The Kind of Man I Am
Jazzmasculinity and the World of Charles Mingus Jr.
Middleton (Connecticut): Wesleyan University Press, 2017
Paperback. xv+243 pages. ISBN 978-0819577566. $24.95
Reviewed by Eric Lewis
McGill University, Montreal
Mingus the “angry man of jazz”/Mingus the beloved band leader
Mingus the pimp—wanna-be pimp/Mingus the sensitive lover
Mingus the violent assaulter/Mingus the caring partner and friend
Mingus the white-baiting “racist”/Mingus the integrationist pioneer
Mingus the emotional hot-head/Mingus the introspective analyst of his own soul
and that of others
Mingus the author of a sensitive and insightful autobiography rich with multiple
meanings and narrative structures/Mingus the author of a self-indicting, titillating pot-boiler
Mingus the major composer, artist, performer, improviser, activist, “jazzman”….
there is no contrasting duality here!
In The Kind of Man I Am, Rustin-Paschal (RP) navigates through these contradictory and seemingly incompatible glosses on Mingus’ public persona, and argues for a kind of reconciliation of these oppositions. As multivocality is characteristic of black literary works, and like how both having a single authentic artistic voice is only afforded white artists, and the very nature of black identity is theorized to be effectively, if not essentially, fractured due to the varied and pernicious effects of racism and the legacy of slavery—Mingus is revealed to be engaged in performative acts of identity construction, all related to, on the one hand, the externally imposed expectations he is meant to fulfill in his role as a black male jazzman, and on the other, the often competing pressures he felt issuing forth from his own unique agency, autonomy and lived experiences. Is it any surprise that a fractured self might result, that Mingus opens his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog (BU), with the claim, “In other words, I am three”, and when asking himself just a few lines later, “Which one is real?”, he responds, “They’re all real.”
Let me clear some issues at the outset. This is a wonderful book, by far the most sophisticated study to date on Mingus, and although it is theory heavy, it is both clearly written and a joy to read. The author has also worked through little-known archival material, so there is much that even the most jaded Mingusphile (like myself!) will learn about Mingus, and his inner circle. The author is a self-confessed lover of Mingus, who like so many, was and continues to be entranced by his music. I myself am a Mingus completest, who taught himself to play the trumpet listening to recordings of Mingus, who owes test-pressing of his records, and did not sleep until I was able to find every concert of the 1964 Europe tour on bootleg vinyl! I share the author’s enthusiasms, and often find myself almost blinded by Mingus’ overflowing creativity.
Why does this matter? Because like everyone who holds an artist in high esteem, particularly artists we do not know personally, we construct an imaginary persona for this artist. Acting almost like a playwright, we have a fictional idealization of such hallowed artists who we can conjure up to perform for us imaginatively at our will, and certainly do so every time we chose to listen to their music. And so Rustin-Paschal (RP), starting with her “inner” performing Mingus, constructs a Mingus whose less savory features are shown to be themselves performances of what she calls “jazzmasculinity”.
This may sound like the preface to an indictment or criticism of this method, an argument that it is somehow tainted at the outset. And while I will have some reason to query aspects of RP’s Mingus, to read my comment this way is to miss the point. We all operate with such an imaginary performing Mingus (a point implicit in RP’s whole approach). In the end, so I will argue, the great value of this book is not grounded fundamentally in whether or not you accept the author’s nuanced reconstruction of Mingus’ life-long performance (and it is for me persuasive, if not perfectly so), but in the way it draws your attention to interrogating your own role as an observer of and contributor to the performance, the ways in which it asks you to consider your own intersectional positionality in passing judgment on Mingus’ positionality. If we are all like cognitive playwrights constructing our own imaginary Mingus, who then go on to often both love and hate our construction—how does our own relationship to the constellation of pressures that entered into the construction of the actual Mingus—pressures related to issues of race, gender, class, power, culture, colonialism, let alone our own relationship to jazz and other musics, enter into how we imagine Mingus to be? To what degree, and precisely how, are we indicted in our very own indictments of Mingus? Drawing our attention to this is, I think, the greatest strength of this book. And this is a strength that only revealed itself to me slowly. I found myself disagreeing with what I first saw as the author excusing aspects of Mingus’ “bad behavior”. I then realized that at least two performances were at play here—that of Mingus himself (which suggests asking, as the author does, what really is the status of some of the more prurient episodes found in Mingus’ autobiography), and that of my own responses to them. So the feminist-positive person and theorist in me wants to condemn Mingus for his many misogynist acts, the pacifist in me want to condemn his other acts of violence, and so on. But what informs my own role as judge and jury of someone I did not know, of someone who is, in effect, a product of my own imagination, and who is the author of so much art I love, and seemingly of so many actions I loathe? I have a far richer understanding both of the mechanics behind my judgments and how and why I might interrogate them, having read this book. For this I am truly thankful—and disagreements on this and that should be read against this fact.
