Book Review

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus

I used to love Charles Mingus before I read this.

Anyone who has read this blog before and is both observant and a fan of jazz may have noticed that the background image is of Mr Charles Mingus. My favourite jazzman. Pithecanthropus Erectus, Tijuana Moods, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and (of course) Mingus Ah Um are absolutely five of my favourite jazz albums. Beneath The Underdog IS NOT one of my favourite books.

Mingus’ autobiography is written in the third person, ostensibly from the part of his soul that “observes” the good and bad actions committed respectively by the other two. Which, let’s be honest, is pretentious.

The book is also written in faux-difficult stream of consciousness – many chapters consist of only dialogue between Mingus and musicians, Mingus and pimps, Mingus and psychiatrists or Mingus and women. Who are almost constantly referred to as “bitches”. And ALL (except his stepmother, who he extensively verbally abuses) fuck him.

And this is the reason why the book is awful. Mingus can write BEAUTIFULLY about jazz: about the energy, the freneticism of live performance, about the thrill of composition, the joy of musical development, the excitement of learning, creativity, a shared language of artistic expression… But his autobiography is not about jazz. His musical career seems almost incidental, referred to occasionally – there is no mention of Jazz at Massey Hall, there is no discussion of the recording of Ah Um, there is name-dropping almost solely for name-dropping’s sake.  The reader learns nothing interesting or new about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie whoever, other than the fact that they KNEW CHARLES MINGUS. Because this is not a book about jazz. This is a book about the continual, priapic, misogynistic and possibly fictional sex life of the author.

I am not impressed by sleeping around. I am not impressed by pimping. I am not impressed by three-way relationships which end with the two women becoming a successful team of high-end prostitutes that could’ve “made millions”. I am not impressed by the idea of fucking twenty prostitutes (some in their early teens) in two hours then going outside to masturbate because you’re “just not satisfied, man…” And, I’m afraid, this is a book FUCKING CLEARLY AIMED at readers whose response to a man who calls his lovers “bitches”, coerces them into prostitution then breaks up with them because “they go too far” is one of respect, awe. And that isn’t how the book made me feel. I read it hoping to feel the same glorious happiness that I get from the man’s music… Instead I got the same dirty, guilty feeling I get when I see a friend pissed and sleazing unwelcome on someone I’ve introduced them to. Urgh.

Mingus’ autobiography is approaching four hundred pages of self-indulgent, macho bravado bullshit. He fights, he fucks (and goddamn satisfies every time), he dabbles with drugs (in a casual way that is repeatedly distanced from the “dangerous” addictions of many of his friends), he threatens, he shouts, he punches, he kicks, he drinks, he drives, he steals, he thrives as a musician almost entirely off the stage of this book’s narrative, which instead just gives a deep, wet, penetrating glimpse into the way Mingus sees his sex life.

I was very disappointed by this, almost to the point where I may have to reassess my enjoyment of Charles’ music. Not quite, though. The man may be a bad writer, certainly a bad heterosexual, but he sure as hell can compose like a motherfucker:

Italy is still lovely.

8 comments on “Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus

  1. Graydon Roy Buchleiter

    May I remind you…Passions of a man and Wham Bam Thank you Ma’am we’re both written by Mingus. I don’t know how much you really listened if you got happy or sentimental listening to Mingus. He doesn’t make happy music. Sex, drugs, and racism are the core topics. Not happy stuff. I get angry or depressed listening to mingus, and maybe happy listening to his stuff with Red Norvo or Bird or a band where he’s not leading.
    That was the Jazz scene that no one wanted to hear about back then. Or today apparently. If you don’t like it then go listen to Kenny G or something.


