the Underdog, particularly in the early chapters, that the two books should really be read in conjunction: Mingus first, to give the flavour of the man, then Priestley, for correlation, contrast and objective truth. The biographer’s style is generally dry (probably an asset when dealing with a subject prone to boiling over on every page), but his descriptions of Mingus’s decline in the middle Sixties, exaggerated by the criminally debilitating use of the drug Thorazin, and of his slow death in 1979, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, are subtly laced with compassion and sorrow. Priestley’s ability to deal clear-sightedly with Mingus’s many imperfections as a social animal makes such identification the more effective.

The job of a critical biography, it seems to me, is to direct one’s attention anew to the subject’s work while providing an idea of the context in which it was created. Perhaps I need only add that Mingus has been on my turntable for the past week.

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