Mingus, Charles (Jr.)

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Mingus, Charles (Jr.)

Mingus, Charles (Jr.), highly influential jazz bassist, leader, pianist, composer; b. on a military base in Nogales, Ariz., April 22, 1922; d. Cuernavaca, Mexico, Jan. 5, 1979. His small groups (he generally had assistance when writing for big bands or orchestras) played with a wild intensity and freedom of expression never reproduced. Most notably, he was the first and still one of the only jazz composers who would have tempo and even meter changes within pieces; this is most dramatically illustrated by listening to the various performances of “Fables of Faubus” from 1959 on. (To this day, most jazz pieces are counted off and then stay at that tempo until the end.)

His bass playing was powerful, accurate, and innovative in his use of various strumming techniques and pedal point. Mingus was also an expressive pianist. A very troubled man, he was known for his dangerous temper—in a famous incident, he punched Jimmy Knepper in the mouth in the early 1960s. He also had his psychiatrist write the notes to his album Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus. He was terrifically witty, as illustrated in the words to “Fable” and to titles such as “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers.” When his fan club from Tokyo came to see him in N.Y. and presented him with a gold cigarette case, he thanked them and said he would now play a song for them entitled “I Remember Pearl Harbor”; they quietly rose and left the club. When Toshiko Akiyoshi played an imitation of Bud Powell rather than finding a unique sound, Mingus slammed the piano lid down on her fingers in the middle of her solo at the Newport Festival (1961). When Clarence Beasley was hired to play piano, Mingus fired him before he even got to solo, even though his whole family flew in from Detroit to see him.

The nephew of Fess Williams, Mingus was reared in the Watts area of Los Angeles. His earliest musical influences came from the church—choir and group singing—and from hearing Duke Ellington over the radio when he was eight. During his high school years, he learned several instruments, studied bass with Red Callender and for five years with Herman Rhein-schagen (principal of the L.A. Philharmonic), as well as composition and classical music with Lloyd Reese. Mingus particularly liked Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. In 1939, he wrote his first concert piece, “Half-Mast Inhibition”; this and several other early works were first recorded in (1960) by a 22-piece orchestra with Gunther Schuller conducting; other compositions appeared on his album Let My Children Hear Music. His early playing experience came with Lee Young (1940), Barney Bigard (1942), Louis Armstrong (1943), Kid Ory (1944), and Lionel Hampton (1947–48). An uncredited arrangement of “Body and Soul,” from a Hampton broadcast, featured a bowed bass that is now known to be by Mingus. He recorded in Calif, as a leader of jazz and R&B groups, often as Baron Mingus. He gained national attention with the Red Norvo Trio (1950–51). In 1952, he settled in N.Y., where he worked with Billy Taylor, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, and Art Tatum. He performed in Bud Powell’s trio in 1953, including regular broadcasts, and in May went with Powell to accompany Parker and Gillespie at the now legendary Massey Hall concert in Toronto; he also recorded the concert and released it (overdubbing his bass which had been underrecorded) as head of his own recording company, Debut Records. He co- founded the “Jazz Workshop,” a group which enabled young composers to have their new works performed in concert and on recordings. He showed an increasing interest in composing and his early works are very classical in sound and style, with a heavy influence of Ellington; he also composed “Open Letter to Duke” in 1959 and arranged several Ellington pieces in 1960. “Revelations,” which combined jazz and classical idioms, premiered at the 1955 Brandeis (Univ.) Festival of the Creative Arts. But on his album Blues and Roots, he talked about becoming aware of the need to always stay grounded in African-American styles. By the late 1950s, he preferred to dictate parts to players for freshness of interpretation and improvisation; he achieved a style that effectively erased the lines between jazz improvisation and notated composition. He worked with various musicians in small combos, and eventually developed a close association with Eric Dolphy who toured with him in 1960 and again in 1964. He appeared onscreen in All Night Long, filmed in the summer of 1961 in London. He appeared on Canadian TV twice around 1960, but it is not known if these programs survive; he was televised in Canada twice during his 1964 tour of Europe with Eric Dolphy. In one famous scene, Mingus turns to Dolphy, who had just decided to leave the band, and says on camera, “I’ll miss your ass over here.” This was mistakenly transcribed as “I’ll miss you, asshole” and used as a repeating theme in the film Last Date (about Dolphy). In 1964, a major big band concert at Town Hall, Manhattan, was a disaster. He persuaded his label to record an evening-length work at an open session to be held at Town Hall. They agreed, then suddenly made the date six weeks earlier, even though so much work remained to be done that it made success impossible. Moreover, the promoters advertised the event as a concert, raising expectations among ticket-buyers of a complete, finished performance rather than the start-stops to be expected at a recording session. Some musicians walked into the hall having never seen sheet music; copyists were seated on stage, hurriedly duplicating the later parts of the score, while musicians attempted to play the early parts; parts of the concert were issued on various albums. After his second recording company, the Charles Mingus label (1964–65), folded and his financial situation became desperate, he nearly retired from the public scene (1966–69). He married Susan around this time. In 1966, he was evicted from his apartment, a heartbreaking scene captured in the documentary Mingus. After resuming his career, in 1971 he was awarded the Slee Chair of Music and spent a semester teaching composition at the State Univ. of N.Y. at Buffalo. He received grants from the NEA, the Smithsonian Inst., and the Guggenheim Foundation (two grants, one in 1971); he also received an honorary degree from Brandeis and an award from Yale Univ. His music was performed frequently by ballet companies; Alvin Ailey choreographed an hour program called “The Mingus Dances” during a 1972 collaboration with the Robert Joffrey Ballet Company. Mingus toured extensively throughout Europe, Japan, Canada, South America, and the U.S. until the end of 1977 when he was diagnosed as having a rare nerve disease, Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). In 1978, he was confined to a wheelchair; that year he collaborated with singer Joni Mitchell on an album. On June 18, 1978, he was guest of honor at President Carter’s all-star concert at the White House. Producer George Wein asked those present to honor him; the musicians gave him a standing ovation, and Carter walked over and embraced him. Mingus wept, overcome by emotion, and surely by the frustration he must have felt at not being capable of speech. Although he was no longer able to write music on paper or compose at the piano, his last works were sung into a tape recorder. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River in India. Both N.Y. and Washington, D.C., honored him posthumously with a “Charles Mingus Day.”

