In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the third piece of this series, Jessica Teague grapples with Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” Her analysis reveals one of Mingus’s most critical questions: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself? You can catch up with the full series by clicking here. –Guest Editor Earl Brooks
When jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus first set out to write his memoirs in the mid-1950s he told his wife Judy that he “wanted a chance to write about the true jazz scene that has made our masters millions and taken the most famed to their penniless graves as the only escape from the invisible chains on black jazz as an art” (Santoro 175). By the time Beneath the Underdog saw publication nearly two decades later in 1971, it was considerably slimmed down from the 800+ page manuscript Mingus had produced. Financially strained and evicted from his downtown loft, Mingus hoped that the book would be a best seller and offer economic freedom from the music industry.
But as many have noted, Beneath the Underdog is not your typical jazz autobiography (see Krin Gabbard, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, Gene Santoro, and Daniel Stein). Here, Mingus rejects standard notions of the self declaring in the first sentence of his book: “In other words, I am three.” By writing in a mode that wavers between the lurid world of popular pulp-heroes and psychological high-modernism, Mingus’s autobiography (like his music) treads a slender line between clowning and critique.
In one of the most infamous scenes from Beneath the Underdog, Mingus hyperbolically describes having intercourse with twenty-three prostitutes over the course of one night in Tijuana, Mexico. The incident follows the breakup of his marriage with his first wife Barbara and his affair with Nesa Morgan, the wife of a club owner. Recounting his superhuman exploits in the language of the comic book, Mingus turns what might have been a display of his sexual prowess into a clowning circus act, complete with zany sound effects and an off-kilter sense of rhythm. It’s a scene that simultaneously reinforces the stereotype of the African American male’s hypersexuality and deflates it with comedy:
“No! Me, sir!”
“You like fooke?”
“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty!”
“Two dollars, sir!”
(Beneath the Underdog 176-177)
There is a certain ambiguity to the poolside scene. Mingus the narrator is notably absent and the action proceeds without any visual clues—he gives the reader only fragments of dialogue that alternate between the prostitutes selling their wares and the side conversation between Mingus and his friend Hickey, who comments upon his sexual performance. What is more, the onomatopoetic sound effects employed are demonstrably silly and absurd. There are no moans or sighs of ecstasy here—each act is punctuated by a “BLAM! BLAM!” (178). Sex is transactional and performative for Mingus, but not pleasurable.
The pulpy, comic book quality of the Tijuana scene makes Mingus a superhuman like a character from The Fantastic Four, but it also makes him into a two-dimensional cartoon. This undercutting of the self and the performative body characterizes Mingus’s concept of the fractured self of the black jazz musician—a theme he takes up in his music as well as his writing (e.g. “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” from Mingus Ah Um). Interestingly, Mingus’s affinity for comics would surface again and in 1966 he collaborated with African American illustrator Gene Bilbrew to create a comic strip-style advertisement for the Charles Mingus Record Club that appeared in the Village Voice.
Biographers have argued that Mingus included these likely fictionalized sex scenes as a way to sell more books and evade the exploitative economics of the music industry. However, the comic book sound effects that render Mingus’s sexuality humorously exaggerated comes at the expense of Latinx women. Despite having grown up in a multi-ethnic community in Los Angeles, his representation of the voices of the Mexican prostitutes flattens their identities and plays upon ethnic stereotypes. With each “Sí señor,” the women are presented as both sexually promiscuous and submissive. Mingus’s relationships with women were fraught, and his anxieties about his own sexuality were inevitably tied up with race. His tendency to treat women as sex-objects is similarly on display in the comic strip above, in which a suggestively-attired white female hipster acts as a narc, exposing a bootleg record dealer. “Uh, you got anything by Charlie Mingus? Uh-h, y’know, like uh… under the counter?” she asks, dripping innuendo.
