Here is an excerpt from the Introduction of Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus by Gene Santoro --
Celia Mingus-Zaentz, second wife: From the time he picked up an instrument, he got into the band, and then the high school band, and then he went on the road. And that’s how a real artist is: artists think by going on with their life and their work. They’re driven. They couldn’t imagine anything else. 1
Judy Starkey Mingus McGrath, third wife: It was so important to him to have his music heard, to be taken seriously. And that piece “Half Mast Inhibition”--when you really listen to it and realize it was this young black kid in Watts hearing these things and composing this music, it has to blow you away.
Susan Graham Ungaro Mingus, fourth wife: He felt that he was a vessel for music that came from somewhere else. He always took credit for his bass playing and virtuosity, but he always said the melody comes from God. He said the music was waiting for him on the piano keys.
Charles Mingus Jr. struck everyone he met hard, whether it was for the first time or the thousandth. Insisting he was five-foot-ten, though he was at least an inch shorter, rolling back and forth between 180 and 250 pounds, and packing the coiled intensity of a rattler about to spring, Mingus projected even bigger. He engulfed people, things, conversations, ideas. People describe him like he was ready for an NFL front line.
Driven, indeed. As a young man, he practiced his bass for hours a day to master his chosen craft, taping his strongest fingers to force the weakest to get stronger, more agile, more useful. For the rest of his 56 years, he pounded the piano for hours a day, at home, in studios, other people’s homes, hotels, wherever he happened to be, pouring out the music endlessly cycling inside his restless imagination, to release as many of the angels circling him and demons haunting him that day as he could.
Real and projected, Mingus’s guiding spirits drove him to produce one of the most far-reaching bodies of music of the postwar era. In the course of his decades of creating and reworking it, its raw materials came from pop and blues and European, African, Indian, and Hispanic sounds. He fed it all through a jazz-shaped sensibility that put a premium on the hard-learned art of improvisation—the art of expressing yourself on the spur of the moment.
His ongoing conversation with the world around him—Mingus music—embraces a panorama of human feeling from yearning romanticism to bitter irony, all drawn from the never-extinguished interior dialog among Mingus’s various selves. For Mingus his art was his life, translated, and his focus on it was possessed, Dionysiac, total. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he then demanded extraordinary commitment to that art from its performers and audiences alike. Nor that he demanded drama, even if it was only melodrama, on a monumental scale in the world around him, to keep his attention, to keep him at the center of attention, to offer reassurance, to infuriate him—above all, to inspire him to transmute those raw materials into more of the timeless cultural dialog we call art.
For he saw his life--and his music reflected this--as a now-simmering, now-roiling drama of wildly mixed ingredients that only he could reconcile. And because his consuming curiosity about anything and everything guaranteed that his life was very much a part of his times, his music and his writings and his performances speak of how one gifted man saw America, the planet, the universe, and even the mind of God during his time here.
1 All quotes are taken from the author’s interviews, unless otherwise noted.
This excerpt from Myself When I Am Real has been reprinted with permission from the author. (C) 2000 Gene Santoro All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-19-509733-5