Now that Houston has become, however fleetingly, a good jazz town, with more live jazz available on a Tuesday night than on a Saturday of even one year ago, the Rice Media Center's weekend of documentaries on Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon is very welcome. After seeing Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog and Dexter Gordon: More Than You Know, you'll be able to dazzle your Sambuca companions with your musical smarts. If you can get that martini away from your lips long enough to talk, that is.
Both films were made by veteran music documentarian Don McGlynn. Mingus is the more compelling of the two. Triumph of the Underdog opens with a black-and-white shot of Mingus slouching along an urban avenue while his voice-over describes one of the many elemental problems that plagued his life: "Too white to be black," he muses. "Too black to be white."
Born in Arizona, the illicit son of a Scandinavian farm maid and a black field hand, Mingus grew up acutely aware of his outsider status in both the black and white camps. As Sue Mingus, one of the two Mingus wives interviewed here, says, "He was a misfit, in a no man's land of his own." But he didn't shy away from being different. He embraced his destiny, difficult as it was, and as a very young man studied both Duke Ellington and Arnold Schoenberg. That is, he embraced the European classical avant-garde and black American classicism. As composer/conductor Gunter Schuller, one of the film's many commentators, points out, Mingus was studying Schoenberg back when that most difficult composer was virtually unknown in the United States.
So when Mingus entered the world of jazz, he brought a good deal of 19th- and 20th-century classical music with him. A proud man, quick to take offense, Mingus didn't much care for being called a "jazz" musician. " 'Jazz' is like saying 'nigger,' " he told one interviewer. "Just call it American music."
McGlynn works by presenting interviews with Mingus, and a multitude of other musicians, made at the time he was working, as well as in the '80s and '90s, looking back in retrospect. With the music often sobbing, wailing and singing in the background, the film gives us a complex, multifaceted look at a tormented but utterly compelling genius. It shows him both triumphant and down-and-out. In the late '60s, with pop music ruling the day, Mingus gave up music and apparently suffered a breakdown. He became a working photographer then lost that job to his explosive temper and was finally evicted from his apartment. The eviction was captured by a filmmaker, and the sight of Mingus's tattered furniture set out on the sidewalk and the great man being forced out of his digs makes for a heartbreaking scene.
But an invitation to sit in with Duke Ellington and play one of his own compositions reignited Mingus's passion for music, and as the film recounts, during the few years remaining to him, he composed and performed with great passion and style, until disease claimed him in the late '70s.
The film ends on a high note: the performance, ten years after Mingus's death, of his monumental "Epitaph," the jazz symphony he had locked away after a single, terrible, under-rehearsed performance in the early '60s. Wynton Marsalis is one of the players on Epitaph's grand repremiere in Lincoln Center. He gives his trademark wry laugh, and his equally trademark understatement, when he admits that the music is "really hard to play."
The film is fascinating on many levels, not the least of which is the sight of his two nearly identical wives. At first I thought the younger wife, Sue, might be the older woman's daughter. Mingus inspired so much respect, and perhaps awe, in both women that they refer to him as "Mingus" throughout. He only becomes "Charles" when Sue remembers his death. The older wife remembers waking up beside him in the middle of the night, only to find him running his fingers over her in his sleep, playing her like a standup bass.
"I never got that," the younger woman says, sounding a little hurt. "Maybe you're a sound sleeper," her predecessor answers helpfully.
More Than You Know is also worth a look, if only for the incredibly soulful presence of Dexter Gordon and the moments when he's playing his rich, lovely tenor sax. But the story told here lacks the majesty and insight of the Mingus film. More Than You Know ends with Gordon's screen test for the lead in Round Midnight, and it was good to be reminded of his powerful performance in that Bertrand Tavernier film.
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Come to think of it, though, Round Midnight makes More Than You Know feel a bit superfluous. Happily, the Rice Media Center will also be screening Round Midnight over the weekend.
So when you go to the Rice for some jazz this weekend, make it the Rice Media Center. You can't get a Saturday-night seat at Sambuca, anyway.
Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog.
Dexter Gordon: More Than You Know. Documentaries directed by Don McGlynn.
Both screen Friday and Saturday, February 12 and 13, at the Rice Media Center, entrance no. 8 off University, (713)527-4853.