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Editorial Reviews Review

In an art form known for its outrageous characters, Charles Mingus stood out. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, he was a man of "multitudes." He was a forceful, virtuosic bassist. He was an imaginative and original composer and arranger second only to Duke Ellington. He was also a social critic, bully, lady's man, father, and hypersensitive man-child who simply wanted to be appreciated for his work. Making sense of this larger-than-life personality presents an imposing challenge to any biographer. Enter Gene Santoro. The author of Dancing in Your Head and Stir It Up: Musical Mixes from Roots to Jazz, Santoro updates Brian Priestley's Mingus: A Critical Biography; separates the fact from the fiction of Mingus's rowdy autobiography, Beneath the Underdog; and produces the literary equivalent of a masterful Mingus composition, complete with labyrinthine surprises and complexities.

A light-skinned African American with Native American and Asian bloodlines who was born in 1922, Mingus endured a difficult childhood in Los Angeles, forever stung by the rampant racism that halted his dreams of a career in the classical music field. Undaunted, Mingus went on to work with several jazz giants, including Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington, before creating his own record company (Debut) and composing over 300 iconoclastic compositions, including "Eclipse," "Haitian Fight Song," "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," "Cumbia and Jazz Fusion," and many other jazz standards. Santoro writes that the music "is overwhelming in its torrent of musical styles and psychological switchbacks and emotional punch, its tumble of raucous gospel swing, luminous melodies, European classical threads, bebop tributes, Mexican and Colombian and Indian music and sounds from anywhere and everywhere."

In addition to his keen insights into the music (including a thorough discography), Santoro deftly analyzes Mingus's mercurial personality. From the highs (his celebrated recordings Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um) to the lows (his horrible Epitaph concert, his eviction from his New York apartment, his numerous assaults on sidemen, and his slow death from Lou Gehrig's disease in 1979), Santoro fairly and faithfully lays bare the mind, body, soul, and art of an American original who influenced everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Joni Mitchell. "Mingus' music was autobiography in sound," Santoro writes. "Everyone in his life had a role. His portraits, his musical tributes, his insistence on forcing his sidemen to find themselves in what he imagined, his clamor for recognition, his emphasis on his originality ... these were more than stylistic trademarks. They were the essence of who he was." Myself When I Am Real captures this essence brilliantly. --Eugene Holley Jr. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 29, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195147111
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195147117
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 1.3 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,949,883 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Growing up in a two-room basement apartment in Brooklyn, Gene Santoro didn't know people like him could become writers--never mind make a living at it. But for nearly thirty years, he's managed to do just that. Besides his own books and essays appearing in compilations, his writings about music, pop culture, and history have journalism have appeared in the New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Washington Post, New Yorker, New York, The Village Voice, Chamber Music, Spin, Rolling Stone, Down Beat, Discover, and Business 2.0. Currently Santoro is an editor-writer at Weider History Group, where he is reviews editor at American History and World War II magazines and helms the annual film-based special issue.

