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Charles Mingus

One of the most important figures in twentieth century American music, Charles Mingus was a virtuoso bass player, accomplished pianist, bandleader, and composer.


"A wild, lyrical, and anguished autobiography, in which Charles Mingus pays short shrift to the facts but plunges to the very bottom of his psyche, coming up for air only when it pleases him. He takes the reader through his childhood in Watts, his musical education by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, and his prodigious appetites -- intellectual, culinary, and sexual. The book is a jumble, but a glorious one, by a certified American genius."

– Vintage / Anchor

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Beneath the Underdog

On Writing and Jazz


Quite often I re-visit books I’ve enjoyed as a younger man to make sure they “hold up,” and almost every time, on each subsequent pass, I discover new levels of emotion elicited by the works. They hold up, all right. Re-reading Charles Mingus’s mercurial, non-linear autobiography Beneath the Underdog has once again left me melancholic for what once could have been. Beware brothers and sistahs: I’m about ready to get soft on you: I love writing — I make a decent living working at it . . . but more than anything I adore playing Jazz.

I mean Jazz Jazz. . . . “Jass,” as some, more naughty New Orleans bateristas used to sheepishly write on their gargantuan bass drums at the turn of the 20th century, while they swung hard both rhythm and bottle. Jazz, brothers and sistahs, amen! Not the “smooth” bullshit that now passes for this once pure, most original American jambalaya of blues, race, sex, whisky, and pimp life. Not Najee jazz. Not Kenny G jazz. Jazz! Specifically Modal Jazz. And Hard Bop.  And Bebop. You know the kind: Dizzy and Miles and Coltrane and Dolphy and Mingus and Monk and Bird played it. Invented it. Perfected it. The Jazz that evolved in the mid ’50s from the original Fathers (Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Oliver, Bechet, Armstrong) but that, for unfortunate reasons, stopped resonating with American audiences somewhere around 1965.

Before I came to realize I would write for a living, I was convinced I would work as a musician; a drummer, to be more specific. And I was on the right path, too: early lessons in percussion and the kit, sight reading, music theory / history. But back then (age 11) it was rock music that muscled its way in and brainwashed the grey matter. I came to understand Modal Jazz and Hard Bop much, much later than a trained, wannabe-working musician ought to have. And so rock music diverted my attention and, I feel, made me miss my Jazz train (‘Trane?). Sure, I played rock / pop music in some cool, local (Washington D.C. / Baltimore) venues (even toured the east coast for a short time) and had a bit of fun for a handful of years, but my regret of not having come to study Jazz sooner persists and haunts me to this day. I coulda been a contender. I coulda swung with the best of ’em: Rich, Krupa, Morello, Webb, Blakey.

It’s all right, don’t feel sorry for my shattered dreams (I’m quite adept at self pity as you can see); in a way it’s a very good thing. The realization that I’d never be Max Roach provided for a seamless transition to a life built upon writing. After all, I had been an avid reader since age 5 or 6 — a positive byproduct of being an only child growing up in Communist-era Romania throughout the ’70s.

But (fiction) writing and Jazz are such diametrically-opposed ways to make art . . . at least for me. Whereas one requires relative silence, isolation, a solitary chunk of time during which the (this?) writer flirts with addiction, madness, and descent into one of Dante’s various circles (or temporary residence in any Hieronymus Bosch painting), the other is an uplifting, instantaneous experience of an improvised, running dialogue with your fellow artists: intuitive phrasing, call and response, blue notes, prosody . . . an immediate validation or rejection of that which you have just created. Listen, you gotta have giant balls to get up on that stage night after night, play something different every time, while being instantly judged by your peers and audience. Yessir, you can’t hide your shortcomings or mediocrity behind pseudonyms or the relative anonymity of the Internet. You’re out there hanging yourself out to dry. And you better deliver. Every night. Now that’s bollocks and tough-as-titanium skin, mates. That being said, both processes necessary for writing and music improv are extremely attractive to me.  They’re the yin yang in my life. I crave to experience both. I am selfish, I know.

Writing well, and sustaining that brilliant level for the duration of a novel is ambitious and challenging for me. A full time job, marriage, fatherhood, mixed in with the daily, soul-grinding details of life that infringe upon that elusive chunk of quality time, make the craft of writing sacred, but at the same time quite fractious. I envy those lucky scribes who have somehow stumbled upon those oases of temporal nirvana, and who can afford to, as Gertrude Stein once said, fuck about for 23 hours a day, in order that they may write for that particular one. OK, I paraphrased that. But you get the point of my coveting.

Truth is, for me, writing has always come in sudden and sometimes unexpected spurts. I’ve never truly had the luxury to cogitate and compose for too long, and so, like an infantry grunt, I’ve remained vigilant and prepared myself with Moleskine (given my financial state) and pen for those magical times “it” hits me. Consequently, I’ve written just about anywhere you can imagine — including more than a few men’s room stalls in federal and state buildings’ washrooms. I am proud of those venues, all of them. They’re like constant boot camp. They are Sergeant Hartman on your ass, relentlessly.

Lately I write strictly on a computer, as it seems there is a machine available no matter where I am. Between laptops, desktops, iPads, and even their smaller cousin iPods (which I mainly use to take notes or jot down ideas), I have nearly full time access to writing. I know, I am lucky. I don’t take that for granted. But I cannot say that during those dog days of emergent technology when I wrote with stubs of broken #2 pencils in ruffled notebooks on packed subway trains, writing was necessarily more dynamic or more “legit.” That would just be me romanticizing things. And if you know me, you’re laughing uncontrollably now. What I am trying to say: the computer hasn’t mechanized or destroyed my creativity; it hasn’t taken away the humanity or emotional dynamics of my writing.  Nor have the inconsistent settings or the venues, although lately I’ve settled in a comfy enclave tucked into a corner of my bedroom, by a window overlooking some really nice oak trees.

I like the idea of incorporating Modal Jazz techniques into the process of writing prose. That is to say, I enjoy improvisation, particularly of dialogue, within a larger framework or mode, rather than plot twists and turns, or devices as the framework itself. Nowadays, most of the dialogue I write, particularly in my short stories, I don’t edit. Dig what Jackson Pollock said to interviewer William Wright in 1950: “I don’t use the accident. I deny the accident. I do have a general notion of what I’m about and what the results will be. I approach painting in the same sense as one approaches drawing, that is, it’s direct.”

I wrote my book Short Lean Cuts in the same manner, and the prose is experimental; short sentences and fragments, meant to be very much like improvised solos — crescendos and diminuendos — exploring  a particular mode in rhythmically and melodically varied ways. The mode is the chapter. And in a greater sense, the chapters themselves further act like solos within the mode (the theme) of the entire book. I know it may sound pretentious, but it’s not meant to be. The book is an experiment; a fusion of my love for Jazz and literature.

In Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus is often all over the place, but not without losing that most important thread: his humanity. His account is not linear, it’s at times ugly, utterly personal, and by no means a simple factual narrative like you would expect. It’s a work of art. It’s deranged. And it’s so beautiful.

They both are — writing . . . and Jazz.

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  1. Bri Lee said on 12/05/11 at 2:07 am Reply

    Ah! This is brilliant! The whole thing.

    Especially the part about the difference between creating Jazz and writing. That was great. I feel like writing sits in opposition to a lot of other passions in people’s lives. It’s so consuming and selfish and it just doesn’t play well with others. Then to talk about getting the Jazz into your writing… well, very clever, Sir. Excellent indeed.

    Also makes me want to read this book. So thumbs up on that front, too.


  2. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 12/05/11 at 10:01 am Reply

    Thanks Bri. Yes, the book….it’s a fascinating look inside this most complicated man. Definitely worth a read. Definitely.


  3. Jordan Blum said on 12/06/11 at 10:30 pm Reply

    Alex, this is quite an interesting post, and as you can guess, I really relate to it (being a writer, musician, and music writer, ha-ha). I can’t say that I have adoration for jazz, though, as I actually find a lot of jazz to be too similar (although I appreciate it for its rhythms, time changes, timbres, etc). Honestly, the only jazz I like is jazz fusion, like with King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Chick Corea/Return to Forever. Anyway…

    I also always dreamed of being a musician, and I do record my own stuff; it’s gone as far as Myspace ha-ha (which is kind of sad considering that I have contacts with dozens of labels I should probably try to sign with). Still, I try to combine the two passions into one (mentioning music in fiction, phrasing poetry in odd time signatures, etc).

    I also like the idea of writing when the inspiration “hits”; I usually feel bad about not writing when I have a free moment, but why? Why should I force myself to write just to write? I should write when I can’t NOT write (yes, an intentional double negative). Like when I was brushing my teeth last week and literally rushed out to write a flash piece. That was a rare moment.

    And part of it is your idea of having “giant balls,” ha-ha. I don’t write because I’m afraid of being judged, and I don’t let people hear my music for the same reason. It takes guts to put it all out there.

    Finally, I like the connection to jazz and writing, for perhaps jazz is the best genre to compare to writing. Both are built around strict rules (such as the standard 1-4-5 chord progression and repetition/conceptual continuity/reprisal with different keys/terms). Both may seem totally random on the surface while actually operating with a lot of discipline and planning underneath.


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