A traumatic childhood and a dramatic life characterised the career of the bassist Charles Mingus. James Maycock looks at a documentary on a `phenomenal musician and generous bandleader'.

The black-and-white footage has, with age, developed a surreal intensity. It is accompanied by a characteristically ruthless analysis: "I am Charles Mingus. Half-black man. Yellow man. Half-yellow. Not even yellow, nor white enough to pass for nothing but black and not too light enough to be called white."

The words capture the essence of Charlie Mingus, a man who was a musical misfit, and hint at the disgust he reserved for white America. In a documentary, which is to be released as a video, his son confides that he was always reminded by his father, "You are no colour."

Like many black American musicians of this century, his childhood was traumatic. His mother died soon after he was born, and at school in the Los Angeles district of Watts he was constantly lectured by his violent teachers on his mental inferiority.

But Charles Mingus, who has described himself as a "protest cat", refused, from an early age, to be bullied by racists. He once told Nat Hentoff, "In high school I was on the basketball team, but the coach did something I didn't dig and the next day he looked up and saw me practising with the football team." This rage against injustice was in his very blood, and would spill over into his brutally honest, restless music throughout his life.

This engrossing, measured documentary rightly focuses on the music. The director, Don McGlynn, has an affinity with Californian jazz musicians: he was responsible for Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor, and has also just completed a documentary on Dexter Gordon.

This predominantly chronological portrait of Mingus is evocatively constructed, combining rare footage and interviews with musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Gunther Schuller, Jerome Richardson, John Handy, Randy and Michael Brecker, and others who had worked with him.

Don McGlynn has wrung the most out of the existing footage of Charles Mingus. The amount available increased as the musician's fame grew from the late Fifties onwards, but the director has still uncovered some fascinating footage of Charles Mingus performing in the Forties at a jazz venue on Central Avenue, the Los Angeles equivalent of 52nd Street.

There is a tendency for critics to characterise his music and his personality as either explosive and aggressive, or tender and lyrical. But Charles Mingus also explored the areas between these two poles and the documentary succeeds in revealing these less obvious sides of its subject. His wonderful, sometimes wickedly forthright, sense of humour, which produced song titles such as "Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me" runs throughout the documentary. Charles Mingus, who tells an audience, "If you think this is weird, just take a look at yourselves," in one scene, is filmed asking for his microphone to be switched on. With a slightly tired air, he demands, "Turn the fucking mike on," again and again, to hilarious effect.

Don McGlynn has steered the documentary away from the more sensational aspects of Mingus's life to concentrate on his strengths as a phenomenal musician, a generous bandleader and a composer of much complexity. Although this is admirable, two incidents that illustrate Mingus's occasional inability to channel his demons into his music have been rushed through. On one occasion, he was asked to leave Duke Ellington's band after chasing Juan Tizol with an axe across the stage. He was also taken to court by his trombonist, Jimmy Knepper, whom he had punched in the mouth, damaging his embouchure. Despite their almost comic absurdity, these scenes would have demonstrated how terrifying his volcanic eruptions must have been. Even Dizzy Gillespie referred to this darker side of his personality when he prepared for a mock presidential campaign. He jokingly said he would make Charles Mingus the Minister of Peace, because "he'll take a piece of your head faster than anybody I know".

Aside from Charles Mingus himself, the most engaging personalities in the documentary are his two wives, Celia and Sue Mingus, who are wisely interviewed together. They construct a sensitive and intimate portrait of the man who wrote a song for each of them.

Their love for him is tangible, and Celia Mingus even reminisces about how he used to lie in bed plucking at her body as if it were the strings of a double bass. Sue Mingus not only contributes absorbing anecdotes but also provides some rare, touching recordings of Charles Mingus singing into a microphone when he became too paralysed to compose. It was these that Joni Mitchell was to transform into songs. Rare photographs are also shown. The most elegiac, peaceful one is of Sue Mingus scattering her husband's ashes on to the Ganges in 1979.

The final section of the documentary centres on Sue Mingus's awesome determination not to let her husband's music die with him. Having found some sheets of music that he had composed for a large jazz orchestra, Epitaph, a two-hour masterpiece, was eventually performed in New York in 1989. Gunther Schuller conducted the orchestra, which comprised many musicians who had worked with Charles Mingus. In 1991, she formed the Mingus Big Band which still performs every Thursday night at Time Cafe in New York. Their recordings include this year's album, Live In Time, which was nominated for a Grammy award, and next year, Que Viva Mingus, an album exploring Charles Mingus's Latin excursions, will be released. Sue Mingus sweetly admits that these musical projects have helped to lessen her sense of loss.

Charles Mingus's fusion of New Orleans jazz, swing and bop with the blues and gospel music was unmistakable and quite unique. There can be few, if any, jazz musicians who included such jubilant shouts and thunderous handclaps within their music, and were capable of disguising a quintet as an large orchestra.

Don McGlynn has created a lucid, involving film that reveals the sometimes tortured heart of a musical genius. Charles Mingus. Triumph of the Underdog avoids the overtly mythological and stylish mannerism of Bruce Weber's film of Chet Baker, Let's Get Lost, and shares the more affectionate and realistic spirit of A Great Day in Harlem.

`Charles Mingus. Triumph of the Underdog' will be released on video in spring 1998.

mingus moments

The best recordings

1 `Blues and Roots', Atlantic 1960

2 `Pithecanthropus Erectus', Atlantic 1965

3 `The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady', Impulse 1963

4 `Mingus Ah Um', CBS 1959

5 `Oh Yeah', Atlantic 1962

6 `Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus', Candid 1961