Charles Mingus Jr. (April 22, 1922 – January 5, 1979) was a highly-influential American jazz double bassist, composer, bandleader, and civil rights activist.
Mingus’s compositions retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of Third stream, free jazz, and classical music. Yet Mingus avoided categorization, forging his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz. He once cited Duke Ellington and church as his main influences.
Mingus focused on collective improvisation, similar to the old New Orleans jazz parades, paying particular attention to how each band member interacted with the group as a whole. In creating his bands, Mingus looked not only at the skills of the available musicians, but also their personalities. Many musicians passed through his bands and later went on to impressive careers. He recruited talented and sometimes little-known artists whom he assembled into unconventional and revealing configurations. As a performer, Mingus was a pioneer in double bass technique, widely recognized as one of the instrument’s most proficient players.
Nearly as well known as his ambitious music was Mingus’ often fearsome temperament, which earned him the nickname “The Angry Man of Jazz.” His refusal to compromise his musical integrity led to many on-stage eruptions, exhortations to musicians, and dismissals.
Because of his brilliant writing for mid-size ensembles—and his catering to and emphasizing the strengths of the musicians in his groups—Mingus is often considered the heir of Duke Ellington, for whom he expressed great admiration. Indeed, Dizzy Gillespie had once claimed Mingus reminded him “of a young Duke”, citing their shared “organizational genius.”
Mingus’ music was once believed to be too difficult to play without Mingus’ leadership, and Gunther Schuller has suggested that Mingus should be ranked among the most important American composers, jazz or otherwise. However, many musicians play Mingus compositions today, from those who play with the repertory bands Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty, and Mingus Orchestra, to the high school students who play the charts and compete in the Charles Mingus High School Competition.
In 1988, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts made possible the cataloging of Mingus compositions, which were then donated to the Music Division of the New York Public Library for public use. In 1993, The Library of Congress acquired Mingus’s collected papers—including scores, sound recordings, correspondence and photos—in what they described as “the most important acquisition of a manuscript collection relating to jazz in the Library’s history”.
Early life and career
Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona. He was raised largely in the Watts area of Los Angeles, California. His mother’s paternal heritage was Chinese and English, while historical records indicate that his father was the illegitimate offspring of a black farmhand and his Swedish employer’s white granddaughter. In Mingus’ autobiography Beneath the Underdog he recounts a story told to him by his father, Charles Mingus Sr., according to which his white grandmother was actually a first cousin of Abraham Lincoln. Charles Mingus Sr. claims to have been raised by his mother and her husband as a white person until he was fourteen, when his mother revealed to her family that the child’s true father was a black slave, after which he had to run away from his family and live on his own. The autobiography doesn’t confirm whether Charles Mingus Sr. or Mingus himself believed this story to be true, or whether it was meant to be merely an embellished version of the Mingus family’s lineage.
His mother allowed only church-related music in their home, but Mingus developed an early love for music, especially Duke Ellington. He studied trombone, and later cello, although he was unable to follow the cello professionally because, at the time, it was nearly impossible for a black musician to make a career of classical music, and the cello was not yet accepted as a jazz instrument. Despite this, Mingus was still attached to the cello; as he studied bass with Red Callender in the late 1930s, Callender would even comment that the cello was still Mingus’s main instrument. In Beneath the Underdog, Mingus states that he did not actually start learning bass until Buddy Collette accepted him into his swing band under the stipulation that he be the band’s bass player.
Due to a poor education (much of which was because his early teachers did not think much could come of a black student), Mingus could not read western notation as a young musician. This had a serious impact on his early musical experiences: since he could not read music, he felt ostracized from the classical music world rather than accepted, and eventually turned from a symphonic path entirely. These early experiences were also reflected in his music, which often focused on racism, discrimination and justice. Much of the cello technique he learned was applicable to double bass when he took up the instrument in high school. He studied for five years with H. Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and compositional techniques with Lloyd Reese. Throughout much of his career, he played a bass made in 1927 by the German maker Ernst Heinrich Roth.
Beginning in his teen years, Mingus was writing quite advanced pieces; many are similar to Third Stream because they incorporate elements of classical music. A number of them were recorded in 1960 with conductor Gunther Schuller, and released as Pre-Bird, referring to Charlie “Bird” Parker; Mingus was one of many musicians whose perspectives on music were altered by Parker into “pre- and post-Bird” eras.
