Mingus directed by Thomas Reichman in 1968 is a film that is much more than a music documentary about Charles Mingus. It digs deep into what was like to be Black, a genius, broke and living in America in the Sixties.
On the music tip, there’s plenty of terrific footage of Mingus playing that bass. And there’s plenty of substance in Mingus who had an incredible mind and who refused to shut up in the face of a culture designed to keep him in his place or deny him any place at all.
Mingus has been available in segments on YouTube. Here it is in uninterrupted form.
Luckily we have BBC4’s 2009 documentary, 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz to do just that. Produced by documentarian Paul Bernays and UK jazz DJ Jez Nelson, 1959 scrutinizes the impact of Brubeck’s classic Time Out album alongside three others from that year: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’s Ah Um and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come.
The main Brubeck segment starts 12 minutes in, and the doc explores both the racial politics inherent in the Brubeck phenomenon, and the influence of his band’s groundbreaking 1959 tour of the Soviet Bloc, Mideast and South Asia on Time Out. But the whole hour is worth watching, if only for the compelling close-readings of masterpieces like Davis’s iconic “So What,” Coleman’s intense “Lonely Woman,” Mingus’s firey “Fables of Faubus.” The doc’s juxtaposition of Brubeck’s ascendance to Mr. Cool-ness against Coleman’s Cold War-tinged urgency is also a nice touch.
With an interview roster that includes Hal Wilner, Lou Reed, Stanley Crouch, Charlie Haden, Sue Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Nat Hentoff, 1959 offers up some crucial background as to what made Brubeck and his contemporaries what they were.
A few days ago, I posted here about disco singer Monti Rock III, the first queen I ever saw on TV when I was a kid, and I mentioned that he had not really crossed my mind in a very long time… then coincidentally, yesterday, Robert Coddington, Nelson Sullivan’s archivist (who I wrote about here), gave me a copy of a short film by D.A. Pennebaker titled You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You. Who should turn up in this obscurity? Well, Monti Rock III, that’s who, then working as a celebrity hair stylist (he did the bridal party’s hair). A young Richard Alpert (AKA Ram Dass) and jazz great Charles Mingus also turn up in the film.
And Mrs. TImothy Leary? Well, after divorcing the High Priest of LSD—their marriage lasted about a year—the high fashion model then known as Nena von Schlebrügge married Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. Their daughter, actress Uma Thurman, was born in 1970.
Here’s how Pennebaker describes the Leary nuptials:
This movie is something of a mystery. Timothy Leary was getting married to a model named Nena Von Schlebrugge up in Millbrook, New York at the Hitchcock house, where Leary had been carrying on his hallucinogenic revelries for the past year or so after leaving Harvard. It was rumored that this was going to be the wedding of the season, the wedding of Mr. And Mrs. Swing as Cab Calloway put it. Blackwood took me downtown to meet Monte Rock III who was singing at Trudy Heller’s but who was also a very pricey and off-the-wall hairdresser and was in fact going to be doing the bride’s hair. Nena’s brother, Bjorn, known as the “Baron” was a friend of the Hitchcock’s, as was I, and the idea of going along and filming the wedding seemed not unwarranted. I’ve always wanted to film someone getting married.
So we drove up in Monte Rock’s ancient Buick, Diane Arbus, an editor from Vogue whose name I can no longer remember, and of course Monte Rock, his fingers covered in rings. Close behind, Proferes and Desmond filmed us as we drove, up the Taconic and through the gates of the Hitchcock mansion.
There were Hitchcocks and friends and relations of Hitchcocks, the Baron and his court, a score of models, and Charles Mingus playing a lonely piano. Even Susan Leary fresh out of jail. It was indeed an amazing wedding, and for all I know, an amazing marriage, although someone later told me it was over before I’d even finished editing the film.
After Nena divorced Leary she married a Tibetan scholar, Dr. Robert Thurman and her daughter Uma is Uma the actress. Dick Alpert became his own guru, Baba Ram Dass and achieved a sainthood of his own. Monte Rock III left Trudy Heller’s and went out to Hollywood and became famous for his line in the John Travolta movie, Saturday Night Fever, when as the disco DJ he exclaims, “I love that polyester look.” Charles Mingus got thrown out of his loft and sadly perished, and in time the Hitchcock house itself burned down, or so I’ve been told. The mystery is that we never filmed anyone actually getting married.
Throughout his all-too-brief 57 years as a composer, conductor and activist, Charles Mingus fell into that category of life commonly defined as “larger than.” You can read about it in the absolutely essential Mingus autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, a book that’s as entertaining as it is sorta, maybe exaggerated.
My random discovery of today, though, serves up another fascinating look at the jazz great. Fresh to YouTube, and otherwise hard to find, it’s Thomas Reichman’s 1968 documentary, Mingus: Charlie Mingus. Part I follows, with links to the rest below: