Gabbard begins this “interpretive biography” by explaining his own interest in Mingus, going back to his teenage years in Charleston, Illinois. It is a fitting starting point, given how thoroughly he demonstrates later in the book that any work is the product of its author’s experiences, values, and worldview, which is as true of Mingus’s life story as it is of Gabbard’s interpretation of it. One key takeaway from Gabbard’s work is that biography is a messy, nonlinear, and heavily mediated process, even when the finished product appears fairly straightforward and tidy. Of course, Mingus’s autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World According to Mingus (New York: Knopf, 1971), is an essential point of reference for any study of Mingus, and thoroughly challenges almost every convention of the typical autobiography. Therefore, in writing a biography of Mingus, Gabbard offers an effective solution to the dilemma whereby a conventional, linear biography does not lend itself to isolating specific issues for detailed discussion, but delving into such specific areas also requires ready reference to a broader biographical context.
For that reason, Gabbard divides this book into four parts. The first is a chronological account of the life of Charles Mingus. The second focuses on Mingus as a writer of both prose and poetry (p. 5), while the third section is a “musical biography” (p. 6) emphasizing Mingus’s participation in the Third Stream movement of the 1950s, which sought to assimilate aspects of jazz and Western art music. Finally, the fourth section details Mingus’s relationships with his closest musical collaborators: Dannie Richmond, Eric Dolphy, and Jimmy Knepper.
In addition to its organizational approach, Gabbard emphasizes that “this book is a new biography of Mingus” (p. 6) owing to the sizeable amount of new material that has emerged on Mingus since the appearance of Gene Santoro’s biography (Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000]). That material includes a wealth of recently published memoirs, [End Page 733] especially the recollections of his widow, Sue Mingus, in Tonight at Noon: A Love Story (New York: Pantheon, 2002), and the audio compact disc The Mingus Sisters Speak (Lacecap Records, 2001), which contains an extensive interview with Mingus’s older sisters. Gabbard’s command of this newly available material, along with other literature and primary sources in archives across the United States, is encyclopedic. He notes that he may have been the first to examine the correspondence between the publisher Alfred A. Knopf and Mingus located at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin that details the behind-the-scenes struggles that culminated in Mingus’s autobiography (p. 7). One gem unearthed by Gabbard rivals Teo Macero’s famous “please advise” memo, regarding Miles Davis’s album title Bitches Brew, in its matter-of-fact tone:
CM [Charles Mingus] believes that true pimps and whores will never come forward and sue anybody for calling them such and maybe he’s right. (It’s not a chance I care to take.)(p. 144)
Context is key throughout Gabbard’s book. The chronological biography, informed by newly available sources and a new examination of archival sources, creates the context for the specific areas that subsequent sections explore. In the second section, Gabbard first positions Mingus as an author on par with other African-American writers such as Ted Joans and Bob Kaufman, and discusses Mingus’s feuds with Amiri Baraka. Gabbard then commences an enlightening discussion, “Mingus Among the Autobiographers,” that places Beneath the Underdog in a continuum of approaches to autobiographies, particularly in jazz (p. 125ff.).
Gabbard makes it clear that Mingus is by no means alone as a self-mythologist; autobiographies are rarely unvarnished confessions but still find a way to fit the traditional “genre with built-in rules demanding a clear narrative arc and a set of incidents illustrating the lessons to be passed on...