Customer Reviews

Too many times this word gets used in this book.
In short, this is a poorly conceived and written book, and I'm frankly shocked that Oxford would implement such low standards for any publication.
David Hewitt
His attempts to make sense of Mingus's life and work are fitful and mostly unsupported, and therefore not completely convincing.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Thelonious on January 22, 2001
Format: Hardcover
It is a shame that a respectable press like Oxford would publish a book this poorly written and clearly not proof-read. It abounds with grammatical and stylistic errors (ranging from "a unusual" to shifting tense to a complete lack of logical flow). It is also a shame that this is likely to be taken as the standard for some time to come.
For me the worst thing about the book is the wealth of inaccuracies regarding the music. Frequently the author gets song titles mixed up ("Meditations On Integration" was never renamed "So Long Eric" -- those are two entirely different pieces, as anyone who examined a few recordings would know). He gets confused on other points as well (Dolphy is not on "Mingus At Monterey" nor is "Ghost Of A Chance" a Mingus original!). How can I trust his presentation of biographical facts (which I cannot easily check) when he can't get these simple things right?
I was also rather disappointed that the book did not really examine the music in any depth (it is "the life AND MUSIC of..." after all). The fabled 1959 Columbia sessions are given little more than a page each. Few connections are drawn with other works, no mention is made of the augmented instrumentation used on some pieces. He doesn't do any better on other recordings. (Perhaps this just reflects my personal obsessions, but how could one summarize the 1964 European tour by discussing only the Oslo video, never discussing the various performances that have been available to fans over the years? This is a great way to examine Mingus' approach to his music on an almost day-by-day basis). Frankly, my impression is that Santoro hasn't really listened to a lot of the music and perhaps isn't all that interested.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
Any biography of Mingus should, by the nature of its subject matter, earn at least 3 stars. Mingus is too explosive, too mercurial, too much of an American Original, to have his story add up to anything less. Anything more, of course, is in the hands of the author.
It appears as though Gene Santoro has tried to write the jazz biography as jazz - his transitions are abrubt and curl back on themselves, he reuses several motifs and phrases (sometimes so often they become annoying), and he stitches together various pieces to form a supposedly illuminating whole. However, this book is a patchwork that never really adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Most of the details are here - the ex-wives, the feuds over the music and money, the revolving door of bandmates. Without a doubt there are funny and poignant stories, otherwise what's the point of Mingus? But we never really understand why Charles Mingus is in the pantheon of great 20th Century composers (American or otherwise), or how he started out wanting to be the Orson Welles of jazz and ended up its Aaron Copland. And Santoro's attempts to put either Mingus behavior or Mingus music into the rapidly evolving political and social contexts of the 50s and 60s are the usual broad strokes of jazz biography.
The definitive Mingus biography is still waiting to be written. Read Sue Mingus's "Tonight at Noon" for a touching summation of his later years, read the liner notes to "Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" if you want a glimpse of what music meant to Charles Mingus. Most of all, listen to Mingus. And if you read this book while listening to its subject, don't be surprised if your mind wanders from the printed page.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By H. B. Bennett on December 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This bio was compelling yet painful to read. Compelling in terms of subject (the life and times of Charles M.) but agonizing in terms of "kicking back" with a comfortable tome. The "narrative" consists of facts, statements and opinions being thrown at the reader without (generally) any context or follow-up. Characters and scenarios are brought up one moment and abruptly dropped the next. The book will occasionally read like a parody of Larry King's USA Today column! I highly recommend Brian Priestley's Mingus: A Critical Biography over this sophomoric effort.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This was an engaging read, but ultimately a little disappointing as it didn't really give a clear picture of the people Mingus was involved with throughout his life. Mingus himself comes through clear enough (though even here, the reasons for his breakdown in the late 60s are still a little mysterious), but consider someone like Eric Dolphy. A major figure in the history of jazz, and someone who was important enough to Mingus that he named his son after him, but Santoro doesn't give us much of a sense of who Eric Dolphy was. He doesn't even tell us how he died. The same is true of other figures like Booker Ervin, Jaki Byard, and so on. If you're a jazz fan coming to this book hoping to learn more about these guys and how they worked with Mingus to create all that amazing music, you're going to come away no more enlightened than when you started.
Santoro does get a little hung up on extraneous financial details at the expense of giving a clear sense of these human characters. He also gives some pretty pat and unnecessary capsules of the history of the times through which Mingus lived. (Do we really need anyone to tell us that the 60s were a time of upheaval?) The research shows, but at times he doesn't seem to have fully digested all this material, and he is reduced to quoting Mingus's tax bills and throwing around some fairly meaningless refrains like "He was feeling the zeitgeist again" or "He was his father's son." 2 stars don't seem like quite enough, but 3 seems a little generous. In default of a 2.5 star option, it will do. Oh well.
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