Mingus, Charles 1922–1979
Charles Mingus 1922–1979
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An iconoclastic visionary, jazz bassist, composer, and pianist Charles Mingus established a movement within modern jazz that marked a departure from bebop and helped chart the course of avant-garde jazz. Inspired by the music of Duke Ellington, Mingus created jazz scores and compositions of textual color while retaining the dominant element of improvisation. He sought to create “spontaneous compositions,” that offered musicians individual freedom and collective improvisation often through un-notated sections. Mingus’s aggressive bass attack and harmonic sensibility-rooted in the earlier styles of such bassists as Jimmy Blanton-marked an effort to move away from the steady walking bass and to explore octave leaps and rhythmic subdivisions based upon various passing tones. Apart from his compositional and instrumental contributions, Mingus co-founded his own record label during the 1950s, and organized jazz workshops to further the study of jazz as a serious art form.
Charles Mingus, Jr. was born the son of U.S. army sergeant, Charles Mingus, Sr., on April 22, 1922, in Nogales, Arizona. Following the death of Mingus’s mother shortly after his birth, his father took him to live in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Mingus’s early exposure to African American religious music had a profound impact. “All the music I heard when I was a very young child was church music, “recalled Mingus, in Nat Hentoff’s work Jazz Is.”My father went to the Methodist church; my step mother [Mamie Carsonl would] take me to the Holiness church, which was too raw for my father. “The music, singing, and hand clapping of the Holiness church left an indelible mark on Mingus’s later music career, especially in compositions rooted in the evangelical gospel tradition.
In grade school Mingus played a trombone. Upon the advice of his friend and trombonist, Britt Woodman, he switched to cello and earned a seat in the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic. Whether prompted by the advice of his friend Buddy Collette or a decision influenced by the requirements of joining the school band, Mingus took up the double bass, an instrument he obsessed to master. Though he listened to the operas of Richard
At a Glance…
Born Charles Mingus, Jr., April 22, 1922, in Nogales, Arizona; died January 5, 1979, in Cuernavaca, Mexico; son of Charles Mingus, Sr. (U.S. army sergeant) and Harriet Phillips; married Can i I lajeanne G ross, January 3, 1944, had sons Charles III and Eugene; married Celia Nielson, April 2,1950, had son Dorian; married Judy Starkey, had daughter Carolyn and son Eriq married Susan Graham Ungaro (actress).
Performed in Barney Bigard’s band, 1942; toured with Louis Armstrong, 1943;joined Lionel Hampton’s band, 1947; worked at the U.S. postoffice 1948-1950,1952; performed in the Red NorvoTrio, 1950-1951 ; worked with several different groups in New York City, 1951 ; founded Debut record label 1952-1955;founded the Jazz Composers‘ Workshop, 1953;founded the Jazz Workshop, 1955; temporary retirement, 1965-1969; resumed music career in 1969; toured and recorded until death,1979.
Awards: Guggenheim fellowship in composition, 1971.
Strauss and the impressionist compositions of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, he soon fell under the influence of jazz. After hearing Duke Ellington during a late night radio broadcast, Mingus found a mentor and lifelong idol. “When I first heard Ellington in person,” stated Mingus in Jazz Is,”I almost jumped out of the balcony. One piece excited me so much that I almost screamed.”
During high school Mingus studied music under Lloyd Reese, a former trumpeter with Les Hite. “Reese taught a system in which chord progressions were represented by a series of roman numerals,” explained Ted Gioia in West Coast Jazz.”This not only facilitated understanding transposition but also the understanding of general harmonic rules underlying any set of chords. “To pursue his study of harmony, Mingus made extensive use of the piano. “I never really understood the bass until I started working out harmonies and other things on the piano,” explained Mingus as quoted in Mingus: A Critical Biography.”Then I came to regard the fingerboard of the bass like a piano fingerboard.” Performing in Lloyd Reese’s rehearsal band and a unit led by Al Adams, Mingus performed with other young aspiring jazz musicians such as saxophonist Dexter Gordon, trumpeter Ernie Royal, and drummer Chico Hamilton.
In 1942 Mingus joined the band of New Orleans clarinetist Barney Bigard, and a year later went on the road with the band of jazz legend Louis Armstrong. After his stint with Armstrong, he began a period of study under Herman Rheinshagen, a former member of the New York Philharmonic. Mingus eventually set out to compose his own works, much as Duke Ellington had done. Though he displayed an admirable attempt to master the school of Ellingtonian composition, Mingus’s early music had yet to exhibit the individual genius of his later work. As Brian Priestley pointed out in his work, Mingus: A Critical Biography,”It must be safely assumed that he was starting to copy the simpler sounding charts from popular records to add to the stock arrangements [Buddy] Collette acquired, and was studying them to see how they worked and how they could be successfully amended.”
In 1946 Mingus made his first recordings as a leader. Under the name “Baron Mingus and His Octet,” he cut sides for the Excelsior label that revealed his musical indebtedness to Ellington. That same year, disillusioned over the failure to establish a career in the waning post war music scene, Mingus took a temporary job with the U.S. Postal Service while continuing to play free-lance jobs with various musicians.
Mingus’s growing reputation as a bassist led to a stint with Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947. In November of the same year, Hampton recorded the 25-year old bassist’s number “Mingus Fingus.” Noted “cool jazz” horn player and conductor Gunther Schuller expressed some criticism of the number’s form in his work The Swing Era, but he also praised it as a “striking example of a new compositional voice struggling to be heard.” Furthermore, Schuller pointed out, “Many of Mingus’ later conceptual and ideological traits can be heard in this early effort: the caustic biting humor; the wild dense contrapuntal textures accumulated, so to speak, out of multiple spontaneous lines; the forays into atonality.”