Mingus gained a reputation as a bass prodigy. His first major professional job was playing with former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard. He toured with Louis Armstrong in 1943, and by early 1945 was recording in Los Angeles in a band led by Russell Jacquet and which also included Teddy Edwards, Maurice Simon, Bill Davis and Chico Hamilton, and in May that year, in Hollywood, again with Teddy Edwards, in a band led by Howard McGhee. He then played with Lionel Hampton’s band in the late 1940s; Hampton performed and recorded several of Mingus’s pieces. A popular trio of Mingus, Red Norvo and Tal Farlow in 1950 and 1951 received considerable acclaim, but Mingus’ mixed origin caused problems with club owners and he left the group. Mingus was briefly a member of Ellington’s band in 1953, as a substitute for bassist Wendell Marshall. Mingus’s notorious temper led to him being one of the few musicians personally fired by Ellington (Bubber Miley and drummer Bobby Durham are among the others), after an on-stage fight between Mingus and Juan Tizol.
Also in the early 1950s, before attaining commercial recognition as a bandleader, Mingus played gigs with Charlie Parker, whose compositions and improvisations greatly inspired and influenced him. Mingus considered Parker the greatest genius and innovator in jazz history, but he had a love-hate relationship with Parker’s legacy. Mingus blamed the Parker mythology for a derivative crop of pretenders to Parker’s throne. He was also conflicted and sometimes disgusted by Parker’s self-destructive habits and the romanticized lure of drug addiction they offered to other jazz musicians. In response to the many sax players who imitated Parker, Mingus titled a song, “If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There’d be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats” (released on Mingus Dynasty as “Gunslinging Bird”).
Based in New York
In 1952 Mingus co-founded Debut Records with Max Roach, in order to conduct his recording career as he saw fit; the name originated with a desire to document unrecorded young musicians. Despite this, the best-known recording the company issued was of the most prominent figures in bebop. On May 15, 1953, Mingus joined Dizzy Gillespie, Parker, Bud Powell, and Roach for a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, which is the last recorded documentation of the two lead instrumentalists playing together. After the event, Mingus chose to overdub his barely audible bass part back in New York; the original version was issued later. The two 10″ albums of the Massey Hall concert (one featured the trio of Powell, Mingus and Roach) were among Debut Records’ earliest releases. Mingus may have objected to the way the major record companies treated musicians, but Gillespie once commented that he did not receive any royalties “for years and years” for his Massey Hall appearance. The records though, are often regarded as among the finest live jazz recordings.
One story, possibly apocryphal, has it that Mingus was involved in a notorious incident while playing a 1955 club date billed as a “reunion” with Parker, Powell, and Roach. Powell, who suffered from alcoholism and mental illness (possibly exacerbated by a severe police beating and electroshock treatments), had to be helped from the stage, unable to play or speak coherently. As Powell’s incapacitation became apparent, Parker stood in one spot at a microphone, chanting “Bud Powell…Bud Powell…” as if beseeching Powell’s return. Allegedly, Parker continued this incantation for several minutes after Powell’s departure, to his own amusement and Mingus’ exasperation. Mingus took another microphone and announced to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not jazz; these are very sick men.” This was Parker’s last public performance; about a week later he died after years of substance abuse.
Mingus often worked with a mid-sized ensemble (around 8–10 members) of rotating musicians known as the Jazz Workshop. Mingus broke new ground, constantly demanding that his musicians be able to explore and develop their perceptions on the spot. Those who joined the Workshop (or Sweatshops as they were colorfully dubbed by the musicians) included Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Charles McPherson and Horace Parlan. Mingus shaped these musicians into a cohesive improvisational machine that in many ways anticipated free jazz. Some musicians dubbed the workshop a “university” for jazz.
Pithecanthropus Erectus among other creations
The decade which followed is generally regarded as Mingus’s most productive and fertile period. Impressive new compositions and albums appeared at an astonishing rate: some thirty records in ten years, for a number of record labels (Atlantic Records, Candid, Columbia Records, Impulse! Records and others), a pace perhaps unmatched by any other musicians except Ellington and Frank Zappa.
Mingus had already recorded around ten albums as a bandleader, but 1956 was a breakthrough year for him, with the release of Pithecanthropus Erectus, arguably his first major work as both a bandleader and composer. Like Ellington, Mingus wrote songs with specific musicians in mind, and his band for Erectus included adventurous, though distinctly blues-oriented musicians, piano player Mal Waldron, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and the Sonny Rollins-influenced tenor of J. R. Monterose. The title song is a ten-minute tone poem, depicting the rise of man from his hominid roots (Pithecanthropus erectus) to an eventual downfall. A section of the piece was free improvisation, free of structure or theme.
