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Tymon Smith

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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Footnotes: Charles Mingus

The world would have been a far more interesting place were Charles Mingus Jr, born today in 1922, still around.

One of jazz’s most formidable and influential musicians, Mingus was the composer of seminal songs such as Goodbye Pork Hat, Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and the author of one of the best musical autobiographies, Beneath the Underdog – a stream of consciousness, fabulist account of his life, sexual exploits and thoughts about race and class in 1960s America.

Mingus was as well known for his tantrums as he was for his music – chastising audiences, destroying his bass on stage in response to heckling and fighting on stage with fellow musicians. His career was cut short by the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which affected his bass playing and led to his death on January 5 1979 in Mexico, where he had travelled for treatment.

His final project, a collaborative album he was working on with Joni Mitchell, was released after his death. He was 56 years old.

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Footnotes: James Agee

Today is the centenary of the birth of American author, journalist, poet and film critic James Agee.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and educated at Harvard, Agee started out writing for Fortune and Time magazines.

In 1936, he spent eight weeks living with sharecroppers in Alabama and producing the material for his first book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

In 1942, Agee became the film and book critic for Time before leaving for The Nation, where he wrote some of the most influential film criticism of the period. He worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter on The African Queen and Night of the Hunter.

An alcoholic and chain-smoker, he was on his way to a doctor’s appointment in 1955 when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

A Death in the Family, his autobiographical novel, was published in 1957 and earned him a posthumous Pulitzer in 1958.

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Footnotes: Léopold Sédar Senghor

He lived to the ripe old age of 95, but had he still been alive today would have been the 105th birthday of Léopold Sédar Senghor, poet, cultural theorist and first president of Senegal.

Born in the city of Joal, 100km south of Dakar, Senghor was educated in France and taught there from 1935 to 1945.

It was during this time that he became one of the first proponents, along with other intellectuals from the African diaspora who studied in Paris – such as Aimé Césaire – of the concept of “negritude”, which turned a racist term into a celebration of African culture and became a guiding principle for Senghor’s subsequent political career.

In 1940, while serving in the French army, Senghor was imprisoned by the Nazis. He spent two years in different prison camps, writing poetry, until his release for medical reasons in 1942. He was also involved in the resistance during this time. Upon his return to Senegal, Senghor entered politics and became the first President of the Republic of Senegal on September 5 1960.

He also wrote the country’s national anthem and maintained his office for two decades before resigning in 1980. After becoming the first African to be elected as a member of L’Académie Française in 1983, Senghor lived out the remainder of his life in Verson, France, where he died on December 20 2001.

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Footnotes: Jimi Hendrix

Forty-one years ago today a young man died after choking on his own vomit in a flat in Notting Hill, London. He was 27, born in Seattle and christened Johnny Allen Hendrix.

The world knew him as Jimi, guitar virtuoso and pioneer, rock star, acid head, legend in his own lifetime and beyond. Hendrix still inspires nostalgia and hero worship all over the world as fans debate whether he was the greatest guitarist of all time.

There are plenty of books about Hendrix, who Rolling Stone magazine put at the top of its 100 greatest guitarists of all time list in 2003. Here are a few: Journalist Sharon Lawrence, a friend of Hendrix, wrote her biography Jimi Hendrix: The Man, the Magic, the Truth in 2005, a sympathetic account focusing on his career more than his early life, which makes the claim that Hendrix’s death was a deliberate act “to confront fate”.

Charles R Cross’s excellent biography from 2006, Room Full of Mirrors, made use of never-before-seen documents, letters and extensive interviews to try to unravel the man behind the legend. Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky by poet and Hendrix friend David Henderson was originally published in 1978 and has been regularly updated with new documents, photos and letters.

Last year’s Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius by Steven Roy and Brad Schreiber pays much attention to Hendrix’s discovery of the blues and his stint in the US army.

There’s no denying Hendrix lived an electric life that lives on 41 years later and the world of music has been influenced by him in myriad ways.

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