    • Hey Graydon. I wrote this years ago, and looking back I think happiness is the wrong way to describe the reaction to Mingus’ work – a tad naive of my earlier self there. What I get from Mingus’ music is a real sense of overwhelming emotion, of feeling, of pain, of horror, of lust, you’re absolutely right. What his music gives is a visceral, guttural stab into the gut and I think what I was trying to express was that in his music I find something far more expressive and explorative than I found in his prose, which I still remember being cod-Joycean, sexist, and underwhelming. You’re right, his music isn’t a source of happiness, but it’s a source of heady emotional response, whereas his prose is repetitive, misogynistic, bragging. I’d rather stick pins in my ears than headphones playing Kenny G, but I also think it’s possible to appreciate the art without appreciating the artist. Think of all the people who like The Smiths but hate Morrissey, who like Kanye West’s music but think he’s a bell-end. Have a bit of distance, man. My critique at the time – which I stand by – was that Mingus’ literary evocation of his life was heavy-handed and uninspiring, whereas what he does with a jazz band is still meaningful and intense, I’d cite Kendrick Lamar, especially To Pimp A Butterfly as a contemporary equivalent. In terms of jazz-literary crossover, I always wished Max Roach had written.


      • Graydon Roy Buchleiter

        I can appreciate that a lot. I’ve just finished reading and I’m still processing it. Sorry for the negativity. It’s easy to get dragged into the emotions of the book… there is a lot going on at once. The misogyny was definitely rampant, but I think it’s important to consider Mingus’ own background to analyze why the misogyny was so natural to him. I’d like to think that if Mingus had been born in a different era he’d have very different ideas on gender and sexuality.
        I recognize that I have a bent at defending Mingus’ sense of morality, since I’ve gained such a respect for him through his music, and I really think that it deserves another read. It seems to me that there’s a lot that we’re missing because (rightfully so) it’s hard to look past the pimping and sexism (because it’s awful). However, it’s not all misogyny and sex- he talks about racism and growing up black in 1920’s LA, and what sex and love meant to him in his compositions. And anyways, I really appreciated that he included the awful and lewd things, because I’m sure that other accounts would have left something so graphic (and honestly gross) out of the picture of that era. He didn’t write it to please anyone (and he really hasn’t).
        All aside, I think that philosophically there’s a lot to his music that he explains in the book, and to write it off as simply an ego joyride from Mingus minimizes the beautiful parts of the book and Mingus as an individual. He had plenty of flaws- but also had a very unique perspective on music and Jazz.

        I would’ve also liked to read something that Max Roach had written. I was kinda expecting Mingus to mention him more.


  2. Pingback: Beneath the Underdog – Professor O'Connell's Music History Blog: Assignments, Readings, and Random Thoughts on Music and History Both Inside and Outside the Classroom

  3. Aram Cisneros

    It may be interesting to ponder about which triggees turned Mingus into a priapic, misogynistic person.

    What can be interesting too, is too consider if those traits had or not some relation with his glorious composing and performing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You bitches are hoes. Judging genius on the basis of yo own woes. Passing judgement on this giant of a man from the point of view of your pussy generation with the self righteous values of your privileged views. Obviously none of you know anything about junk, life, music, love or the triumph of underdogs. If you whiter than tighty whities can’t get the knot out of your gaunch about Mingus’ alleged misogyny, I suggest you read the autobiographies of Edith Piaf and of Kiki of Montparnasse. Two other underdogs who triumphed.

    Judging the past with the “superior'” values of the present is fool’s game played by historical revisionists like Mao, Stalin and Hitler and square anti-beatnik jazz reviewers such as yourselves. I think you entirely male squares should get a life or a least get a girlfriend and ask her what she thinks of his book.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I found this interesting. I had a jazz class in college where I had to write an autobiography on a great jazz musician. I was not familiar with the work of Mingus at that time and choose him because of his work with the bass (This was 30 + years ago).

    I remember getting a very different vibe out of his autobiography, and recently went in search of it because I was replying to another post in a music forum. Mingus was the proverbial bull in the China shop in a lot of ways.

    Frankly making a living as a musician is difficult. Particularly as a jazz musician and it’s even worse when your dealing with racism, mental illness (and I do believe Mingus did) and other issues. Mingus was a product of his generation. We have to keep things in context.

    Mingus actually has some sage words of advice throughout his autobiography. You have to read a little deeper sometimes to know what those words of advice are.

    Liked by 1 person

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