After his year-long stint with Hampton, Mingus worked at the post office until accepting an offer in 1950 to join vibraphonist Red Norvo’s trio, which included guitarist Tal Farlow. Mingus’s bass work with the new band explored a unique melodic role, often playing against the support of Farlow’s bass guitar lines. In his work West Coast Jazz, Ted Gioia stressed that “The Norvo Trio was Mingus’ last major involvement before leaving the West Coast. In later years, Mingus often remarked that all of his important musical education had taken place before he moved east. The surviving recordings do not discredit this claim. Both in composing and improvising, Mingus established many of the trademarks that would remain part of his music until the end.”
Upon leaving Norvo’s trio in 1951, Mingus and his second wife Celia moved to New York City. In September of the same year, he played with the band of saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis at Birdland-a group that included famed trumpeter Miles Davis. “[Mingus] was a great bass player,” expressed Davis in his memoir Miles.”But he was hard to get along with, especially about music, because he had his own definite ideas about what was good and what was bad, and he didn’t mind telling anybody what he had on his mind. In that way, we were a lot alike. Our musical ideas were different sometimes. But I was glad to play with him again because he was always an inventive, hard driving, imaginative musician.”
Throughout 1952 Mingus continued to take free-lance work with musicians such as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and Lennie Tristano. Unable to attain steady music employment, however, he returned to work at the post office in the winter of 1952. That same year, he established the Debut record label and, not long after, formed a partnership with drummer Max Roach that lasted until the label’s demise in 1955. Apart from producing works under their own name, Mingus and Roach recorded nearly 170 tracks under 19 nominal leaders including saxophonist Teo Macero and trumpeter Thad Jones. In Art Taylor’s book Notes and Tones, Roach revealed the “personal obstacles” surrounding the label’s decline: “You know how tense we were at that time, trying to play and to learn how to play. In order to start a record company, you have to put in a lot of time to develop it. We just didn’t have enough time, because we both spent twenty-four hours a day thinking about music.”
On May 15,1953 Mingus and Roach, along with Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powell, appeared at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada. Mingus recorded the performance from the bandstand and, after re-dubbing many of his bass parts, released it as the Debut album Jazz at Massey Hall. During the same year, Mingus and Roach organized a “Jazz Workshop” concert series at the Putman Central Club in Brooklyn, and two years later formed a quintet, the Charles Mingus Workshop. In an era when most jazz musicians sought to perform music rooted in the Parker-Gillespie bebop school, Mingus’s interest in African American folk and religious music inspired unique musical concepts. As a modernist who respected earlier jazz and blues traditions, Mingus drew upon traditional music as a rich repository of inspiration, rather than a source to recreate in strict imitation. “When I was with [Mingus],” recounted Jazz Workshop pianist Mal Waldron in Hard Bop,”all the guys were playing very ’hip’ blues, with all kinds of chords and passing tones. Mingus got rid of that, and made us play like the old, original blues, with only two or three chords, and got a basic feeling.” The 1955 recording for Debut, Charles Mingus, captured his creative aspirations for the Jazz Workshop on a set of adventurous music that included the acclaimed duo with Max Roach “Percussion Discussion. “Though Mingus’s temperament and lack of steady work for his ensembles resulted in a constant shift of personnel, by 1956 he did find a vital and long-time sideman in drummer Dannie Richmond, a former saxophonist whose skills on the drum kit created a brilliant balance with Mingus’s bass.
September of 1956 saw the release of Mingus’s Atlantic album Pithecanthropus Erectus. Based upon a four-movement tone poem, the title composition traced the inevitable rise and fall of human evolution. Nat Hentoff wrote in the album’s liner notes that Mingus “had taken a rather huge theme, on which he had been brooding extra-musically for a long time, and had not only transformed it into music but had also brought his colleagues into a sharing of his bold, grim vision.” Mingus’s subsequent recordings produced brilliant numbers such the 1957 blues-based composition “Haitian Fight Song.” Sessions dating from July and August of the same year culled pieces dedicated to Mingus’s visit to Mexico-material released as the 1960 album Tijuana Moods.
In 1959 Mingus brought together several large ensembles in the recording studio. One of his best known works of that year, Ah Um, yielded the numbers “Better Git It in Your Soul,” a 6/4 number celebrating the music of the Holiness church, and “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat,” composed in the 12-bar blues form and dedicated to saxophone great Lester Young. In February Mingus recorded the Atlantic album, Roots & Blues. This album contained another of Mingus’s gospel-inspired 6/4 numbers, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” described by Brian Priestley in Mingus: A Critical Biography as “the masterpiece of planned chaos.” In November Mingus led yet another session that yielded the Columbia LP Mingus Dynasty.
With the addition of saxophonist and flutist Eric Dolphy in 1960, Mingus found a brilliant collaborator who helped inspire the bassist/bandleader to a new creative height. Mingus’s 1960 album Pre-Bi rd--reissued as Mingus Reuisited-featured a 22-piece orchestra under the direction of Gunther Schuller and is best remembered for a rendition of Mingus’s haunting piece “Half Mast Inhibition. “In the LP’s liner notes, Leonard Feather commented that, “’Half Mast Inhibition’ shows, perhaps, as clearly as any work [Mingus] has given us, the total genius of the man as leader, writer, and creator.” That same year, Feather, in his work The Encyclopedia of Jazz, foresaw Mingus’s role in the development of modern jazz: “Not for complacent ears, Mingus’ music is the prototype of a new and vital jazz generation of the 1960s just as [Charlie] Parker and [Dizzy] Gillespie were of the 1940s.”
