Friday, December 16, 2011

Beneath The Underdog

I read a lot, or try to, and I like to write about what I read. In doing this, though, I've taken a page from Nick Hornby and his excellent column in The Believer, "Stuff I've Been Reading." Hornby doesn't write about books he doesn't like. I respect that, he's a novelist and probably doesn't appreciate critics going around bashing his work, so he doesn't partake of that. Instead, he writes glowingly about those he does like.

But sometimes disappointment just overcomes me and I have to say something about it. Such is the case with Beneath The Underdog: His World As Composed By Mingus, the memoir of jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. This is not a current book by any means, it was first published in 1971, and I've had it for years. I don't recall where I got it, I probably picked it up at a used bookstore at some point and knew I'd want to read it one day. That day came last weekend when I finally grabbed it off the shelf to find out what Mingus was all about.

Turns out Mingus was a pimp, which I did not know. He also played some jazz, he was a very progressive bass player and composer, which I did know, and about which I know very little else, still. But I do know a whole lot more about his being a pimp, and about his sex life.

Mingus was born in 1922 and grew up in the Watts area of Los Angeles. The book, while a memoir, is written in third-person by someone (or something, some spirit perhaps) who is with Mingus at all times. Most of the prose is in conversation with one person or another. It's a lot like listening to one side of a phone conversation. There is a stream of consciousness, beat quality to it, which is just fine for a book on jazz, but it gets tedious after a while.

Also, it's not a book about jazz. If I'd known Mingus was a pimp and wanted to read a memoir about Mingus the Pimp, then this would be the book for me. But I wanted to read about Mingus the bassist, Mingus the composer, Mingus the civil rights champion. I got very little of that. There are brief glimpses, of course. There is Mingus on stage with Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, but then it's right back to Mingus and a date or wife or mistress and their very graphic, very explicit sexual encounters. It got to the point where it read more like the collected writings of a college student recounting sexual conquests to his fraternity brothers, in detail.

And what of Mingus the civil rights activist? I knew before getting into the book that he wasn't fond of white people, but I came away with almost no understanding of why (not that a black person born in 1920s America needs to explain himself on that, but still, I'd like to know his experiences). He bashes white men and culture, and the South in particularly, though there's only one story glossing over a trip to the South. He wrote "Fables of Faubus" on the great album Mingus Ah Um as a derision of Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who tried to block integration in Little Rock's public schools. It's a great song, a great album, and there is no mention of it in Beneath The Underdog. And, as much as he did comment on his hatred of the white man, Mingus's treatment of women, by his own account, was little better than the white man was treating the black man in the first half of the 20th century.

I prefer an autobiography over a scholar's biography of jazz artists because in the writing, or telling, of their story, there is a certain improvisational feel as you get with all good jazz music. They tell their story with segues and language that make the reader feel as though they're listening to a record or a late-night jam session. I recently read Treat It Gentle: An Autobiography by Sidney Bechet, the jazz cornet master. He was born in 1897, and so of a different generation than Mingus, but certainly no less hard a time for a black man to live in. Yet Bechet talks more of the music than anything; he had a great passion and respect for the music - he treated it gentle - and it is this love of his profession that shines through in his autobiography.

As gentle as he might have treated the music, it was not a gentle time by any means, and being a jazz musicianer (as Bechet calls it) was not such a gentle job. Bechet was a bad son of a bitch who spent time in a French prison before being deported from Paris for accidentally shooting a woman (he was aiming for someone else). For all of its sweet sounds, jazz is not the cherubic grin of Louis Armstrong or the limp tones of Kenny G (shudder). It's the music of a painful and dangerous American past, in it is the story of slavery, Jim Crow and civil rights. Sure there were pimps, hustlers, gangsters, drug addicts, killers and thieves among its characters, but there was also, always, the music as a salve. Mingus's memoir, unfortunately, is much too heavy on the former and only a few notes struck on the latter.

Mingus was insane. He had his demons and portions of the book are told through a conversation between Mingus and his psychiatrist, Dr. Wallach. Near the end of the book, when Mingus has committed himself to Bellevue's psychiatric ward, is when he writes the most about music and wanting to be out of the hospital so he could pursue his music. The rest of the book is the perverse rantings of a misogynistic hustler and that's a shame because Mingus, for all of his myriad faults, was one of jazz - and all music's - great composers. Or at least, that's what I've heard.