The music and personality, if not the sources of inspiration, of one of this century’s most eclectic jazz composers are comprehensively nailed in “Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog.” Liberally illustrated with archival footage and musical extracts of varying quality, this docu is tailored more for aficionados than the unconverted, but should find ready exposure on cable and homevideo.
Director Don McGlynn, whose previous subjects have included Art Pepper, Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller and Dexter Gordon, began shooting interviews in 1989, at the time of the N.Y. world premiere of Mingus’ posthumous magnum opus, “Epitaph,” which brought together many of the composer’s colleagues. Production continued fitfully thereafter, with the finished work preeming at this year’s London Film Festival.
McGlynn eschews a linear approach to his subject, with Mingus the man gradually emerging from a patchwork of interviews anchored around thorough testimonies by two of his wives, Celia Mingus Zaentz and co-producer Sue Mingus. Most of the other interviewees are musicians, seen in action in clips.
Though Mingus was known during his lifetime (1922-79) more as a gifted double bassist and bandleader, all pay tribute to his compositional talent, which stretched the range of their instruments and performance skills to the limit. Though Mingus’ personal god was Duke Ellington, his own music was as much a bouillabaisse of influences as his ethnic origins (chiefly black, white and Chinese), and, as one observer opines, was in many respects closer to the work of a composer like Charles Ives (though with “swing”) than most 20th-century jazz.
Docu would have benefited from a more thorough look at the musicological side, here mostly limited to generalizations by conductor Gunther Schuller and some performers. With the cumulative magic of Mingus’ music difficult to convey in short extracts, more scholarly analysis of his techniques and development would have gone a long way to unraveling the conundrum of his style.
The man was another matter. Ornery, prone to baiting people and rejecting any attempts at stereotyping — even abandoning music for a few years in the ’60s — Mingus hardly rated high on social graces. His younger, defining years are only briefly sketched, in a simple description by Zaentz.
Most moving section is at the end, when, after a myriad of shorter extracts from his works, McGlynn finally lets the music do the talking in substantial chunks from the 1989 performance of “Epitaph.” Though never played in full during his lifetime, the work emerges as a powerful summation of a career whose willful disregard for the commonplace seemingly placed him always on the brink of widespread acceptance.