On January 20, 1963, Mingus recorded his masterpiece recording of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Backed by a ten-piece orchestra, Mingus created a composition greater in length than the jazz suites and extended works produced by Ellington. In Mingus: A Critical Biography, Priestly wrote, “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is not only the most monumental of Mingus’ works but one which most nearly combines his various compositional approaches in a convincing whole. It is also at the same time his most Ellingtonian piece and his least Ellingtonian. “Jazz Workshop pianist Jaki Byard, one of the creative forces behind the Black Saint, described his bandleader’s method of compositional instruction in The Great Jazz Pianists: ”Mingus’ group was one of the few where you could play anything you knew how to play, if he was in the right mood. We didn’t discuss really, just a few specifics. He’d teach us by singing the music, phrasing it the way he wanted us to play it. I’d write it down for my own documentation. After he sang, we’d just jam it out.”
In 1964 Mingus invited Eric Dolphy to join his ensemble for a European tour, during which the ensemble recorded The Great Concert of Charles Mingus. By 1966 increasing emotional illness and the lack of work prompted Mingus to seek retirement from music. For the next three years, he lived on New York’s lower east side, rarely leaving his apartment except to seek solace in corner bars. Nat Hentoff who encountered Mingus at this time later wrote in Jazz Is,”In the daytime I’d see him occasionally wandering around . . . uncommonly subdued, abstracted. The Mingus who had been able to sardonically berate an audience for its incivility and hurl into the flying center of his musical lightening storms had retreated to himself.”
By 1970 Mingus began to appear at club and festival dates. That same year, Knopf published his autobiographical work, Beneath the Underdog. Written in a surreal prose style and paying little attention to chronology, the book, while it addressed the issue of race, overlooked many important discussions of music in favor of emphasizing the author’s sexual exploits. As Mingus told Whitney Baillett in American Musicians II,”My book was written for black people to tell them how to get through life. I was trying to upset the white man in it”
After becoming a published author, Mingus signed a new recording contract with Columbia. His 1972 Columbia album, Let My Children Hear Music was produced by his former music associate and saxophonist Teo Macero. Supported by a talented line-up of musicians, the album represented a collection of earlier written pieces, including Mingus’s childhood poem/composition “Chill of Death” and several new works arranged by Sy Johnson and Alan Ralph. Not long afterward, Mingus assembled a new band made of several fine sidemen such as drummer Dannie Richmond and pianist Don Pullen. This unit that proved to be one of the longest-lasting ensembles of his career. After nearly two years experience performing with Mingus, the ensemble backed him for the 1975 Atlantic albums Mingus Changes One and Changes Two. In the liner notes to Changes One, Nat Hentoff predicted that the music of these albums was “going to have a long life because it is so authoritatively, inventively together~the compositions, the solos, the forthright ease of empathy of which these musicians interweave. There is nothing tentative here, nothing in excess, no showboating. It’s all classic Mingus.”
In November of 1977, Mingus was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis-also known as Lou Geh-rig’s disease. Mingus spent his last years touring and directing his band from a wheelchair. Despite his illness, he continued to tour regularly. In 1978, he and his wife Susan Ungaro attended an all-star jazz concert held at the White House. In Talking Jazz: An Oral History, Dizzy Gillespie recalled how President Carter “walked all the way across the lawn to Mingus, and grabbed him and hugged him.” Moved by the president’s gesture, the wheelchair-ridden bassist broke into tears. A year later, Mingus and Susan went to Mexico in search of holistic medical treatment. As Susan recalled in Jazz Greats,”It was the best possible thing we could have done. We spent six months in Mexico with some kind of hope.” Mingus died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on January 5, 1979; his ashes were taken to India and spread over the River Ganges. Impelled by the artistic credo of “self liberation,” Mingus looked to music as a means of self-expression and redefinition-a means of overcoming inner antagonisms and the barriers of race. Complex in mood and intellectual temperament, Mingus condemned America for ignoring its artists and perpetuating racism. Despite the lack of mass audience for his avant-garde explorations, he nevertheless sought commercial success in the mainstream marketplace. While known for diatribes concerning race, he distanced himself from the militant voices African American protest by condemning black radical groups for “having nothing to sell.” Called the “bull” by fellow artists, Mingus reveled in exerting his creative and physical prowess. At the same time, effects of psychological illness left him at odds with an inner-adversary too strong to overcome. As he stated, in Jazz Is: ”We create our own slavery. But I’m going to keep getting through and finding out what kind of man I am through my music. That’s the only place I can be free.”
Minor Intrusions, Bethlehem, 1954.
Charles Mingus, Prestige, 1955.
Pithecanthropus Erectus, Atlantic, 1956.
Passions of a Man, Atlantic, 1956.
East Coasting, Bethlehem, 1957.
The Clown, Atlantic, 1957.
Tijuana Moods, RCA, 1957.
Dynasty;, Columbia, 1959.
Ah Um, Columbia, 1959.
Blues and Roots, Atlantic, 1960.
Mingus Revisited, Polygram, 1960.
Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, MCA/Impulse!, 1963.
The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, MCA/Impulse!, 1963.
Mingus Plays Piano, MCA/Impulse!, 1963.
Reincarnation of a Lovebird, Prestige.
Let My Children Hear Music, Columbia, 1972.
Changes One, Atlantic, 1974.
Changes Two, Atlantic, 1975.
Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, Atlantic, 1976.
Three or Four Shades of Blue, Atlantic, 1977.
Red Norvo Trio, Savoy.
Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra (1946-1947), Decca.
Charlie Parker, Jazz Perennial, Verve.
The Quintet: Jazz At Massey Hall, Debut, (with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, BudPowell, andMaxRoach).
Duke Ellington Money Jungle, Blue Note.
Thad Jones, Debut.
Subject of the 1966 documentary film Mingus, by Tom Reichman.
Baillett, Whitney, American Musicians II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Davis, Miles with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Feather, Leonard, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon Press, 1960.
