Beneath the Underdog

Trigger/content warning: disturbing video imagery, offensive language.

ah um

When I was working on my doctorate and teaching a writing class for music majors, I wanted to assign my students a passage from the great jazz bass player, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus’s 1971 memoir, Beneath the Underdog. The fiftieth anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High was coming up, and I wanted to talk about Mingus’s famous tune “Fables of Faubus,” from his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um. “Fables of Faubus” is an anti-tribute to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who had sent the state National Guard to Little Rock to prevent nine black students from entering the school (Louis Armstrong had called Faubus, in the press, an “uneducated plow boy”).

“Fables of Faubus” begins with a snide, insinuating riff, a sonic reference to Faubus’s destructive bigotry, which nevertheless manages to portray him as weak and ineffective, a cartoon villain. Mingus had written lyrics for the song, but his record label, Columbia, would not let him include them on the recording, so the tune was first recorded as an instrumental number. A year later, however, Mingus re-released the song, with lyrics, on a smaller label as “Original Faubus Fables.”

Note the mocking, satirical call-and-response between Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond, and the wild, swirling trumpet and saxophone solos (Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy, respectively) in between verses, creating an eerie and malignant atmosphere.

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas
Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us!

[Chorus]
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie
Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools
Then he’s a fool!

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (With your Jim Crow plan)

[Chorus]
Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond
Bilbo, Thomas, Faubus, Russel, Rockefeller, Byrd, Eisenhower
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
Two, four, six, eight:
They brainwash and teach you hate

In my writing class, it was hard to find an appropriate passage from Beneath the Underdog to read in class. The book, though it’s written with tremendous energy, is almost indescribably obscene. It’s full of exaggerations and outright lies about Mingus’s sex life, such as his claim that he pimped his wives and girlfriends. As one critic writes:

The book is . . . written in faux-difficult stream of consciousness – many chapters consist of only dialogue between Mingus and musicians, Mingus and pimps, Mingus and psychiatrists or Mingus and women. Who are almost constantly referred to as “bitches.” And ALL (except his stepmother, who he extensively verbally abuses) fuck him.

And this is the reason why the book is awful. Mingus can write BEAUTIFULLY about jazz: about the energy, the freneticism of live performance, about the thrill of composition, the joy of musical development, the excitement of learning, creativity, a shared language of artistic expression… But his autobiography is not about jazz. His musical career seems almost incidental, referred to occasionally . . . The reader learns nothing interesting or new about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie whoever, other than the fact that they KNEW CHARLES MINGUS. Because this is not a book about jazz. This is a book about the continual, priapic, misogynistic and possibly fictional sex life of the author.

In fact, the only passage in Beneath the Underdog where Mingus bothers to give his music serious mention is near the end of the book, in a scene where he’s just been released from Bellevue and is playing a club date. Mingus uses the foil of a British interviewer coming over to his table between sets, while he’s flirting with the woman who will become his third or fourth wife, to expound for a page or so on his musical philosophy:

“Do excuse me, Mr. Mingus, I can see you’re awfully busy, but may I ask a question or two for my paper? For instance, what do you feel about jazz?”

“Man, just listen, it’s all there.”

“. . . They’d like to know what you think in England, just a few words?”

“Well . . . I can tell you how I feel tonight anyway. Up to now, I don’t think nobody has given nothing important since Bird [Charlie Parker] died except his contemporaries who were overlooked at the time — [Thelonius] Monk, Max [Roach], [Sonny] Rollins, Bud [Powell], others, maybe even me. Bird was playing then what they’re calling avant-garde today — putting major sevenths with minor sevenths, playing a fourth away from the key . . . All this free-form business isn’t new . . . I was doing it and Duke [Ellington] before me and Jelly Roll [Morton] before that. . . 

There was once a word used — swing. Swing went to one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. But I use the term ‘rotary perception.’ If you get a mental picture of the beat existing with a circle you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome . . . That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat — each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space . . . the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed . . . the pulse is inside you . . . It’s called strolling.”

The interviewer goes on to ask Mingus whether he thinks Englishmen can play jazz. Mingus responds:

If you’re talking about technique, musicianship, I guess the British can be as good as anybody else. But what do they need to play jazz for? It’s the American Negro’s tradition, it’s his music. White people don’t have a right to play it, it’s colored folk music. . . white society has its own traditions, let ’em leave ours to us. You had your Shakespeare and Marx and Freud and Einstein and Jesus Christ and Guy Lombardo but we came up with jazz, and don’t forget it, and all the pop music in the world today is from that primary cause.

In 1966, the filmmaker Thomas Reichmann followed Mingus and his five-year-old daughter through their daily lives as they were about to be evicted from their New York apartment. The film, Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, intersperses Mingus’s free-form soliloquizing with the scenes of the stress of his domestic situation and shots of live performance.

Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968 from BPows on Vimeo.

Was Mingus a victim of his own genius? Or of the internalization of racism? Did jazz devour its young?

The image Mingus chose for the record cover of Mingus Ah Um is a painting by Japanese-American artist S. Neil Fujita, who, like Mingus, was both a victim and survivor of racism as an internee during World War II. I like to think of his painting as expressive of Mingus’s ideas about rotary perception.

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