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Mingus Speaks


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Mingus Speaks
John F. Goodman
329 pages
ISBN: 978-0-520-27523-2
University of California Press

Many are the books written about bassist/composer and bandleader Charles Mingus—one of the most influential jazz figures of the post-war years. His own autobiographical work, Beneath the Underdog (Knopf, 1971) was a sprawling, boiling stew of memoir and fiction that remains the most revealing portrait of an artist as anguished as he was brilliant. Bouts of depression, a period in a psychiatric ward and a downturn in the fortunes of jazz saw Mingus withdraw from public performances in the second half of the 1960s. Yet he got back up again and Goodman's book is essentially about Mingus the survivor.

Mingus comeback concert in 1972 was the initial impetus for an aborted feature by the author, and ultimately this book, though why Goodman waited until now to publish extended outtakes from 20 hours of interviews conducted with Mingus between 1972 and 1974 is a matter of speculation. What's clear from Goodman's fluid interactions with Mingus is that the bassist trusted him. Consequently, Mingus' thoughts have the ring of honesty about them, even if his versions of certain events were often at odds with the way others perceived them. Mingus' sometimes rambling stories reveal a rather paranoid individual, though as his wife and manager Sue Mingus observes, he might have had good reason to be so.

In addition to Sue Mingus, Goodman also gets the lowdown from Mingus' closest associates, including arranger Sy Johnson, producer Teo Macero, copyist/arranger and sometimes band member, tenor player Paul Jeffrey, jazz writers Dan Morgenstern and Nat Hentoff and jazz impresario George Wein. Collectively, their insights paint a colorful yet complex picture of Mingus. His propensity for violence is a recurring theme of Mingus tales as told by his confidantes and the man himself, as are his mood swings. He always seemed to be pulling a knife on someone. Yet what also emerges is Mingus' insatiable appetite for life, his quick wit and generous spirit.

In wide-ranging conversations—widened even more by Mingus' endless capacity for tangential thought—Mingus gives his frank and often blunt views. Perhaps the most consistently lucid material relates to Mingus' opinions on music—his influences, the avant-garde, electronics, faux African-inspired jazz, blues and the jazz tradition. There seems to be a general consensus among the other interviewees that Mingus' musical imagination needed a big band. The strains and pressures of financing large ensembles meant that Mingus was rarely able to operate one for any length of time, which was to be a repeated source of frustration.

Elsewhere, Mingus talks at length on the music business, the Watts riots, critics, his eviction, the mafia and sex. Quite a lot of Mingus' stories have their origins in Beneath the Underdog and at times his stream of thought sounds like a brilliant solo that has, unfortunately, overstayed its welcome. The same is perhaps true for the book as a whole, as passages frequently come across as somewhat redundant. It could be argued that Mingus' own words are worth far more than the subjective text of any of his biographers, and Goodman extracts plenty of material that will delight Mingus' fans and ignite debate.

Mingus makes no bones about his feelings towards the avant-garde; "It's sick man, it's sick shit." He describes saxophonist Ornette Coleman as sounding like "a poor man's Charlie Parker" and saxophonist John Coltrane's eastern-inspired music as "stylized." Pianist Randy Weston's investigations into African music are pretty much dismissed out of hand. Mingus' own music was often described as avant-garde, but it was a definition he couldn't relate to: "I'm not avant-garde, no. I don't throw rocks and stones, I don't throw my paint."

Progress in jazz for Mingus is seen in linear, historical terms and he comes across as a traditionalist in that sense. His respect for the roots of the music and the need to honor it through practice color these conversations strongly. It also explains to some degree Mingus' mistrust of the avant-garde. The musicians Mingus admires—pianist Bud Powell, trumpeter Fats Navarro and Parker—are referred to in almost hagiographic terms as "sacred musicians." Not so with trumpeter Louis Armstrong: "Louis never stayed king to the kids," Mingus tells Goodman, "because they knew it was bullshit."

One of the more interesting sections of interview concerns Mingus' take on the music business: "It's money and women, or it's music—and you can't fool yourself. You don't want music to lose." It was precisely the issue of insufficient money to perform at Wein's Newport Jazz Festival that saw Mingus and others set up the rival Protest Festival in 1960. Unsurprisingly, Wein and Mingus' accounts of the issue don't tally. Wein is however, full of praise for Mingus the musician, describing his music for string quartet as "an incredible work." As for women, Mingus' tales of his pimping days and his whoring in Tijuana come across as ugly braggadocio.

The Mingus interviews—at least the ones with the subject—are many layered; heady streams of consciousness that flow with an uncommon rhythmic vitality. Multiple ideas tussle and converge in a strangely compelling cacophony. The blues runs through much of the narrative and it's always emotionally charged. In short, much like Mingus' music.

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