Cover image for Myself when I am real : the life and music of Charles Mingus
Myself when I am real : the life and music of Charles Mingus
Santoro, Gene.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
x, 452 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
990 Lexile.
Personal Subject:
Format :


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ML418.M45 S26 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Charles Mingus was one of the most innovative jazz musicians of the 20th Century, and ranks with Ives and Ellington as one of America's greatest composers. By temperament, he was a high-strung and sensitive romantic, a towering figure whose tempestuous personal life found powerfully coherentexpression in the ever-shifting textures of his music. Now, acclaimed music critic Gene Santoro strips away the myths shrouding "Jazz's Angry Man," revealing Mingus as more complex than even his lovers and close friends knew. A pioneering bassist and composer, Mingus redefined jazz's terrain. He penned over 300 works spanning gutbucket gospel, Colombian cumbias, orchestral tone poems, multimedia performance, and chamber jazz. By the time he was 35, his growing body of music won increasing attention as it unfolded intoone pioneering musical venture after another, from classical-meets-jazz extended pieces to spoken-word and dramatic performances and television and movie soundtracks. Though critics and musicians debated his musical merits and his personality, by the late 1950s he was widely recognized as a majorjazz star, a bellwether whose combined grasp of tradition and feel for change poured his inventive creativity into new musical outlets. But Mingus got headlines less for his art than for his volatile and often provocative behavior, which drew fans who wanted to watch his temper suddenly flare onstage. Impromptu outbursts and speeches formed an integral part of his long-running jazz workshop, modeled partly on dramatic models likeOrson Welles' Mercury Theatre. Keeping up with the organized chaos of Mingus's art demanded gymnastic improvisational skills and openness from his musicians-which is why some of them called it "the Sweatshop." He hired and fired musicians on the bandstand, attacked a few musicians physically andmany more verbally, twice threw Lionel Hampton's drummer off the stage, and routinely harangued chattering audiences, once chasing a table of inattentive patrons out of the FIVE SPOT with a meat cleaver. But the musical and mental challenges this volcanic man set his bands also nurtured deeployalties. Key sidemen stayed with him for years and even decades. In this biography, Santoro probes the sore spots in Mingus's easily wounded nature that helped make him so explosive: his bullying father, his interracial background, his vulnerability to women and distrust of men, his views of political and social issues, his overwhelming need for love andacceptance. Of black, white, and Asian descent, Mingus made race a central issue in his life as well as a crucial aspect of his music, becoming an outspoken (and often misunderstood) critic of racial injustice. Santoro gives us a vivid portrait of Mingus's development, from the racially mixed Watts where he mingled with artists and writers as well as mobsters, union toughs, and pimps to the artistic ferment of postwar Greenwich Village, where he absorbed and extended the radical improvisation flowingthrough the work of Allen Ginsberg, Jackson Pollock, and Charlie Parker. Indeed, unlike Most jazz biographers, Santoro examines Mingus's extra-musical influences--from Orson Welles to Langston Hughes, Farwell Taylor, and Timothy Leary--and illuminates his achievement in the broader cultural contextit demands. Written in a lively, novelistic style, Myself When I Am Real draws on dozens of new interviews and previously untapped letters and archival materials to explore the intricate connections between this extraordinary man and the extraordinary music he made.

Author Notes

A former fulbright scholar, book editor, and musician, Gene Santoro is a music critic at the New York Daily News and columnist atThe Nation and Chamber Music. The author of Dancing in Your Head and Stir It Up, he has written articles and essays for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, TheVillage Voice, Spin, Rolling Stone, and Down Beat. He divides his time between New York City and Shokan, New York.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Charles Mingus, one of America's premier jazz composers and performers, certainly knew the value of creating a public persona. He was not shy with reporters and often spoke his mind in public, whether that involved speeches and tirades from the bandstand, sponsoring "alternative" jazz festivals at popular venues, or writing a mammoth memoir that he carried around in a suitcase, later published to acclaim as Beneath the Underdog. Santoro isn't Mingus' first biographer, but he takes a unique tack here, claiming that Mingus' contributions extend beyond jazz music, that he was a unique influence on postwar American culture. Beginning with Mingus' ascendancy in the Central Avenue jazz scene in Los Angeles in the 1940s, a key epoch in the history of jazz and of Americana, Santoro discusses Mingus' meeting with Orson Welles. Santoro claims that Welles' Mercury Players ensemble was a model for Mingus' Jazz Workshop. Mingus' career later took him to San Francisco and New York's Greenwich Village, where he mingled with Allen Ginsburg, Jackson Pollock, Timothy Leary, and others. All this is cleverly and vividly chronicled by Santoro. --Ted Leventhal

