Beneath the Underdog: His World As Composed By Mingus
Near the beginning of his memoir, Charles Mingus tells his psychiatrist that he had sex with 23 Mexican whores in one night. How you react to that detail will give you a good idea whether you’ll like this book. Or not.
If you do pick it up, you’re in for a wild ride. Mingus tells his life in the form of a confession to his psych. He also divides himself up into three personae, and talks about his life in the third person. These ingenious devices mean he can convey mood, give voice to different parts of his divided self, and reflect on the actions of his past selves with real narrative elegance.
And what a story! Check the bare outline: a black boy from Watts, supremely talented, gets shut out of the classical music world. He picks up the bass to join a band. Meanwhile, he’s composing sophisticated pieces mixing up jazz, Bartok, and improv. Finally, Mingus will end up an acclaimed bandleader, composer, and musician.
But you won’t read about a lot of that. Instead, you’ll hear about doomed love, neighborhood rumbles, detailed advice on how to have sex, prostitutes and pimping, racism, black dick, gangsters, club life, madness, and the full story of those 23 Mexican whores.
Setting aside the scabrous and the sensational, you’ll also read about black survival and come away in awe at the men and women who made such beautiful music in such treacherous conditions. You’ll also find discussions about the nature of God and love, as good as anything written by any guru.
Beneath the Underdog is outré and brilliant, an autobiography of originality and depth. It’s well worth your time if you care about music, or jazz, or life itself.