After his death, the NEA provided grants for a Mingus foundation called “Let My Children Hear Music” which catalogued all of Mingus’s works; the microfilms of these works were then given to the Music Division of the N.Y. Public Library, and the originals to the Library of Congress, where they are available for study and scholarship. He recorded over 100 albums and wrote over 300 scores. The manuscript of the 1964 Town Hall concert was discovered by Andrew Homzy while cataloguing Sue Mingus’s collection. This collection of his pieces, many of which had been recorded elsewhere as independent works, was planned by Mingus, and when completed and reworked by Günther Schuller (with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation), it was Mingus’s longest work, the two-hour “Epitaph” for 30 instruments. Schuller conducted its premiere performance at Alice Tully Hall in N.Y. on June 3, 1989, followed by a recording and several tours in the U.S. and Europe. Since Mingus’s death, his widow Sue has managed his legacy. From 1979, Mingus Dynasty was established as a repertory group with rotating personnel that features the compositions and music of Mingus. It included, at one time or another, Jimmy Knepper, Dannie Richmond, and Jack Walrath; at one point, two Mingus sons, Charles and Eric, were among the personnel. Eventually it was replaced by the larger Mingus Big Band which for several years played at the Time Cafe in lower Manhattan every Thursday and then began touring and recording as it became more established. Since the mid-1990s, Steve Slagle has directed the group, which has premiered a number of unheard Mingus works and new arrangements of his small group works. Sue Mingus has also campaigned for years against bootleg recordings. Initially she would simply go to stores and take the bootlegs out of the bins; during the mid-1990s, she began to issue the same material legally in an effort to outsell the bootlegs. His grandson Kevin Mingus is a bassist who plays an instrument given to him by Buddy Collette.