And yet, these cringe-inducing scenes are often complicated by Mingus’s use of pimping and prostitution as metaphors for exploitation throughout his Beneath the Underdog. At various points he portrays himself as both prostitute and pimp, both masculine and feminine. When his friend Hickey seems to question Mingus’s extreme behavior, he responds: “In this white man’s society what else have I got” (178). Even in moments that indulge in humor, such as the Tijuana scene, Beneath the Underdog darkly implies a pimp or be pimped world.
Mingus would become known for writing music with a political edge—one might think of “Fables of Faubus” from Mingus Ah Um (1959)—but perhaps the closest musical relative to the satirical Tijuana scene is Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” In the liner notes for the album, penned by Nat Hentoff, Mingus describes that as he wrote the tune, he realized that it had two parts, and started to imagine it as the story of the clown. He then told the story to radio celebrity Jean Shepherd and allowed Shepherd to improvise the telling of the story during the recording. As Mingus described it to Hentoff, the story was
…about a clown, who tried to please people like most jazz musicians do, but whom nobody liked until he was dead. My version of the story ended with his blowing his brains out with the people laughing and finally being pleased because they thought it was part of the act. I liked the way Jean changed the ending; leaves more up to the listener.
Like the Tijuana story, “The Clown” also incorporates sound effects, and it opens with the hollow laughter of men and women in a nightclub. As auditory phenomena, sound effects are especially interesting because of their artificiality—they are performances of sound. In a cinematic or radio context, sound effects typically amplify an action. Even when sounded, rather than written, they seem to act onomatopoetically. Thus, the addition of the laugh track on “The Clown” is both performance and commentary.
But part of the genius of Mingus’s composition is the way he incorporates the logic of the sound effect into the music itself. The vocal quality of his bass, the wah-wahs of the horns, and the rim shots on the drums are but one piece of this totalizing sonic landscape. “The Clown” borrows stylistic elements from other recognizable genres (like, circus music) to evoke the playfully comedic and absurd, but a second, more serious and ironic story of exploitation runs concurrently and undercuts the first narrative’s simplicity. On the one hand, we hear the more jaunty, carnivalesque melody of the trombone (Jimmy Knepper) and the tenor saxophone (Shafi Hadi) that lilts in 6/8, but that melody is punctuated by moments of dissonance and free playing under the narration—stretching the space between comedy and tragedy. The question he seems to ask in both the Tijuana story from Beneath the Underdog and in “The Clown” is essentially the same: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself?
Black musicians who pushed back were often called “angry,” even as music didn’t always sound that way. One might think of the contrast between seemingly jaunty, upbeat rhythm of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and its devastating lyrics. It is the sound of political and existential crisis. Both “The Clown,” and the Tijuana scene indicate Mingus’s heightened awareness that, as much as he was known for his music, he was also known for his explosive behavior at performances—the “angry man of jazz.” As Eric Porter has pointed out, Mingus’s “irrational behavior appealed to audiences at a moment when many members of American society (of whom Beat writers were emblematic) were looking to the oppositional aspects of black culture for solutions to their dissatisfaction with consumerism, conservative politics, repressed sexuality, constrictive gender roles, and other social ills” (130-131). 1957, the year Mingus recorded The Clown, was the same year that Norman Mailer published his infamous essay “The White Negro” and Jack Kerouac published On the Road. It was also the year that Governor Faubus of Arkansas attempted to halt the integration of Central High School in Little Rock.
Subtle they may be, but the use of comic sound effects in works like Beneath the Underdog and “The Clown” highlight the absurdity of the roles black jazz musicians had come to play within American culture. In worrying the line between the comic and the tragic, the explosive and the reflective, Charles Mingus refused to concede to the identity that had been shaped by the music industry, by the press, and by institutionalized racism.
Featured Image: Charles Mingus 1976, Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, Colorized by SO!