Hentoff, Nat, Jazz Is, Limelight Editions, 1984.
Lyons, Len, The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music, Da Capo, 1983.
Perry, David, Jazz Greats, Phiadon Press Limited, 1996.
Priestley, Brian, Mingus: A Critical Biography, Da Capo, 1982.
Rosenthal, David H.,Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Developments of Jazz 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Sidran, Ben, Talking Jazz: An Oral History, Da Capo, 1995.
Taylor, Art, Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews, Perigee, 1982.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes to the following albums:Mingus Revisited, Polygram, 1960, and Changes One, Atlantic, 1975.
Jazz bassist, composer
Charles Mingus is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in the world of jazz, and many musicians consider even that expansive description too limited, believing that the great bassist should be ranked among the most important men in all of twentieth-century music. Mingus’s accomplishments are certainly remarkable and wide-ranging. As an instrumentalist, he lifted the bass from its traditional role as a timekeeper and harmonic regulator to that of a full participant. His playing was technically brilliant, individualistic, and always deeply expressive. As a composer, he produced outstanding works of all types, from earthy, blues-oriented tunes to sophisticated orchestral numbers to free-form pieces. In performance and in composition, he demonstrated a deep understanding of virtually every style of jazz that existed during his lifetime. His talent for assembling groups and bringing out the best in both green and experienced players was legendary, and his influence continues to be profoundly felt years after his death.
Music was always considered important in the Mingus family. Growing up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Mingus was exposed to classical music through the piano and violin lessons of his two older sisters. Another early influence—one that remained with him throughout his life—was the call-and-response singing practiced in the Holiness Church devoutly attended by his stepmother. Mingus’s parents bought him a trombone when he was eight years old, but he felt uncomfortable with the instrument and soon took up the cello, which he loved. He switched to the double bass—the instrument on which he would build his reputation—in high school, where his fellow orchestra members included future jazz stars Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton. During his late teens Mingus augmented his classroom studies with private lessons; his tutors included jazzmen Joe Comfort and Red Callender, as well as a former bassist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Herman Rheinschagen. He also studied composition with Lloyd Reese, and at least two of the songs he wrote at this time—“What Love,” from 1939, and “Half-Mast Inhibitions,” from 1940—would be recorded some twenty years later.
Mingus’s activity in the jazz scenes of Los Angeles and San Francisco began even before he graduated from high school. In 1940 he replaced his former teacher, Red Callender, in Lee Young’s band; the following year he joined Louis Armstrong’s organization, where he remained until 1943. As “Baron Mingus” he led various ensembles of his own, but it was as a member of Lionel Hampton’s band that he began to revolutionize jazz bass playing with his highly charged, lightning-fast solos. Economic pressures prompted Mingus to briefly
Bom Charles Mingus, Jr., April 22, 1922, in Nogales, AZ; died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) January 5, 1979, in Cuernavaca, Mexico; son of Charles Mingus (a postal worker); married first wife, Barbara Jane Parks (divorced); married last wife, Susan Graham Ungaro; children: (first marriage) Charles III. Education: Studied privately with Joe Comfort, Red Callender, Herman Rheinschagen, and Lloyd Reese.
Jazz bassist, composer, and pianist, 1940-77. Bassist with Lee Young, 1940-41, Louis Armstrong, 1941-43, and Lionel Hampton, late 1940s; member of Red Norvo trio, 1950-51; played in and led various ensembles with Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and others. Established and performed with Jazz Workshop; founder of Jazz Artists Guild, Debut Records, and Charles Mingus Records. Instructor at State University of New York in Buffalo. Author of Beneath the Underdog (autobiography), Knopf, 1971.
drop music for a job with the U.S. Postal Service until 1950, when vibraphonist Red Norvo invited him to be part of a trio that would also include guitarist Tal Farlow. The Red Norvo trio attracted national attention for introducing the West Coast’s “cool jazz” to a wide audience.
In 1951 Mingus relocated to New York City, a hothouse of jazz creativity where he worked regularly with such musicians as Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. In 1953 he joined the band of his idol, Duke Ellington, but when a personality clash between Mingus and another bandmember led to a violent altercation, Mingus became one of the few musicians ever fired by Ellington. During the mid-1950s Mingus began to mature as a composer, modifying conventional forms by adding the startling rhythmic contrasts that would become his trademark. His aim was always to expand the horizons of jazz, and, to this end, he frequently experimented with atonality and dissonance. Some listeners found his music disturbing, but to others it was challenging and stimulating. As swing gave way to bop, and bop eventually gave way to avant-garde jazz, Mingus was able to keep pace with every new development, though he always maintained his individuality and avoided identification with any one school.
Mingus’s energy led him to engage in many activities during the late 1950s, in addition to composing and upholding his reputation as one of the greatest soloists of all time. Angered by the unfair treatment meted out to musicians by major recording labels, Mingus established Debut Records in 1952. From 1953 to 1955, Mingus gave written contributions to the Jazz Composers Workshop, but in 1955 he founded his own workshop, based on his belief that written notation was not equal to his composing style. In his Jazz Workshop, Mingus carefully dictated each line of a composition to the appropriate player, thereby ensuring that all of his intended nuances were fully understood. His unique talent for putting together combos and bringing out the best in each player came to the fore during that era. J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Thad Jones were but a few of the musicians who flourished under his direction. By the end of the decade, his continuing frustrations with the business side of the music industry spurred him to found the short-lived Jazz Artists Guild and act as a concert organizer.
