Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog

Director Don McGlynn, who has directed documentaries about such American musical icons as Art Pepper, the Mills Brothers and Spike Jones, has given us a rich and many layered story with Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog. The documentary is grainy, as was Mingus (1922-1979) himself: a tangled, mercurial and often misunderstood musical genius who is known today primarily as a seminal bass player, but whose compositions are the primary focus of this film.

You won’t leave the theater whistling. You don’t hum back a Mingus tune. The music is exciting but convoluted, and may be beyond the attention span of many film audiences. But you cannot help reacting sympathetically to Mingus himself, a photogenic, funny, and hard-hitting man who always told it, and played it, as he saw it.

The documentary opens with a close-up of Mingus playing bass as a tuba player arrives late to the gig. The look Mingus gives this man, as he tries to sneak in and get set up in a hurry, is a classic. We know right away that Charles Mingus is not a man to fool around with. In case we weren’t sure, next we hear Mingus’s version of Shortenin’ Bread:

Mingus was always a misfit. He had the fortune, or misfortune, to be forever between worlds: part black, Swedish, Chinese and German. He grew up in Watts and turned to music as a release. A gifted bassist, he was also an intellectual. In the 1930s he was studying the classics, not only Bach but also the avant-garde Schoenberg, father of the 12-tone scale. Mingus’s idol was Duke Ellington, and he played for awhile in Ellington’s band. We hear the story of how saxophonist Juan Tizol and Mingus got into a fight and Duke was forced to fire Mingus. He then hooked up with saxophonist Eric Dolphy (there is fabulous footage of Dolphy and Mingus playing duets), and we see how he was shattered at Dolphy’s sudden death (unexplained here) in Germany.

We also experience first-hand one of the eternal themes of art: the unrecognized masterpiece. Mingus’s jazz symphony, Epitaph, was a complete disaster the one and only time it was ever performed in his lifetime. But after Mingus’s death, the score to Epitaph was rediscovered, and his longtime associate Gunther Schuller put together an all-star orchestra to play this very demanding piece of music. As trumpeter Wynton Marsalis puts it, "You’ll find Epitaph in the Etude Book, under Hard." The concert, at New York’s Town Hall in 1989, was a triumph, if ten years too late for Charles Mingus to enjoy it.

There are interesting comments and interviews with Mingus’s two wives, Celia Mingus Zaentz and Sue Mingus (who refer to their late husband only as "Mingus," no nicknames, not even Charlie or Charles), as well as with one of his sons, Dorian Mingus. There is a wealth of wonderful performances of Mingus tunes by jazz luminaries such as Charlie Parker, Clifford Jordan, Gerry Mulligan, Lionel Hampton, Bud Powell and Duke Ellington.

But above all there is the sense of this man’s life. McGlynn has not put a gloss on it. We feel all the components of the music, particularly in the wonderful footage of the Epitaph Concert. Listening to this abstract but spellbinding work we understand better some of what Charles Mingus was trying to say. This segment alone is worth the price of admission to the film.

McGlynn’s documentary captures beautifully the complex and cryptic nature that at times nurtured and other times overcame Mingus. But the music survives. That’s what the world will remember.

– DAK