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Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus Paperback – September 3, 1991
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A wild, lyrical, and anguished autobiography, in which Charles Mingus pays short shrift to the facts but plunges to the very bottom of his psyche, coming up for air only when it pleases him. He takes the reader through his childhood in Watts, his musical education by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, and his prodigious appetites--intellectual, culinary, and sexual. The book is a jumble, but a glorious one, by a certified American genius.
About the Author
At once an essential composer in the history of jazz and a bass player extraordinaire, Charles Mingus was born on April 22, 1922 in Nogales, Arizona, and grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. He made his recording debut with Lionel Hampton in 1947, and performed on numerous recordings with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and many others. His several honors inlcuded a Guggenheim Fellowship, an honorary degree from Brandeis University, and the Slee Chair in Music at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Charles Mingus died in 1979 at the age of 56.
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Sure, it's got some arguable flaws. He DOES go on about sex to a degree that might get a little tedious time and again. And per his disclaimer, there's plenty in here we won't feel compelled to take as 100% fact - yes, that might include the episode with the 20-plus prostitutes in Tijuana. But Good Lord, if you ever wanted a direct view into the mind of a towering, volcanic personality who was not only a musical genius, but a genius of a kind when it came to life itself, this is your book. Is sex not the stuff of life? Would most of us not wish there were more of it in our own memoirs? One of the most impressive aspects of this book are the speeches and dialogues - whether they are transcriptions from a near-photographic memory, or the artful compositions of a first-rate talent, they scream with authenticity, and provide an absolutely rich, riveting and priceless glimpse into the mind of Black America - and White America, for that matter - in the 20th Century.
LIfe lived as hard as it can be lived: master musicians, master pimps, wizened old ladies, mean old bastards, precocious kids, happy-go-lucky wastrels, depressed geniuses, many of them waxing deep and philosophical, in short or at length. Much of it is pithy indeed, bouts of wisdom and foolishness that are at turns equally impressive. Heavy, cutting takes on life from souls who have dived deeper into it than most of us could ever afford to, emerging with some of the most vivid and entertaining commentary on sex, race, religion, death and yes - music - that you'll ever read anywhere. Foremost among them is Mingus himself. While obviously capable of brutal and even cruel behavior, what is most striking is his profound sensitivity, his not-always-present but striking capacity for compassion, his astonishing intellect, his voracious appetite for everything - including an understanding of what the hell life is all about, anyway - and his talent for getting big portions of it, if not all of it. And yes - there's also his brilliance as a writer.
Is it choppy, is it dirty, is it irresponsible, is it offensive, is it woefully, fragmentary, incomplete and arbitrary, is it sad and pathetic, is it excessive, is it awe-inspiring, does it make you want to quit it's so good sometimes, does it keep you coming back to drink in those sad, searing, hilarious, utterly moving and heart-breaking speeches by Fats Navarro? Damn, it's all of those things as far as I'm concerned, and that's OK.
It's certainly fair that a lot of good folks might be offended by the naughty parts, which are in no short supply. Nevertheless, if you're not fascinated by this book, I would submit that your interest in jazz and all that concerns jazz - which is quite a lot of things in this world that are very, very important and sadly under appreciated - is tragically limited. So try reading it again!
The colorful personalities are real,you won't learn much about Mingus the musician but Mingus the man.