During the early 1960s Mingus experimented with free-form jazz and also wrote some of his most richly textured, rhythmically complex music, including such pieces as ’The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady “and the album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. His influence on the young bass players of the day was incalculable, but, ironically, he gave up playing bass at this time. Instead he played piano,” on which he resembled a watery Thelonious Monk, “according to jazz critic Whitney Balliet in his book Such Sweet Thunder. Mingus’s behavior became increasingly erratic; frequently he ignored contracts, walked offstage early, or spent more time haranguing audiences about their ignorance and inattention than he did playing. Band members were routinely upbraided—even physically attacked—onstage for making mistakes or failing to show the proper attitude. Grappling with deep-seated psychological problems, Mingus dropped out of the music scene in the mid-1960s to concentrate on writing an autobiography. In 1968 he was evicted from his New York City apartment, and much of his written music was lost in that episode.
When Mingus finally returned to music—and the bass—in June, 1969, he was motivated mainly by economic pressures. To his surprise he found himself accorded the status of an elder statesman. His stream-of-con-sciousness autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, was published in 1971, the same year he received a Guggenheim fellowship for composition. He became a part-time instructor at the State University of New York in Buffalo; wrote music for films; collaborated with singer Joni Mitchell on her tribute recording Mingus; and traveled extensively with his workshop. In 1974 Mingus organized what Leroy Ostransky, author of Understanding Jazz, deemed “the greatest jam session since the expression was coined,” which was recorded and released as Mingus at Carnegie Hall. In 1977 he became seriously ill, and in 1979 Charles Mingus died at the age of 56.
Still, Mingus’s music lived on. Shortly after his death, his widow formed the Mingus Dynasty group—with an ever-changing roster that often included former Mingus sidemen—in order to keep his works alive. In 1989, ten years after his death, a world premier was held at Lincoln Center in New York City for his composition “Epitaph,” a masterwork that was discovered after his death. “It is the longest and most richly textured of jazz compositions,” assessed Time contributor John Elson, adding that the piece was “a suite of 18 sections comprising nearly 4,000 bars of music, with a performance time of more than two hours.” Composer Gunther Schuller, who conducted the 31-member ensemble that played “Epitaph,” described the work to Elson as “a musical summary of one of the great jazz composers of the century, from the sweet and gentle Mingus to the angry Mingus.”
Mingus fans will likely continue the debate over which of his many accomplishments was the greatest. Martin Williams, author of The Jazz Tradition, stated unequivocally that “Mingus the bassist…made the most important and durable contribution to jazz because he made people think of the instrument in a new way and because he was a virtuoso … outstanding enough to be numbered among the great soloists regardless of instrument.” Yet few would argue with Understanding Jazz author Ostransky, who concluded that when Mingus’s playing, his compositions, his leadership, and his continuing influence are all taken into account, “the classification for Charlie Mingus is catalyst.”
Mingus at the Bohemia (recorded in 1955), Fantasy OJC, 1991.
Charles Mingus Quintet (recorded in 1955), Debut.
Charles Mingus Plus Max Roach (recorded in 1955), Fantasy/OJC, 1990.
Pithecanthropus Erectus (recorded in 1956), Atlantic.
The Clown (recorded in 1957), Atlantic.
New Tijuana Moods (recorded in 1957), Bluebird, 1986.
Blues and Roots (recorded in 1959), Atlantic.
Mingus Ah Urn (recorded in 1959), reissued, Columbia Jazz Masterpieces, 1987.
Mingus Dynasty (recorded in 1959), Columbia.
Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife (recorded in 1959 and 1971), Columbia Jazz Masterpieces, 1988.
Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (recorded in 1960), Candid.
Pre-Bird (recorded in 1960), Mercury.
Mingus at Antibes (recorded in 1960), Atlantic.
Mingus Revisited (recorded in 1960), reissued, EmArcy, 1986.
Mysterious Blues (recorded in 1960), Candid, 1990.
Oh Yeah (recorded in 1961), reissued, Atlantic, 1988.
Tonight at Noon (recorded in 1961), Atlantic.
Town Hall Concert (recorded in 1962), United Artists.
The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (recorded in 1963), reissued, MCA/Impulse, 1986.
Mingus Plays Piano (recorded in 1963), Impulse.
Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (recorded in 1963), MCA/Impulse.
Town Hall Concert 1964, Volume 1 (recorded in 1964), reissued, Fantasy/O JC, 1991.
Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop (recorded in 1964), >reissued, Fantasy/OJC, 1991.
Mingus at Monterey (recorded in 1964), Charles Mingus Records.
Portrait (recorded in 1964 and 1965), Prestige.
Charles Mingus (recorded in 1965), Prestige.
Let My Children Hear Music (recorded in 1971), reissued, Legacy, 1992.
Mingus Moves (recorded in 1973), Atlantic.
Mingus at Carnegie Hall (recorded in 1974), Atlantic.
Cumbia and Jazz Fusion (recorded in 1976), Atlantic.
3 or 4 Shades of Blues (recorded in 1977), Atlantic Jazz.
Epitaph (recorded in 1989), Columbia, 1990.
The Complete Debut Recordings, Debut, 1990.
Mingus in Europe, reissued, Enja, 1990.
Live in Oslo, 1964, Volume II, Landscape, 1992.
Astral Weeks, Moon.
Jazzical Moods, Fresh Sound.
Jazz Workshop, Savoy Jazz.
Live at TBB-Paris, Volume 1, Soul Note.
Meditations on Integration, Bandstand/Sphere.
Reincarnation of a Lovebird, Prestige.
Balliet, Whitney, Such Sweet Thunder, Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
Mingus, Charles, Beneath the Underdog (autobiography), Knopf, 1971.
Ostransky, Leroy, Understanding Jazz, Prentice-Hall, 1977.
Priestly, Brian, Mingus: A Critical Biography, Salem House, 1983.
Williams, Martin, The Jazz Tradition, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Down Beat, February 1989; March 1989; September 1989; July 1990; October 1990; March 1991; September 1991.