The book is divided into an introduction and five chapters, but it is the introduction and the first chapter, concerning Mingus’ autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, that set the stage, and reveal most clearly the author’s attitude towards Mingus and his legacy. BU is many things, but a conventional jazz autobiography it is not. Its narrative structure is complex, it lacks the usual year-by-year exposition of the author’s artistic activities and development, and it at times (as RP clearly establishes) occupies an unstable liminal between fact and fiction—indeed it can be profitably read as an interrogation of this very division. Additionally, its constant destabilization of a perspective from which a reader can relate to the narrative is forcefully argued by RP to be Mingus’ intent—the outrageousness of the many tales told (and there are many such tales) is meant to force a reader to examine their reactions to them, in particular the degree to which the outrage and pity that reading Beneath the Underdog often elicits in readers may be a product of (usually) white male assumptions about the reality, subjectivity and possibilities open to a black jazzman. The two most common generic responses to Beneath the Underdog, “I told you so!”, or “Oh my God!” are each demonstrated to be deeply flawed, and in particular to be due to a failure of imagination on the part of readers to allow for a black jazzman to conduct a literary exercise any more sophisticated and self-aware than a form of pornographic journalism. “I told you so!” is a product of bringing to the text preconceived ideas of what black masculinity is, and how a jazzman is often constructed as an extreme paradigm of this set of preconceptions—hypersexualized, emotional, angry, powerful, artistic, driven. Is there any surprise that this list sounds like a standard description of Mingus? “Oh my God!” is a product of taking an naïve view of what it is Mingus is trying to accomplish in writing BTU, (which RP argues is itself a virtuoso performance) akin to holding in contempt Laurence Olivier after witnessing him performing as Othello.
RP’s cumulative argument for this is subtle, and unfolds throughout chapter one and in subsequent chapters. Accordingly, it instilled in me moments where I was uncertain precisely what claim is being made. Let me note those moments, and then go on to say why I think they really do not matter, for they themselves miss what is I think is the even deeper moral to draw from this book.
The heart of RP’s claim is that Mingus’ autobiography is a conscious performative act, and simultaneously an honest self-assessment of his often contradictory relationships to race, gender, power and the jazz industry—all to a large part determined by, on the one hand, the multiple forms of oppression he faced, and on the other by his unwavering commitment to his art, and his steadfast belief that the production of honest music, music truly capable of transmitting his subjectivity and speaking truth to assorted powers, may often require actions best seen as difficult, unwarranted, or worse. At another level of analysis, RP argues that Mingus is well aware that the roles he felt he was almost predetermined to play in life were to a large degree a product of white male typecasting of him and other jazz men, and so his narrative in BU simultaneously unstablizes this typecasting and reinforces it (particularly for those unable to read the critique inherent in the text).
In the end, the careful reader is to conclude that the more extreme episodes found in BU, acts of sexual excess, misogyny, violence and other forms of dangerous and harmful behavior, are not so much reportage, but farce. Now here is where I find myself a bit unsure of how to take this message, for the performance that BU is, is also mimicked, according to RP, by his actual life—the three Mingus’ each drawing from different scripts, so to speak, and each, in effect a product of Mingus’ commitment to his art, and society’s commitment, so to speak, to allowing black male artists very few ways of developing and expressing their subjectivity. What now happens to moral judgments we might make, of Mingus, or others? I am uncertain what RP takes to be fact vs. fiction from amongst the assorted tales of Mingus’ excesses. We know from multiple sources, for example, of his violent outbursts against other musicians, and RP herself does not deny his (however brief) pimping. I am not certain how viewing these as performances should change the attitude I take towards them. If all that one does is a performance, this seems to, from a moral/ethical perspective, reduce to the same claim as if nothing is. And if such performances were strongly determined by simply being a jazzman, what should we make of the fact that not all jazzmen got in knife fights with their peers, or slugged them, or (seemingly) glorified pimping, or freely used homophobic language? Are we to take it that these actual acts were, as committed, also intended to be meta-commentaries, so to speak, on the jazzman and the external forces that largely determine their subjectivity? I am not sure how such an argument would be fully unpacked.
