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"Self-Portrait in Three Colors"
Emotional Life in Beneath the Underdog
Actually, I don't know how to start these few lines but its for sure I hopes that you are well, and doing fine! ... I got a message from Vivian through Phillip that you have quit working! (that is with your music) going around with something in your hair to make it much nappy and saying that you are an African! I told Vivian Phillip is a big Lie! He lies period! Please tell me it isn't so!!! No! I'm not just writing because of this I heard somehow I just had to mention it. However he also told her about the autobiography that you are writing of your life which I think is wonderful! Because I really don't think anyone could tell about our life as well as you....
Love your sis Grace
"In other words, I am three. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there's an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he'll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what's been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can't — he goes back inside himself." "Which one is real?" "They're all real." Charles Mingus Jr.
In 1971, the year he won his first Guggenheim fellowship for musical composition, Charles Mingus Jr. released his much anticipated (at least by him) autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. He started writing it in the late fifties, reportedly inspired by the publication of Billie Holiday's Lady Sings the Blues (1956). Holiday was one of Mingus's favorites; he composed "Eclipse" (1953) for her and recorded it with singer Janet Thurlow on his Debut record label and with Honey Gordon on the live recording, Charles Mingus and Friends.
Holiday's book had been crafted from conversations between Holiday and William Dufty, a reporter for the New York Post who was married to her good friend Maely Dufty, herself a jazz booster. The opening lines of Lady Sings the Blues are a lie: "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three." In truth, Holiday's mother was the elder of the two and the pair never married. The conviction with which Holiday casts these "facts" as the origins of her narrative whets our appetite for reading between the lines as she details her life with blues-inflected emotionality, including stories of prostitution, sexual molestation, heroin addiction, love affairs, Jim Crow, and the music.
Norman Granz used Lady Sings the Blues to stage Holiday's 1956 comeback at Carnegie Hall, blending text and song in an expertly produced show of emotion. He later released a live recording of the concert in which Gilbert Millstein, who wrote for the New York Times, reads excerpts from the book while Holiday sings standards like "Good Morning Heartache" and "Fine and Mellow." Audiences and critics applauded the performance as her most riveting in recent memory, leading many to hope that she had turned a corner in her personal life. But Holiday died in 1959, claiming never to have read the book. Despite her disavowal, the book nevertheless persists as a testament to her "real"-life "blues."
David Ritz, ghostwriter of autobiographies for artists such as Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye, characterizes the veracity of Holiday's Blues as, "in the mythopoetic sense ... as true and poignant as any tune she ever sang. If her music was autobiographically true, her autobiography was musically true." For Farah Jasmine Griffin, Lady Sings the Blues "is not a song, but a series of them; it is a carefully constructed performance of a life. A realist (not realistic) portrait of the 'jazz artist.'" Both Ritz and Griffin allude to the importance of performance in transforming a jazzman into a subject for writing. Whether assisted by an amanuensis or not, jazzmen script stories of their life experiences through layered enactments of gender and racial knowledge, troubling perceptions of truth in jazz culture, and documenting the work of making music. In composing autobiography, jazzmen integrate the emotional sources of their creativity, an understanding of their audiences, and a desire to tell a story.
Mingus's Beneath the Underdog is the paradigmatic realist self-portrait of the black jazzman. It is also the rare example of a jazz autobiography written by the musician alone. Through a full-throated improvisation of narrative authority, revealing "slipperiness, mobility, and inventive flexibility," Mingus navigates the restrictions of authenticity marking him as a black jazzman. Composing the memoir over the course of more than a decade, Mingus expands the boundaries of feeling in jazz autobiography by embracing uncertainty, multiplicity, and vulnerability. He portrays himself as always in a state of becoming. He opens the story in the middle of a session with his therapist, deluging us with images of a subject irreparably split. To tell his story, he embraces those multiple selves, unconcerned with one identity dominating the others. The book's continual shifting between subject positions shapes the narrative as both a critique of the autobiographical form and a challenge to the jazz public to acknowledge its role in the music's performance. Mingus explores racialized masculinity through stories about becoming a musician and the relative failure of jazz to transcend race.
In this chapter I begin by discussing how Beneath the Underdog is structured, paying particular attention to how Mingus uses the narrative frame of talk therapy, allowing him to shift back and forth in time as he scrutinizes his experience. Despite the criticisms leveled at Beneath the Underdog as embracing an "emasculating masculinity," one that is sexually aggressive and vengeful, I see Mingus as offering a nuanced composition of his emotional landscape using chords of racial alienation, creativity, and individuality to write a discourse on love: fraternal, familial, and sexual; jealous and obscene; faithful and adoring; disappointing and dreamy. In his excesses, ribald humor, and confessions, Mingus walks the line between what is real and what is imagined, what is documentable and what is laughable. In his book, Mingus discloses the conflicting demands associated with pursuing a career as a musician, the personal relationships built and lost, as well as the toll of racism. Beneath the Underdog insists that the reader be a witness to the real in Mingus's experience of being a black male jazz musician, and his upending of signifiers of racial authenticity extends to those about masculinity.