High Fidelity, October 1988.
New Yorker, August 21, 1989.
Radio Free Jazz, February 14, 1979.
Reflex, Number 21.
Stereo Review, January 1988; August 1990; March 1991.
Time, September 10, 1990.
Village Voice, July 3, 1978.
American jazz musician Charles Mingus (1922–1979) is regarded by many as one of the best double bass players of the genre. He became equally well known for his prowess as a composer, and he has received ever-growing recognition since his early death in 1979 at the age of 56. Mingus's volatile, at times violent, personality, led to numerous high-profile disagreements with fellow musicians and critics and a reputation as "jazz's angry man," but also fueled a music known for its passion and spiritual depth.
Mingus was born on April 22, 1922, in Nogales, Arizona, where his father, Sgt. Charles Mingus Sr., served on a U.S. army base. Soon after the birth of his son, Sgt. Mingus received an honorable discharge from the military in order to care for his ailing wife. The family relocated to the Watts section of Los Angeles, California, where Mingus's mother, Harriet Sophia Mingus, sought medical treatment for chronic myocarditis. She died, however, on October 3, 1922. The Mingus family remained in Los Angeles, and young Charles and his sisters, Grace and Vivian, were raised by Charles Sr. and his new wife, Mamie. The emotional call-and-response spirituals performed in the neighborhood Holiness Church served as one of Mingus's earliest musical influences. Although the Mingus children were only permitted to listen to devotional music under the elder Mingus's authoritarian house rules, Mingus secretly listened to pianist/composer Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toddle-Oo" on the earphones of a crystal set, sparking his interest in jazz.
Mingus, whose sisters trained on violin and piano, started out playing the trombone. When his instructor proved less than able, Mingus taught himself the basics of the instrument by ear. He grew frustrated, however, and soon switched to the cello, earning a spot in the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic while still in elementary school. In high school he switched again, to the double bass, and joined future jazz greats Dexter Gordon, a saxophonist, and Chico Hamilton, a drummer, in an orchestra. He began studying his new instrument privately with jazz musicians Joe Comfort and Red Callender, as well as Herman Rheinschagen, a former bassist with the New York Philharmonic. Mingus also studied composition with Lloyd Reese and turned out two compositions, "What Love" (1939) and "Half-Mast Inhibitions" (1940), that he would record 20 years later.
Mingus began playing professionally with jazz outfits in Los Angeles and San Francisco while still in high school. In 1940 he replaced his former teacher, Callender, in a band headed by Lee Young, a drummer and brother of noted saxophonist Lester Young. The following year, Mingus joined trumpeter Louis Armstrong's group, where he remained until 1943 and, under the name "Baron Mingus," began leading outfits of his own. In the mid-1940s he began playing with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and began to draw attention for his impossibly fast, highly charged solos. Critics would later note, as recounted by John Rockwell in a 1979 New York Times obituary, that Mingus's tendency to play slightly ahead of the beat lent his playing a "frenetic rhythmic tension." Mingus dropped music to take a job with the U.S. Postal Service for a period, and then returned to music in 1950, joining vibraphonist Red Norvo's trio. This ensemble has been credited with introducing West Coast "cool jazz" to a broad audience.
While playing on the West Coast, Mingus discovered the music of saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, which influenced him tremendously. "I studied Bird's creative vein with the same passion and understanding with which I'd studied the scores of my favorite classical composers, because I found a purity in his music that until then I had only found in classical music," Mingus wrote in the notes to the 1959 album Mingus Dynasty (as reprinted in Gene Santoro's 2000 biography Myself When I Am Real). "Bird was the cause of my realization that jazz improvisation, as well as jazz composition, is the equal of classical music if the performer is a creative person. Bird brought melodic development to a new point in jazz…. But he also brought to music a primitive, mystic supra-mind communication that I'd only heard in the late Beethoven quartets, and even more, in Stravinsky." Mingus Dynasty featured the Parker tribute "Gunslinging Bird," the full title of which reveals the sly humor Mingus often employed when naming his own compositions: "If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats."
Mingus relocated to New York City in 1951 and began working with many of the best known jazz musicians of the day, including Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Art Tatum, and pianist Bud Powell. He also joined Ellington's band. There, the violent temper that would come to partially define Mingus led to his being one of the few musicians Ellington ever fired; during an altercation with a bandmate, trombonist Juan Tizol, he brandished a fire ax. Tizol defended himself with a machete. Fueling Mingus's hot temper was long-simmering anger about the treatment of African Americans; Mingus once explained that the fight with Tizol was prompted by Tizol's use of a racial epithet. "Charles was a man who wanted peace and his best person was kindly and wise. But he wasn't always able to access that," observed tuba player and former Mingus bandmate Howard Johnson in a 2002 retrospective in Down Beat. "He was stung by racism a little harder than others. If you're black, every day on the street you encounter slights. Some people can toss them off as the behavior of racist idiots. But Charles couldn't let the slights roll off him. He accumulated them all."
Mingus's intolerance of racism and disdain for the record industry, which he strongly believed treated African-American jazz musicians unfairly, led to the 1952 formation of Debut Records, a collaboration with drummer Max Roach and Mingus's second wife, Celia. He returned to work at the post office that year as well. In 1953 Mingus began participating in the highly regarded Jazz Composers Workshop, but in 1955 he formed his own workshop with a rotating cadre of musicians. The new workshop enabled Mingus to exercise his own unique compositional style, which eschewed traditional notation and was characterized by saxophonist Yusef Lateef in Brian Priestley's Mingus: A Critical Biography: "For example, on one composition I had a solo and, as opposed to having chord symbols for me to improvise against, he had drawn a picture of a coffin, and that was the substance upon which I was to improvise." Mingus also often dictated lines individually to each player. Several highly regarded albums grew out of these work shops, including 1956's Pithecanthropus Erectus, Blues and Roots, Mingus Dynasty, and Mingus Ah Um, all released in 1959. The latter includes the composition "Good Bye, Pork Pie Hat," a tribute to Lester Young, who died while the album was being recorded. Mingus employed politically charged commentary with the composition "Fables of Faubus," a reference to the governor of Arkansas who called in the National Guard to fight public school integration.
