The idea here is to pick a work of literature just waiting to be filmed, and pick the filmmaker who should do it. The first pick was David Cronenberg for a Junichiro Tanizaki novella. Today’s pick is . . .
SPIKE LEE: Beneath the Underdog: His World As Composed By Mingus, by Charles Mingus.
“Stormy” is a word frequently used to describe jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979); it also applies to his 1971 stream-of-consciousness memoir, which is literary equivalent to one of his more ambitious compositions. Just as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” alternates swinging passages of hard bop with chaotic free jazz interludes, Beneath the Underdog staggers through long rants and digressions, sometimes alternating passages of brilliant clarity with tedious accounts of sexual exploits and random digressions. As a factual account of a man’s life, Beneath the Underdog is at best dubious, but as a record of the thoughts and preoccupations of one of America’s greatest composers, it’s fascinating.
I don’t think a direct film adaptation of Beneath the Underdog is possible or even advisable, but the book would be a fine springboard for a biographical film about the man. After training up in the Forties with touring groups under Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Kid Ory in the Forties, Mingus emerged as a bandleader in the Fifties, forming a very loose, ever-shifting collection of musicians he called the Jazz Workshop. His career bridged the commercial decline of the big jazz bands and the rise of the boppers, just as his life spanned the overwhelming transformations of the civil rights era. As Brian Priestley notes in his 1982 critical biography (still the best and most reliable work on the composer), Mingus was part of “the generation which came to maturity during and immediately after World War II, and which was no longer content to adopt either the seeming subservience of a Louis Armstrong or the sophisticated scorn of a Duke Ellington.” His rage over the slights dealt to him as a black man, combined with his readiness to joust with record companies and the music industry at large, often made Mingus a menace to his own career, as when he blew his chance to play in the orchestra of his composing idol, Duke Ellington. The account Mingus gives in Beneath the Underdog is self-serving, but the pain and humiliation of the setback is all there on the page:
This is the hero and this is the band you don’t quit, but this time you’re asked to leave because of an incident with a trombone player and arranger named Juan Tizol. Tizol wants you to play a solo he’s written where bowing is required. You raise the solo an octave, where the bass isn’t too muddy. He doesn’t like that and he comes to the room under the stage where you’re practicing at intermission and comments that you’re like the rest of the niggers in the band, you can’t read. You ask Juan how he’s different from the other niggers and he states that one of the ways that he is different is that HE IS WHITE. So you run his ass upstairs. You leave the rehearsal room and proceed toward the stage with your bass and take your place and at the moment Duke brings down the baton for “A-Train” and the curtain of the Apollo Theatre goes up, a yelling, whooping Tizol rushes out and lunges at you with a bolo knife. The rest you remember mostly from Duke’s own words in his dressing room as he changes after the show.
“Now, Charles,” he says, looking amused, putting Cartier links into the cuffs of his beautiful handmade shirt, “you could have forewarned me — you left me out of the act entirely! At least you could have let me cue in a few chords as you ran through that Nijinsky routine. I congratulate you on your performance, but why didn’t you and Juan inform me about the adagio you planned so that we could score it? I must say I never saw a large man so agile — I never saw anybody make such tremendous leaps! The gambado over the piano carrying your bass was colossal. When you exited after that I thought, ‘That man’s really afraid of Juan’s knife and at the speed he’s going he’s probably home in bed by now.’ But no, back you came through the same door with your bass still intact. For a moment I was hopeful you’d decided to sit down and play bu instead you slashed Juan’s chair in two with a fire axe! Really, Charles, that’s destructive. Everybody knows Juan has a knife but nobody ever took it seriously — he likes to pull it out and show it to people, you understand. So I’m afraid, Charles — I’ve never fired anybody — you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem, I can cope with that, but you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice, Mingus.”
The charming way he says it, it’s like he’s paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign.
There are at least three reasons why Spike Lee should tackle a film about Charles Mingus. Lee’s filmic biography of Malcolm X is one of his best works, and I’d like to see him return to the jazz milieu he explored in Mo Better Blues. Most of all, Lee would be unflinching about the ways racism distorted Mingus’ life and career. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s biography of Charlie Parker, Bird, which offered viewers some comic relief by devoting lots of screen time to Parker’s 1949 tour with Red Rodney — during which Parker presented Rodney, a white man, as “Albino Red” — Lee’s film would be gutsy enough to keep the racial theme as uncomfortable as possible. And there’s no question that the splendor of the composer’s music guarantees a monster of a soundtrack .
Laugh if you will, but I can picture Ice Cube playing Mingus. The rapper is a better actor than he gets credit for — his multilayered performance as Doughboy is the main reason anyone remembers Boyz N The Hood — and his glowering presence is a close match for Mingus at his most forbidding.