Charles Mingus: Angry Black Man

In The Nation is an article on jazz legend Charles Mingus, whose “relationship to black identity gave his music its stormy weather.” The biography of this titular jazz pioneer is representative of black identity that can only come about from the downstream filtering of a liberal elite’s cultural framework:

In 1971, Mingus published his long-anticipated memoir, Beneath the Underdog, which he’d been writing on and off since the mid-1950s. (Jason Epstein considered publishing it at Random House, until Mingus insisted on white binding with gold letters so that it would look like the Bible.) Beneath the Underdog caused a splash for its lurid tales of pimping and group sex. Here, it seemed, was proof that jazz really was orgasm, as Mailer, a Mingus fan, had proposed in his 1957 essay “The White Negro.” But much of the memoir was fabricated in order to play on white fantasies about black sexuality. Mingus was never a pimp and was sexually rather shy as a young man…

Ah, how little things have changed in the world of black musical entertainment.

Despite his middle-class upbringing, a notable rarity for black Americans at the time, Mingus became, early, an Angry Black Man:

No one in jazz went deeper than Mingus in his exploration of black Americana, or protested racism more fervently. Yet his relationship to black identity was anything but relaxed: it gave his music its stormy weather. Born in 1922 in the Arizona border town of Nogales, he grew up in a middle-class family in Watts, an ethnically mixed section of Los Angeles then on its way to becoming a black ghetto. His father, a former noncommissioned officer in the Army who worked in the post office, was a light-skinned biracial man with blue eyes; he looked down on darker-skinned blacks and warned his son not to play with “them little black nigger yaps.” Mingus’s mother, the daughter of a black woman from the West Indies and a Chinese man from Hong Kong, died five months after he was born…

He first learned that he was black—at least by American definitions—when a group of Mexican kids assaulted him, calling him “nigger.” Among his black peers, however, “he was a kind of mongrel…or light enough to belong to the almost-white elite and not dark enough to belong with the beautiful elegant blacks,” he writes in his memoir. “There really was no skin color exactly like his.” (The book’s original title was Memoirs of a Half-Schitt-Colored Nigger.) His closest friends were “other mongrels”—Japanese, Mexicans, Jews, Greeks—and he sometimes passed as Latino…. Mingus would always be most at home in integrated settings like the interracial bohemia he helped pioneer in the East Village of the mid-1950s. Three of his four wives were strawberry blonds with college educations, WASPish families and the practical skills he lacked.

Mingus’s connection to blackness came mainly through music: first the gospel he heard as a boy in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and then—his single greatest influence—the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Yet his early ambition was to be a classical composer. He learned solfège and played cello in the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic. Then his friend, the saxophonist Buddy Collette, told him that if he planned to make a living as a musician, “you gotta play a Negro instrument. You can’t slap a cello, so you gotta learn to slap that bass, Charlie!”

Mingus’ subsequent sense of racial persecution culminates, after a lifetime of playing in front of appreciative white audiences, in Mingus going into full payback mode:

Mingus’s disintegration and eviction are depicted, in vivid and often depressing detail, in Thomas Reichman’s 1966 documentary Mingus. Reichman told Goodman that when they first met, Mingus suggested that they have lunch at a steakhouse. Three years ago, he’d ordered three lamb chops there but had only gotten two; now he wanted to return for the third. Reichman loved the idea and showed up at Mingus’s place with his crew. But Mingus led them instead to his lawyer’s office, where Sue had been writing up a contract designed to deprive Reichman of the rights to his own film. Reichman broke down crying. When he saw Mingus later that day, Mingus had shaved off all his hair and painted his head blue. “Man, I’m really sorry,” he said. “Let’s go have some Chinese food. I look like Buddha.” In Reichman’s film, Mingus played himself as a black musician persecuted by White America. “I pledge allegiance to the flag, the white flag,” he says, “not because I have to, but just for the hell of it…. I pledge allegiance so that one day they will look to their promises to the victims they call citizens. Not just the black ghettos but the white ghettos and the Japanese ghettos, the Chinese ghettos, all the ghettos of the world.” He winks at the camera, pipe in mouth. “Oh, I pledge allegiance all right, I could pledge a whole lot of allegiances.”

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