While his talent was highly regarded, Mingus also became known for his bitterness and volatility. He routinely chastised musicians on stage, damaged musical equipment (including once dropping and shattering his own $2,000 bass), and launched into at least one long, legendary harangue against his audiences. "If my band is loud in spots, ugly in spots, it's also beautiful in spots, soft in spots. There are even moments of silence. But the moments of beautiful silence are hidden by your clanking glasses and your too wonderful conversations," he declared from the stage of New York's Five Spot one night, as recounted by Priestley. "You haven't been told before that you're phonies. You're here because jazz has publicity, jazz is popular, the word jazz, and you like to associate yourself with this sort of thing, but it doesn't make you a connoisseur of the art because you follow it around. You're dilettantes of style." Other times, Mingus made his points more subtly. Another night at the Five Spot, he simply played a phonograph on stage while the band members played cards. When passed over by taxi drivers, presumably because of his race, he was known to set up a chair in the middle of the street and begin reading the newspaper.
Mingus began one of his most significant musical collaborations in 1959, when reed player Eric Dolphy first joined his ensemble. While all of Mingus's musicians were at times subjected to their bandleader's outbursts, Mingus demonstrated a particular respect for Dolphy. When Dolphy left the band in 1964 in order to spend time in Europe, Mingus developed a composition titled, alternately, "Farewell Eric Dolphy" or "So Long Eric." After the reed player died suddenly on June 29 of that year, Mingus named a son (with third wife, Judy) Eric Dolphy Mingus. A year earlier, Mingus had released his debut album on Impulse!, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Always bucking tradition, Mingus had his psychoanalyst write the liner notes, telling him, according to Santoro, "I never pay you so at least this way you can make $200."
By the mid-1960s, increasingly plagued by psychological problems, Mingus was finding regular employment harder to secure. In 1966 he was forcibly evicted from his apartment for failure to pay rent. This sad event was captured by a documentary crew for the film Mingus. By 1970 Mingus elected to go into semi-retirement with financial assistance from his ex-wife Celia and her new husband, Saul Zaentz. Zaentz had purchased the Fantasy Record label, as well as the now-defunct Debut's back catalog. During this period, Mingus took comfort in his neighbors. "For about three years, I thought I was finished," he told Nat Hentoff in a 1972 New York Times interview. "In that neighborhood, they didn't know me from the man in the moon, but they took an interest in me. I'd go into a bar, sit by myself, and I'd hear someone say, 'There's something wrong with this guy. He doesn't come out of his house for four or five days at a time.' And they'd invite me to join them. I got to know what friends are."
Mingus began to re-emerge in the late 1960s, and in 1971 he once again drew widespread attention with the publication of his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. That same year, he was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in composition. He became a part-time instructor at the State University of New York in Buffalo and was commissioned to write film scores. Choreographer Alvin Ailey debuted a work with the Joffrey Ballet featuring new arrangements of Mingus's music. Mingus released the Columbia album Let My Children Hear Music in 1972. In 1975, the same year he released the albums Changes One and Changes Two, Mingus married longtime on-again, off-again partner Sue Graham Ungaro. Sadly, Mingus's second round in the spotlight was short-lived. In 1977 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He continued to compose, dictating into a tape recorder when he could no longer work with his hands, and collaborated on a recasting of his compositions with folk singer Joni Mitchell for her album Mingus. He attended an all-star jazz concert at the White House in 1978, where he was honored with a standing ovation and a hug from President Jimmy Carter, which brought him to tears.
Mingus died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he had gone to seek alternative treatments for his illness, on January 5, 1979. In accordance with his wishes, Sue Mingus scattered his ashes in the River Ganges in India. Mingus's music lives on through two musical groups organized by Sue Mingus, Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Big Band. Even before his untimely death, Mingus's many collaborators began reflecting on his influence. "Mingus is not little stuff," observed trumpeter John Handy, a veteran of Mingus's workshops. "He's big stuff musically. He is definitely, in the true sense, a giant and maybe even a genius. He has all the qualities." Mingus summed up the force behind his talent, in an open letter to Miles Davis published in Down Beat in 1989. "My music is alive and it's about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It's angry, yet it's real because it knows it's angry."
Priestley, Brian, Mingus: A Critical Biography, Quartet Books Ltd., 1982.
Santoro, Gene, Myself When I Am Real, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Down Beat, December 7, 1978; September 1989; April 2002.
New York Times, January 30, 1972; January 9, 1979.
"Charles Mingus," Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2006, http://galenet.galegroups.com/servlet/BioRC.
April 22, 1922
January 5, 1979
Born in Nogales, Arizona, jazz musicians Charles Mingus straddled the bebop and free jazz eras. Although he became a virtuoso bassist early in his career, his main contribution to jazz was as a composer and bandleader. For over thirty years Mingus created a body of compositions matched in quality and variety only by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, and ranging from somber but gritty tributes to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Eric Dolphy to roaring evocations of African-American gospel prayer meetings. Taking a cue from Ellington, Mingus generally wrote music for particular individuals in his superb ensembles, and such compositions were developed or "workshopped" through in-concert rehearsals rather than from fixed and polished scores prior to performance and recording. Mingus's mercurial personality thrived in these improvisational settings, but this process often made for chaos and disaster as well. He was notorious for berating audiences and musicians from the bandstand, even firing and rehiring band members during the course of performances. However, the workshops also achieved a spontaneity and musical passion unmatched in the history of jazz, as Mingus conducted and shouted instructions and comments from the piano or bass, at times in a wheelchair at the end of his life, even improvising speeches on civil rights.