And so we find a number of claims whose (inter)relationship is at times hard to glean. “Mingus’ representation of masculinity shows an unrelenting struggle between self-hate and anger, between passivity and aggression, between self-love and disgust” . Taken on its own such a claim suggests opposing forces at play, all of which are (partially) constitutive of Mingus’ own subjectivity, his (true?) self. Yet we are also told that the crucial mistake critics of BU made was to “take Mingus’ narrative as a literal performance instead of as a farce,”  due to such critics “investment in conventional narratives of subjectivity, music and race,”  and their “inability to conceptualize a musician questioning his blackness as an authoritative interrogation of jazz culture” . These claims suggest not so much that Mingus’ assorted ways of “acting” masculinity are a product of complex and competing “internal” forces, but are conscious performative gambits played out in response to, and in commentary on, the ways white culture at large constructs and receives his subjectivity. But what now to make of the precise manner in which Mingus’ performed jazzmasculinity, as opposed to that of other jazzmen? Perhaps this is not a question the author wants to address, but at times her love of Mingus suggests she may not be so much explaining Mingus’ lived performance, but explaining it away. So we are told that, “the pimp’s alienation is the only way to be successful in a culture that devalues traits associated with the expression of love.” . This reads not such much as an explanation of why Mingus’ self-narrative (much to the chagrin and confusion of many critics, as the author forcefully and convincing demonstrates) draws upon and glorifies the pimp, but as a fact of the matter. And if this is so, why did not all jazzmen glorify the pimp? (It may be worth noting that the subtle discussion of the pimp and his relationship to constructions of black male subjectivity found here avoids entirely any discussion of a pimp’s role in the stultifying and violent construction of female identity.) We are also told that, “After Mingus marries, the depth of his feeling for his wife Barbara provides an insufficient counter to his ambitious musical desires and sexual appetites” . Indeed Mingus draws this conclusion in BU, and the author unpacks the conflicting pulls here in a convincing and sophisticated way, but again this statement reads a bit like a “get out of jail free” card for Mingus’ behavior—others have had strong libidos and ambitious music desires that manifested in distinct behaviors.
I make the above observations not as criticism, but for twofold reasons: first, I suspect readers may draw similar conclusions, and second, RP is not so much engaged in judging Mingus as a man as much as she is interested in revealing how Mingus himself was engaged in repeated performances critiquing how we judge him and the jazzmasculinity of others. To draw conclusions about the moral stance Mingus may have taken at various times in his life is far less central to the author’s project then is interrogating the motivations and positionality of the judge/critic. And here she succeeds wonderfully. Let me use myself as an example: I have had a now 35-year-long love of Mingus’ music, I own all of it, and know the existing literature on Mingus inside and out. I am also a white cis-male jazz scholar who, in virtue of this fact, and amplified by my assorted academic positions and qualifications, is taken to speak with authority on jazz matters. This books induced in me a long series of introspections concerning the assumptions I have made about Mingus’ subjectivity, the legitimacy from which I pass judgments, be they moral or aesthetic, on Mingus and others, the ways I foreground concerns, say, about gender over race in some situations, and the reverse in others, and how my theoretical commitments to intersectionality may fail to inform my “gut” reactions to performances of jazzmasculinity. I found myself in the very position Mingus was in and describes in the opening of BU—there is me the lover of Mingus’ music, there is me the cautious scholar and critic of jazz practices and the way they both constitute and reflect greater social practices, and there is me, the hateful judge of Mingus’ moral worth. Mingus’ honesty (a theme the author foregrounds throughout the book) in describing his seemingly fractured self, in admitting to his conflicting and less than admirable tendencies, Mingus’ life-long practice of encoding this honesty sonically, is an invitation for us to do the same, to practice such acts of introspection, to ask ourselves, “What sort of (person) Am I?”