Jessica Teague is an Assistant Professor of English at the University Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and specializes in 20th and 21st-century American Literature and Sound Studies. The intersections between literature, sound, and technology are the focus of her research, and her book, Sound Recording Technology and American Literature: from the Phonograph to the Remix, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Her work has been published in journals such as American Quarterly and Sound Studies, and she has also been the recipient of research fellowships from the ACLS and the Harrison Institute at the University of Virginia. (PhD, MA, Columbia University; BA, UCLA)
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In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series–featuring myself (Earl Brooks), Brittnay Proctor, Jessica Teague, and Nichole Rustin-Paschal— re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the second installment of this series, Brittnay Proctor challenges us to view Mingus through the discourse of ethical care. She argues that we have often “confused Mingus’s care for the future of jazz music and black jazz artists for an ornery and grouchy disposition.” You can catch up with the full series by clicking here.–Guest Editor Earl Brooks
One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. —Charles Mingus, “Avant-Garde and Tradition” in Mingus Speaks (2013)
My present working methods use very little written material. I ‘write’ compositions on mental score paper, then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the ‘framework’ on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used…I can keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos. –Charles Mingus quoted by Diane Dorr-Dorynek, Original Liner Notes, Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Released in 1959 in the same orbit as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (August 1959) and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come (October 1959), Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um (September 1959) showcased Mingus’s range both as a composer and bassist. Intimate both in its sound and session composition (only seven sessions players worked on the album), the album provides a purview into Mingus’s commitment to the idiomatic (“interconnected”) and collaborative nature of the black jazz tradition and the stakes of/for black art and artists. His investment in jazz’s black idiomatic structure stood at odds with the increasing importance of the singular jazz man to the marketing of jazz music.
Works like Mingus Ah Um prompt listeners to listen attentively to collaboration and collaborative efforts, both in the setting of a jazz ensemble/collective and in the historicity of black (jazz) men caring for one another. While the imposition of white gender prerogatives sometimes foreclosed intimate, homosocial (same-gender, social) relationships between black jazz men that revolved around what Christina Sharpe terms in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being as an “ethics of care,” Mingus Ah Um is not only an ode to black jazz ancestors and elders, but performative of Mingus’s deep care about the black jazz tradition and its futurity. (131)
In histories of jazz, Charles Mingus is often characterized as volatile and dismissive of young black jazz artists. His purported critique of neo-jazz movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s, like the free jazz (“The New Thing”)/avant-garde jazz movement, narratively put him at odds with emerging jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. But as demonstrated by Mingus Ah Um, Mingus profoundly cared about black jazz men and the future of black jazz music. Given these histories, what would it mean for listeners to not dismiss Mingus altogether, but hold in tension his anxieties, deemed dogmatic and peremptory, with his often careful and honorific sonic confabulation with black jazz men? How does re-listening to Mingus Ah Um make us empathetic to Mingus’s pursuit in preserving a waning black jazz tradition that was ever increasingly ridiculed and mocked (by way of anti-blackness) for its presumed anti-intellectualism and placation to whiteness? The undercurrent of Mingus’s care is not always expressed in histories or interviews, which begs the question: what is rooted in, yet exceeds the autobiographical, when we listen?
When listening to Mingus Ah Um the album’s ethics of care might be heard most explicitly on tracks like “Fables of Faubus,” a protest song in the most righteous sense, aimed at Orval Faubus, the former Arkansas governor who deployed the state’s national guard to barricade Central High School in Little Rock from the threat of integration (which is also to say the threat of miscegenation). A tune steeped in dissent and once with lyrics that made Columbia ask Mingus to re-record the tune: “Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!/Boo! Ku Klux Klan (With your Jim Crow plan).” (“Original Faubus Fables,” Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, 1960)
Listening to the cluster of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Open Letter to Duke,” and “Jelly Roll” (it has been written that “Bird Calls” was composed in honor of Charlie Parker, but Mingus composed the song to sound like birds) you realize these tracks are his oeuvre to the “eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing.” (See first epigraph) The tracks are less about mimicry and reproducing the exact sound of Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, or Duke Ellington, but are rooted in Mingus’s ethics of care. With these works, he demonstrates how black jazz men enabled him to invent and play his own idiom of jazz. But most importantly, Mingus uses these compositions to argue that Young, Morton, and Ellington should not be treated as disposable or as an obstruction to “harder” or more radical avant-garde jazz sounds and forms. For Mingus, without Duke, Jelly Roll, or Lester, there is no Mingus, or jazz for that matter.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a tribute to tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the oft cited creator of “cool jazz,” is somber in tone, but masterfully weds mournful playing by way of saxophonists Booker Ervin, Shafi Hadi, and John Handy with Young’s confident, melodic, and smooth style of play. A buoyant, bouncy encomium is forgone for a tranquil, cool, serenade. The song does not reference Young in name but is deeply personal; Young was slated to play on Mingus Ah Um but died shortly before recording sessions started. The song narrates the kinship between Mingus and Young, as well as, the devastating loss to Mingus and black jazz communitas. Sensually euphonious, listeners feel spatially close, nearly inside of the track. The physically intimate resonances of the song make it undoubtedly, a Lester Young track on a Mingus album.