Charles Mingus Jr. grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, and in his youth studied trombone and cello before switching at age sixteen to the bass. He studied with Britt Woodman, Red Callender, Lloyd Reese, and Herman Rheinschagen, and began performing professionally while still a teenager. He played in the rhythm sections of the bands of Lee Young (1940), Louis Armstrong (1941–1943), Barney Bigard (1942), and Lionel Hampton (1947–1948). He made his first recordings with Hampton in 1947, a session that included Mingus's first recorded composition, "Mingus Fingers." Mingus played in Red Norvo's trio from 1950 to 1951, quitting in anger after Mingus, who was not a member of the local musicians' union, was replaced by a white bassist for a television performance. Mingus settled in New York in 1951 and played stints with Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Stan Getz, and Art Tatum. His most important work in his early period was a single concert he organized and recorded for his own record label, Debut Records, at Toronto's Massey Hall in May 1953, featuring pianist Bud Powell, drummer Max Roach, and the reunited team of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—the definitive bebop quintet.
Mingus formed his own music workshop in 1955 in order to develop compositions for a core of performers, and it is from this point that his mature style dates. He had played in the cooperative Jazz Composers' Workshop from 1953 to 1955, but it was as the tempestuous leader of his own group that he created his most famous works, which in concerts often became long, brooding performances, building to aggressive, even savage climaxes. His compositions used folk elements such as blues shouts, field hollers, call and response, and gospel-style improvised accompanying riffs. In this middle period, which lasted from 1955 to 1966, Mingus employed a number of notable musicians, including saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jackie McLean, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Clifford Jordan, and Charles McPherson; drummer Dannie Richmond; pianists Mal Waldron and Jaki Byard; trombonist Jimmy Knepper; and trumpeter Ted Curson. He produced numerous albums that are considered classics, including Tijuana Moods (1957), Mingus Ah-Um (1959), the orchestral Pre-Bird (1960), Mingus Oh Yeah (1961), Town Hall Concerts (1962, 1964), and Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963), and notable compositions such as "Love Chant" (1955), "Foggy Day" (1955), "Percussion Discussion" (1955), "Pithecanthropus Erectus" (1956), "Reincarnation of a Lovebird" (1957), "Haitian Fight Song" (1957), and "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" (1963).
Politics also began to enter Mingus's music in the 1950s, and the two eventually became inseparable, with Mingus issuing explicit musical attacks against segregation and racism. "Meditations on Integration" (1964) was written in response to the segregation and mistreatment of black prisoners in the American South and recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, while "Fables of Faubus" (1959) protested Orval Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas. Mingus's activism also extended to attempts at having jazz musicians wrest control of their careers out of the hands of club owners and recording executives. He twice organized his own record companies, Debut Records in 1952 and Charles Mingus Records in 1963. In 1960 he helped lead a musical revolt against the staid Newport Jazz Festival, and along with Ornette Coleman, Coleman Hawkins, and Max Roach, he formed a group known as the Newport Rebels, which held a counterfestival.
In his peak years Mingus often performed in settings outside the workshops. In 1958 he led a quintet accompanying Langston Hughes reciting his poetry on The Weary Blues of Langston Hughes. Further, though he gained fame early as a bassist in the tradition of Jimmy Blanton and Oscar Pettiford, he also on occasion hired a bassist and performed at the piano, and he released Mingus Plays Piano in 1963. In 1962 he recorded Money Jungle, a trio album with Duke Ellington and Max Roach.
In 1966 Mingus stopped performing, largely as a result of the psychological problems that had always plagued him. In 1969 financial problems forced him out of retirement, and despite his deteriorating physical condition due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive degenerative disease of the nervous system (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), he experienced a new burst of creativity in the 1970s. He published his picaresque, fictionalized autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971. He thereafter worked regularly, recording Mingus Moves (1973), until 1977, when he fell ill after recording Three or Four Shades of Blue. He released his last albums, Me, Myself an Eye and Something like a Bird, in 1978. His last appearance on record was on Mingus, an album by the singer Joni Mitchell, in 1978. He died in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Berendt, Joachim. "Mingus and the Shadow of Duke Ellington." Jazz 4, no. 4 (1965): 17–25.
Coleman, Janet, and Al Young. Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs. New York: Limelight, 1991.
Jost, Ekkehart. "Charles Mingus." In Free Jazz. Graz, Austria: Universal Edition, 1974, pp. 35–44.
Mingus, Charles. Beneath the Underdog. New York: Random House, 1971.
Priestley, Brian. Mingus: A Critical Biography. New York: Perseus Books, 1983.
eddie s. meadows (1996)
Charles Mingus (mĬng´gəs), 1922–79, American jazz musician, b. Nogales, Ariz. Mingus was a bassist, pianist, bandleader, composer, and vocalist. He was one of the most important jazz composers of the 20th cent. and an influence on a broad spectrum of musicians. A charismatic, demanding, and sometimes violent risk-taker, Mingus created works with unconventional structures and innovative harmonies. In the 1950s and 60s he led groups noted for their collective improvisations, loose rhythms, and high energy. At various times in his career he played with Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington, to whom he dedicated his Open Letter to Duke. He organized his first group, a sextet, in 1945, and later (1955) formed the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, a group that brought him worldwide acclaim. His compositions include the ambitious Epitaph, first performed in 1989; Fables of Faubus;Better Git It in Your Soul; and Sue's Changes.
See his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog (1971); biographies by B. Priestly (1982) and G. Santoro (2000).