Mingus's preoccupation with sexuality was a frequent target of critics who reviewed the book. I pay particular attention to these critics' narrow construction of black masculinity and their reluctance to view themselves as part of the performance that Mingus constructs. Beneath the Underdog reminds us that we must complete the musical event by remodeling social behaviors and imagining new ways of being in the world.
Mingus envisioned his autobiography as a composition, a representation of his world; to read Beneath the Underdog is to witness a performance of race, masculinity, and music. Not content to put on a standard performance, Mingus interprets the "reticences, repressions and distortions"— as W. E. B. DuBois advocated in Dusk of Dawn — that constituted his life. Mingus digs deep into the telling: "What do I care what the world sees, I'm trying to find out how I should feel about myself" (3). In his effort to understand his experience, he rejects the idea that he must conform to expectations of how that story should be told. Mingus's clarity about his objective in writing Beneath the Underdog, a wildly imaginative, borderless, multivocal composition, embodies what Elizabeth Alexander defines as the black interior: "what ... we learn when we pause at sites of contradiction where black creativity complicates and resists what blackness is 'supposed' to be." The black interior is a profoundly self-reflective and therapeutic space, a radical site for affirming black personhood, genius, and emotion. As Alexander explains, it is the "one place where we go to make sense" of "the world's ills."
To tell his musical story, Mingus writes his emotional story, one that derives from the experiences of three selves embodying, respectively, ambivalence, fear, and gentleness. He depicts his journey into manhood as an often-thwarted search for avenues of honest expression, beset by racism. Emotionality not only grounds his musical compositions and performances, but also informs his performance of jazzmasculinity. With his gender and racial identity in constant tension, the tumultuousness of his private world provides a source of creativity. Through the artifice of these multiple selves, Mingus details how he negotiates public perceptions of black masculinity while trying to achieve mastery over himself and his instrument. These elements of Beneath the Underdog improvise on conventional ideas about jazz as an expression of masculine and racial authenticity, as well as on our notions of emotional truth and truth-telling in jazz composition and performance.
"BACKGROUND FOR THOUGHT"
An involved bit of writing, far too confusing to be digested at one hearing, and even intricate enough to call for a halt by Mingus and then a fresh start.
George T. Simon
Don Juan Mingus ..., Mingus as lightweight Iceberg Slim ..., Mingus the son, Mingus the husband, Mingus the father, Mingus the comic sufferer on the psychiatrist's couch, ranting about the Jews who buy and sell black musicians, pouring out his soul to his Jewish analyst.
The Negro is not. Anymore than the white man.
Loosely structured as a dialogue with a fictionalized psychologist named "Dr. Wallach," Mingus's published memoir is an abridged version of a manuscript he had been writing for nearly twenty years, chronicling his life from 1924 to some undefined point in the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Unconcerned with providing either a linear narrative or the standard revelations about a musician's life, Mingus blends memories, thoughts, people, music, and politics into a seamless though chaotic concert. The fantastic events that characterize the memoir's excesses — libidinal, musical, spiritual, and gastronomical — mark Mingus's individuality. Through these excesses, Mingus defines desire (musical, sexual, emotional) as central to his own experience.
By alternating between three writing selves, which he asserts "are all real," Mingus manipulates tropes of black masculinity to interrogate his limited privilege as a black man and to document the instability of black masculinity as an identity. He imagines black men not just as desired objects of mimicry and spectatorship, but as desiring subjects. He asserts an identity that is self-determining and self-reflective, conscious of how social relationships are lived, negotiated, and transformed, and cognizant of the intersections between "power, identity, and social subjectivity." My reading of Mingus's "most involved bit of writing" looks closely at how this representative jazzman negotiated the structures of feeling that shaped postwar jazz culture.
Mingus the master time-keeper conducts Beneath the Underdog along multiple time registers, each with a different beginning, each challenging the role the jazzman plays in discourses about jazz and racial authenticity, criticism, the music business, and gender. Though Mingus is looking back on his life, he uses the different registers as ways to be present in the telling. The first register finds Mingus in a therapy session with Wallach. (We eavesdrop on this particular session throughout the book.) Mingus's "strategic performance of confession" reveals him to be vulnerable, manipulative, and defensive. Though Mingus is being "analyzed," he steers the analysis, pulling Wallach along in a tumultuous story of redemption, excess, and music. Toward the end of the book, Wallach interrupts Mingus, asking questions that break his stream of consciousness and reminding us that Mingus's search for answers is mediated by the doctor-patient relationship.
In alternate registers, Mingus explores how race, spirituality, and sexuality shaped his family life, musical relationships, and ideas about masculinity. He recounts the story of his childhood and youth in Watts, where he falls in love with girls and with music, makes friends, and learns to fight. In one long register, we encounter Mingus coming into his own as a musician, becoming a father, and searching for a father figure — a search that represents the enduring conflict he experiences among the paternal, spiritual, and religious. He shifts registers to document the events leading to his arrival on the New York jazz scene — where he endures such doubt and insecurity that he commits himself for psychiatric observation at Bellevue. This stay in the hospital reveals that the greater danger facing Mingus was not a society fixated on repressing the expression of a free black consciousness, but his own acceptance of society's limitations.