Subsequent chapters trace these themes through different periods of Mingus’ life, and expand the concept of jazzmasculinity beyond Mingus, and into his sphere of influence. Chapter two is a detailed study of Mingus’ upbringing in L.A., and the ways in which race politics (both personal and institutional) and the development and precise trajectory of Mingus’ sexuality and musical genus interacted so as to inform many of the “biographical” decisions he made that those familiar with the outlines of Mingus’ career may well be familiar with, but have gone generally under-theorized. There are particularly revealing discussions of his tenure in the Red Norvo Trio, and the infamous Town Hall Concert.
The third chapter addresses the role of women’s labor—the ways women can perform jazzmasculinity—in the jazz industry. In particular it considers the crucial role Mingus’ second wife, Celia, played in the creation, growth and management of Debut Records, founded by Mingus and Max Roach. This chapter adds to the growing literature on women in jazz, and extends those discussions, which have focused to date almost exclusively on women musicians and related performers. As we know from the pioneering work of scholars such as Sherrie Tucker and Lisa Barg women in jazz were also forced to inhabit multiple, and perhaps contradictory selves—they were expected to play the traditional role of women, from sewing band costumes and looking after ill band-mates (and other forms of emotional labor), yet to equally perform jazzmasculinity in order to receive respect from band mates, and acceptance from predominately male audiences (who, of course, were also not adverse to the exposure of skin, and a “come hither” smile). The author expands this discussion of female performances of jazz masculinity in a discussion of Hazel Scott, who recorded for Debut, and was both lauded and vilified for her jazz masculinity. Together these two chapters push forward the important work on women in jazz that the last 20 odd years has produced, and deepen our understanding of, on the one hand, the often invisible roles such women played (and continue to play), and on the other the complex social and political entanglements such work operated within.
Concerning Hazel Scott, who recorded for Debut, RP asks the interesting question, “how is jazzmasculinity articulated as a moment of becoming or recognition for women?” . By arguing that women can, and often must, perform jazzmasculinity to, among other things, respond to their marginalization within the masculine jazz world, RP thickens existing accounts of women in jazz. What is particularly interesting is RP’s discussion of how the infamous “Hazel Scott Incident” reveals how Scott’s jazzmasculinity relates to issues of the nature of American democracy, and the uneasy relationship blacks had (and continue to have) to this theoretically firm yet actually amorphous institution. In this sense, this chapter can be seen as adding to the territory opened up by Ingrid Monson in her Freedom Sounds.
The book ends with a discussion of how Mingus performed his jazzmasculinity in the light of his declining physical health near the end of his life, unable to perform, and limited to a wheel chair. RP offers a theoretically richer account of Mingus’ relationship with Joni Mitchell than that usually on offer, particularly since she focuses on Mingus’ subjectivity in this relationship, rather than Mitchell’s, as is normally the case.
At the very end of the book we read the following:
Mingus’ declaration of a fractured self in Beneath the Underdog was a demand that he be seen as a multilayered personality with conflicting ambitions and desires. To express his love of the music and the people within it, he expressed his disappointment, his rage, and his humor. Mingus challenged himself, as he challenged others, to tell the truth even if it damaged his own relationships, because he valued the idea that only through honest expression could he accurately and creatively make music that was saying something. His insistence on truth-telling regularly got him into trouble—whether it was having to pay for physically assaulting a valued collaborator, losing professional opportunities, or failing at relationships. Nevertheless, we can admire his tenacity and clarity of vision. [170-171]
This passage neatly sums up the overarching theme of the book, and upon first reading it, made me slightly queasy. Does truth telling and honesty necessarily demand assaulting your friends, and creating toxic sexual relationships? The rigor of RP’s argumentation, the clarity of her writing, her deep knowledge of her subject, and her love of Mingus has tempered my initial reluctance to buy into this account. And while I still have residual doubts, The Kind of Man I Am has succeeded in a related, and more important way, for now I see how to more honestly interrogate my own relationship to Mingus’ subjectivity and the judgements upon it that I make. For a book to accomplish this, all I can exclaim is “Oh Yeah!”
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