Charles in Charge

Mingus seemed to be the result of two polarized personalities: an intellectual with erudite musical theories and a primitivist who created sounds from someplace deep within himself. Though Mingus had only a high-school education and never learned to read music very well, he somehow acquired the ability to write and speak like a liberal arts grad student; he liked to refer to Wagner, Stravinski, and "the late Beethoven quartets." Janet Coleman, Mingus' friend and one of the many editors who worked on his infamous autobiography, once wrote that she steered clear of discussing music with the man: "I had seen too many fans and jazz buffs go down in defeat, pissing him off with musical opinions he regarded as moronic."

His autobiography Beneath the Underdog, a rather well-washed version of his original manuscript Half Yaller Schitt-Colored Nigger, was published in 1971, the end result of some ten years of writing and just as much psychoanalysis. It's a Joycean jumble of narrative voices, childhood memories, and base sexuality. It may be the only autobiography that begins with this disclaimer: "Some names in this work have been changed and some of the characters and incidents are fictitious." It is definitely the only one in which everyone uses the expletive "schitt."

Throughout the book -- and other writings by Mingus -- there is a visible streak of rage against the racism of American society. As a child Mingus certainly encountered his share of prejudice. As an adult he blamed racism for his personal bankruptcy and the failure of his self-run record label. (In 1968 he was forcibly evicted from his New York apartment.) Mingus' life was interrupted by periods of mental instability and creative drought, and ground to a halt in the late Seventies when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. By 1977 Mingus was confined to a wheelchair, unable to write or play, reduced to singing new compositions into a tape recorder. He died in 1979.

But the Mingus on Passions of a Man is abuzz with ideas, caught up in the moment, and shouting with joy. Though it's only a lark, "Eat That Chicken" closes this boxed set quite appropriately. It's Mingus cutting loose -- "Eat that chicken/Bop, bop, boo-dee!" -- rocking and rolling with a momentum that sounds impossible to stop.

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