Young Rebel (1946); “Shuffle Bass Boogie,” “Weird Nightmare” (1946); “Zoo-bab-da-oo-ee” (1947); Body and Soul (1948); Strings and Keys (1952); Moods of Mingus (1954); Jazzical Moods, Vol. 1 (1954); Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus (1954); Jazz Composers Workshop (1954); Intrusions (1954); Plus Max Roach (1955); Mingus at the Bohemia (1955); Jazzical Moods, Vol. 2 (1955); Jazz Collaborations (1955); Chazz (1955); Charlie Mingus Quintet + Max Roach (1955); Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956); Tonight at Noon (1957); Tijuana Moods (1957); Scenes in the City (1957); N.Y. Sketch Book (1957); Modern Jazz Symposium of Music (1957); Mingus Three (1957); East Coasting (1957); Debut Rarities, Vol. 3 (1957); Clown (1957); Charles Mingus Trios (1957); Weary Blues (1958); Wonderland (1959); Nostalgia in Times Square (1959); Mingus Dynasty (1959); Mingus Ah Urn (1959); Jazz Portraits (1959); Blues and Roots (1959); Pre-Bird (1960); Mysterious Blues (1960); Mingus! (1960); Mingus at Antibes (1960); Mingus Revisited (1960); Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (1960); Better Git It in Your Soul (1960); Oh Yeah (1961); Town Hall Concert (1962); Money Jungle (trio w. Ellington and M. Roach; 1962); Live at Birdland (1962); Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (1963); Mingus Plays Piano (1963); Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963); Right Now: Live at Jazz Workshop (1964); Portrait (1964); Paris 1964 (1964); Mingus in Europe, Vol. 1, 2 (1964); Mingus at Monterey (1964); Meditation (1964); Live in Stockholm (1964); Live in Paris 1964, Vol. 2 (1964); Live in Oslo (1964); Great Concert of Charles Mingus (1964); Fables of Faubus (1964); Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Vol. 1, 2 (1964); Astral Weeks (1964); My Favorite Quintet (1965); Music Written for Monterey (1965); Charles Mingus (1965); Statements (1969); Reincarnation of a Lovebird (1970); Charles Mingus in Paris (1970); With Orch. (1971); Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife. ..(1971); Live in Chateauvallon (1972); Let My Children Hear Music (1972); Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert (1971); Mingus Moves (1973); Mingus at Carnegie Hall (1974); Changes Two (1974); Changes One (1974); Cumbia and Jazz Fusion (1976); Three or Four Shades of Blues (1977); Live at Montreux (1977); Lionel Hampton Presents Music of (1977); His Final Work (1977); Giants of Jazz, Vol. 2 (1977); Soul Fusion (1978); Something Like a Bird (1978); Me, Myself an Eye (1978); Chair in the Sky (1979); Mingus Dynasty: Live at Montreux (1981); Reincarnation (1982); Live at the Village Vanguard (1984); Mingus Sounds of Love (1987); Big Band Charles Mingus, Vol. 1 (1988); Abstractions (1989); Epitaph (1990); Stations of the Elevated (1990); Live at the Theatre Boulogne (1991); Next Generation Performs Charles Mingus (1991); Meditations on Integration (1992); Mingus Big Band 93: Nostalgia I (1993). l. hampton and his orch.: “Mingus Fingers” (1947). dinah washington with l. thompson and his all stars:Mellow Mama Blues (1945); Wise Woman Blues (1963).


Nel King, ed., Beneath the Underdog: His World As Composed by Mingus (N.Y., 1971); More Than a Fake Book. (N.Y., 1991).


Coss, Charles Mingus: A List of Compositions Licensed by B.M.I. (N.Y, 1961); R. Wilbraham, Charles Mingus: A Discography with Brief Biography (London, 1970); B. Priestley, Mingus: A Critical Biography (London, 1982); Michel Ruppli, Charles Mingus Discography (Frankfurt, Germany, 1982); H. Lindemaier and H. Salewski, The Man Who Never Sleeps: The C. M. Discography 1945–78 (Freiburg, 1983); Michel Luzzi, Charlie Mingus (Rome, Lato, 1983); Janet Coleman and A. Young, Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs (Berkeley, 1989).

—Lewis Porter/Nicolas Slonimsky