“Jelly Roll” pays homage to Jelly Roll Morton, the founder of New Orleans Dixeland jazz. Embodying a slow drag emblematic of Jelly Roll Morton’s play and compositions, the song revolves around the bounce of the trombone and ragtime play of the piano. His version of “boogie-woogie” (“Boogie” = black rent parties of the twentieth century) is characterized by a lower register bassline (a left-hand bass figure) and leisurely tempo (appositional to hard bop). The dedication to Jelly Roll Morton is also honorific of jazz’s history as an “unacceptable” form of popular music; “Jelly Roll” both in name and sound alludes to the black sexual subcultures and vernacular that were once an integral part of jazz music.
“Open Letter to Duke” is a salute to Mingus’s greatest musical influence, Duke Ellington. The bounce and accelerated trot of the track reminds listeners that jazz music was once dance music. A piano solo that leads into woodwinds, marks flight and movement, while Mingus’s bass play resembles Ellington’s use of Afro-Latinx rhythm’s later in his career; an “ethnic” turn (“Spanish tinge”) in Ellington’s big band sound and an allusion to the diasporic connection between black music in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Similar to Duke Ellington’s body of work and composition, the sum of the track is greater than its parts.
We have often confused Mingus’s care for the future of jazz music and black jazz artists for an ornery and grouchy disposition. He was quite cognizant of the fraught relationship black jazz artists had with the financialization of black performance, writing in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus that the music industry was a “system those that own us use. They make us famous and give us names—the King of this, the Count of that, the Duke of what! We die broke anyhow—and sometimes I think I dig death more than I dig facing this white world.” (9)
Likewise, Mingus’s “working methods” for the album were deeply embedded in an ethics of care. As a bandleader, his compositions were structural, but tailored to each players style of play. What does it mean for the bandleader to care about the ensemble as much as, if not more, than himself? For example, John Handy “met Mingus in December  at a jam session at the Five Spot…the musicians on the stand thought he looked too square. Mingus asked them to give him a chance to play, and they did. A day later Mingus asked him to join his group.” (Original Liner Notes, Mingus Ah Um) How does care and assistance change how we understand Mingus and his relationship to young, black jazz men?
What Charles Mingus (maybe) understood most or at least more than his contemporaries, is that you cannot “think” or intellectualize away the conditions of black life, as Christina Sharpe reminds us, “all we have [is care]” (131). For each other, in the most intramural (situated or done within community.) Mingus’s compositions, especially on Mingus Ah Um, reflects this ethics. He composed pieces in a way that allowed young, passed over, and unacknowledged black jazz men to shine.
Featured Image: Still from Mingus 1959 by the BBC, colorized by SO!
Brittnay L. Proctor received her PhD in African American Studies from Northwestern University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California—Irvine. Her research interests include: Black Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies; black feminist theory, black popular music, sound studies, visual culture(s), and performance. Her work has been published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, The Journal of Popular Culture, American Literature and is forthcoming in Feminist Formations.
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