Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Beneath the Underdog
In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the forced desegregation of Little Rock Central High this week, I had my students in the writing class I teach for music majors read an excerpt from Charles Mingus’s sui generis memoir, Beneath the Underdog, first published in 1971 (Mingus had memorialized the bigotry of Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus, to whom Louis Armstrong had referred in the press as an “uneducated plow boy,” in his famous tune “Fables of Faubus,” whose snide, insinuating opening riff is recognizable to jazz fans everywhere). It was actually very hard to find an appropriate passage to read in class; the book is indescribably obscene, and is full of exaggerations and outright lies, such as Mingus’s claim that he pimped his wives and girlfriends. I especially wanted the class to read Mingus’s exegesis of his own playing and compositional styles, but couldn’t find anything except a brief excerpt toward the end of the book, in a scene where he’s just been released from Bellevue and is playing a club date. Mingus uses the foil of a British interviewer coming over to his table, where he’s flirting between sets with the woman who will become his umpteenth wife, to expound for a page or so on his musical philosophy of “rotary perception,” an aesthetic borrowed from Eastern spiritual systems and also owing something, no doubt, to his drug use and mental illness. For all of its madness, offensiveness, absurdity, and ultimate disappointment, Beneath the Underdog is one of my favorite books in the whole world, written by a truly erudite and brilliant artist, one of the many in jazz who became victims of their own genius, and of their internalization of racial prejudice. Jazz in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s devoured its young.