Beneath the Underdog is as much an exhumation of the self as it is a representation. Tracing his birth, death, and rebirth as a black jazzman, Mingus explores questions of fidelity to God, to spouse, and to band members. He begins at the moment of his first resurrection, stating emphatically that, in this place, "1621 East One Hundred and Eighth Street in the City of Watts in Los Angeles County in the State of California," a child who hovered between life and death was saved. Mingus's birth had been cause for celebration, he "was the boy they'd longed for in the family" (9). Like Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, musicians from whom he felt descended, he is the darling for whom "the whole world, the whole world is waiting to sing (his) song." As Mingus's sister Vivian recalled, "Charles was it. ... Mama was crazy about Charles. ... Charles would carry the Mingus name."
And yet, despite the reverence with which his family greeted his birth, they refuse to see him clearly: "[T]hey loved him like a puppy. He was becoming a person and no one took notice" (10). Mingus gradually becomes aware that despite his privileged status in the family, he is nevertheless burdened by their needs and hopes. They expect him to perform masculinity in a way that ill suits him. Chafing against those expectations, the young Mingus cracks. He becomes conscious of himself as split, caught between experience and emotion, thought and performance. At this juncture, Mingus relays the story of his two-year-old self's near fatal injury. While playing with his sister, "Baby" falls, "his head split wide open on the corner of a Goodwill-store old-fashioned second-hand-me-down white-folks' bedroom-set dresser" (8).
As Baby lies unconscious, blood gushing from his wound, Mingus levitates out of Baby's body and surveys the small family drama, coming to realize "how important the little fellow was. Everybody got so upset" (8). Baby is rushed to the hospital in Daddy's Chevrolet sedan, his parents and sisters crying and praying all the way.
But though they had so much faith in this guy named God, Baby wouldn't respond. I decided to go back inside and take over until he could get himself together. No one seemed to notice as I climbed up on the white table where Baby was laid out and materialized myself into the big hole over his left eye. Just to console everybody, I breathed deep and exhaled and Baby let out his first scream since early that morning when Grace had tickled his stomach till it hurt. ... I started to leave again when the family did but Baby had hold of me now and was hanging on for dear life, so I stayed with him and I've been with him ever since. (9)
Mingus resurrects Baby, breathing into his lungs, comforting and protecting him throughout his life. He describes similar mystic powers later in the book as well ("He felt he was able to touch people, to contact certain souls in the next room or miles away or even those who had died"), and notes that he and artist Farwell Taylor "often experienced a mysterious awareness of each other while in different parts of the world" (57). This Mingus exercises godlike powers, prescient enough to know he will have to mediate between the spirit and the body as Baby heals and matures. That body will remain a source of pain and recovery, a site of both injury and the self-knowledge that arises from its healing. Recognizing how little his life's external expectations jibe with his selfhood, as undefined as it was at that young age, he associates that selfhood with divinity. As he grows older, he questions the idea of "God" even as he embraces spirituality, morality, and love as guiding principles. Music becomes the ultimate articulation of selfhood and creativity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Kind of Man I Am"
Copyright © 2017 Nichole Rustin-Paschal.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents<P>Preface<BR>Acknowledgments<BR>Introduction: "Self-Portrait"<BR>Self-Portrait in Three Colors: "Emotional Life in Beneath the Underdog"<BR>West Coast Ghost: "Composing Jazzmasculinity, Music, and Community"<BR>Invisible Lady: "Jazzmen and the Business of Emotional Truth"<BR>Eclipse: "Jazzmasculinity, Race Womanhood, and the Hazel Scott Incident"<BR>Conclusion: The Chill of Death: "The Sway of Charles Mingus's Black Jazzmasculinity"<BR>Bibliography</P>
What People are Saying About This
“Nichole Rustin-Paschal’s astonishing study unpacks the swagger of jazzmasculinitya cultural figuration often misheard as solely male. By gendering Mingus studies, she challenges us to hear jazz culture as much more. A must read and instant classic.”
"An absorbing, timely, and indeed important book, The Kind of Man I Am introduces a fresh model for thinking about jazz and gender. This is a book that will help rejuvenate the field, pushing its boundaries and opening up new avenues of inquiry." John Gennari, associate professor of English and critical race and ethnic studies, University of Vermont
"Nichole Rustin-Paschal's astonishing study unpacks the swagger of jazzmasculinitya cultural figuration often misheard as solely male. By gendering Mingus studies, she challenges us to hear jazz culture as much more. A must read and instant classic." Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., author of The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History and the Challenge of Bebop
“An absorbing, timely, and indeed important book, The Kind of Man I Am introduces a fresh model for thinking about jazz and gender. This is a book that will help rejuvenate the field, pushing its boundaries and opening up new avenues of inquiry.”