Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus
By Gene Santoro
Oxford University Press
452 pages, $30
Jazz biography is a literary graveyard. This is only partly because
jazz is an oral tradition, more about live performances than the
intimate lives of the music's greats, which tend to be poorly documented
or littered with ad hoc fabrications and mystifications.
Performers have always managed their images, but jazz figures have
inscrutable since the postwar bebop movement that produced Charlie
Parker and Miles Davis. Boppers often deliberately obscured their
own thoughts and motivations, resorting to religious mumbo-jumbo in
the case of saxophone legend John Coltrane, hepcat jibberish from
Davis or sheer drug-induced incomprehensibility in Parker's brief
life. Never wanting to be seen as ordinary, jazz musicians became
so larger-than-life that mere biographies seemed unsuitable to capture
their essence, only their detritus.
This is why historical writing about jazz is so poor. There are
exceptions, of course. David Hajdu's biography of Billy Strayhorn
sensitively portrayed Duke Ellington's alter ego and contained a
lode of insights into the collaborative relationship between the
two composers. Gary Giddins' 1987 essay on Parker's life, published
in a fabulous pictorial study of the altoist known simply as "Bird,"
is too short to qualify as a biography but is informative, fair
and disciplined. Davis' memoir, which could qualify as a biography
because of the heavy load carried by co-writer Quincy Troupe, offers
fascinating insights into Davis' narcissism, his brutal attitudes
toward women, the importance of his upper-middle-class background,
the source of his "cool" performance style and his Brando-esque
habit of mumbling nonsense phrases. James Lincoln Collier's biographies
of Louis Armstrong and Ellington, while criticized by fans of the
musicians for giving insufficient credit to the output of their
autumn years, set a standard for accuracy and use of documentary
evidence no matter how scattered or fragmentary.
The common thread in the best jazz biographies is a sense of jazz
as an aspect of American society, not a disconnected realm inhabited
by pure genius. These books rely only sparingly on the often dubious
recollections of friends and observers, carefully subjecting these
accounts to scrutiny and factual triangulation.