Publisher's Weekly Review

Santoro, who covers music for New York's Daily News, has attempted not only to capture the complex, contradictory character of jazz bassist and composer Mingus, but also to assert his music's towering significance in American culture as a whole. With such an ambitious goal in mind, it is hard to understand why he dispenses with a critical approach to the man and his music in favor of hagiography, portraying Mingus as a larger-than-life genius who was beyond reproach. Misdeeds often attributed to Mingus, whether they be numerous betrayals of friends and lovers or an alarming tendency to pull knives on people, are explained away as the eccentricities of an artist. This rambling book is not without revealing details about Mingus's life, however. In the Watts section of Los Angeles, where he grew up, Mingus, with his light complexion, could pass for neither black nor white, which, Santoro argues, cemented the feeling of being an outsider that both haunted and drove the musician for the rest of his life. When writing about Mingus's actual musicmaking, Santoro is in his element. He does an admirable job of describing the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the jazz workshops. There is also an abundance of anecdotes about Mingus's legendary onstage hijinks, including smashing his bass (he did it before Pete Townshend), haranguing the audience and sitting down to a steak dinner in the middle of a performance. Yet Santoro ultimately fails to marshal his sources into a nuanced portrait, producing a mythological figure, not the man himself. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Over the past few years, several exceptional biographies on key jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra have appeared. Santoro (music critic, the New York Daily News; Dancing in Your Head) has produced a work that belongs with this elite group. Mingus!s super-human energy and creativity are the hinges of this work, which is filled out with numerous anecdotes and short, insightful quotes from family, friends, and colleagues. The historical setting is also valuable, showing how Mingus influenced and was affected by events and movements during his lifetime (e.g., the so-called 1960s counterculture). Other fascinating facets come to light, including Mingus!s heritage (he had Native American, Chinese, black, and white ancestors). Mingus!s opinionated, boisterous, and often mean-spirited personality was balanced by his desire to impart musical ideas and other thoughts to those willing to listen and learn"it!s amazing that there were so few who ended up totally antagonized after the Mingus treatment. After reading this work, Mingus!s fictionalized account of his life, Beneath the Underdog (Vintage, 1991. reprint), makes much more sense. Highly recommended for public, academic, and music libraries."William G. Kenz, Moorhead State Univ., MN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Santoro's study of the life and music of jazz composer and bass player Charles Mingus is thorough and well written. The author examined more than 200 interviews with people who knew and worked closely with Mingus during his life and career in an attempt to move past the standard description of Mingus as "jazz's angry man" that evolved over the years. Numerous excerpts from these interviews appear in the book, skillfully woven together with Santoro's own prose to provide illuminating, firsthand accounts of what it was like to perform with Mingus, how his music was received, and various events that occurred in Mingus's life. As a book that attempts to dispel myths and to separate fact from fiction, it complements other writings about Mingus, most notably Brian Priestley's Mingus: A Critical Biography (1982) and Mingus's autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, ed. Nel King (1971). Santoro includes 16 pages of glossy photos, a complete discography, a thorough index and bibliography, and endnotes, making this book an enjoyable and useful resource for jazz students and scholars and general readers alike. T. E. Buehrer; Kenyon College

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Introductionp. 3
Prologue Better Got It in Your Soulp. 9
1 Growing Up Absurdp. 13
2 Black like Mep. 25
3 Aking the Scenep. 33
4 Life During Wartimep. 47
5 Portrait of the Artistp. 65
6 The Big Apple, or on the Roadp. 87
7 Pithecanthropus Erectusp. 121
8 Mingus Dynastyp. 149
9 Camelotp. 177
10 The Black Saint and the Sinner Ladyp. 209
11 One Flow Over the Cuckoo's Nestp. 243
12 Beneath the Underdogp. 277
13 Lot My Children Hear Musicp. 297
14 Changesp. 325
15 Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid, Toop. 353
Notesp. 385
Bibliographyp. 391
Discographyp. 401
Acknowledgmentsp. 425
Indexp. 429