Another album from this period, The Clown (1957 also on Atlantic Records), with an improvised story on the title track by humorist Jean Shepherd, was the first to feature drummer Dannie Richmond. Richmond would be his preferred drummer until Mingus’s death in 1979. The two men formed one of the most impressive and versatile rhythm sections in jazz. Both were accomplished performers seeking to stretch the boundaries of their music while staying true to its roots. When joined by pianist Jaki Byard, they were dubbed “The Almighty Three”.
Mingus Ah Um and other works
In 1959 Mingus and his jazz workshop musicians recorded one of his best-known albums, Mingus Ah Um. Even in a year of standout masterpieces, including Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz, and Ornette Coleman’s prophetic The Shape of Jazz to Come, this was a major achievement, featuring such classic Mingus compositions as “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (an elegy to Lester Young) and “Fables of Faubus” (a protest against segregationist Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus that features double-time sections).
Mingus witnessed Ornette Coleman’s legendary—and controversial—1960 appearances at New York City’s Five Spot jazz club. Though he initially expressed rather mixed feelings for Coleman’s innovative music: “…if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something…Most of the time they use their fingers on the saxophone and they don’t even know what’s going to come out. They’re experimenting.” Mingus was in fact a prime influence of the early free jazz era. He formed a quartet with Richmond, trumpeter Ted Curson and saxophonist Eric Dolphy. This ensemble featured the same instruments as Coleman’s quartet, and is often regarded as Mingus rising to the challenging new standard established by Coleman. Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus was the quartet’s only album.
Only one misstep occurred in this era: 1962′s Town Hall Concert. An ambitious program, it was unfortunately plagued with troubles from its inception. Mingus’s vision, now known as Epitaph, was finally realized by conductor Gunther Schuller in a concert in 1989, 10 years after Mingus’s death.
The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and other Impulse! albums
In 1963, Mingus released The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a sprawling, multi-section masterpiece, described as “one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history.” The album was also unique in that Mingus asked his psychotherapist to provide notes for the record.
Mingus also released Mingus Plays Piano, an unaccompanied album, in 1963. A few pieces were entirely improvised and drew on classical music as much as jazz, preceding Keith Jarrett’s landmark The Köln Concert in those respects by some 12 years.
In addition, 1963 saw the release of Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, an album which was praised by critic Nat Hentoff.
In 1964 Mingus put together one of his best-known groups, a sextet including Dannie Richmond, Jaki Byard, Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Johnny Coles, and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. The group was recorded frequently during its short existence; Coles fell ill during a European tour. On June 28, 1964 Dolphy died while in Berlin. 1964 was also the year that Mingus met his future wife, Sue Graham Ungaro. The couple were married in 1966 by Allen Ginsberg. Facing financial hardship, Mingus was evicted from his New York home in 1966,.
Mingus’s pace slowed somewhat in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974 he formed a quintet with Richmond, pianist Don Pullen, trumpeter Jack Walrath and saxophonist George Adams. They recorded two well-received albums, Changes One and Changes Two. Mingus also played with Charles McPherson in many of his groups during this time. Cumbia and Jazz Fusion in 1976 sought to blend Colombian music (the “Cumbia” of the title) with more traditional jazz forms. In 1971, Mingus taught for a semester at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York as the Slee Professor of Music.
Later career and death
By the mid-1970s, Mingus was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in America known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a wastage of the musculature. His once formidable bass technique suffered, until he could no longer play the instrument. He continued composing, however, and supervised a number of recordings before his death. Eminent music journalist Stephen Davis sympathetically snapshot Mingus’s final years in a rare piece titled “Ten Takes on Charles Mingus” published in Zero: Contemporary Buddhist Life and Thought, Vol. 3 (Autumn, 1979).
Mingus did not complete his final project of an album named after him with singer Joni Mitchell, which included lyrics added by Mitchell to Mingus compositions, including “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, among Mitchell originals and short, spoken word duets and home recordings of Mitchell and Mingus. The album featured the talents of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and another influential bassist and composer, Jaco Pastorius. Mingus died aged 56 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he had traveled for treatment and convalescence. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.
The Mingus Big Band
The music of Charles Mingus is currently being performed and reinterpreted by the Mingus Big Band, which, starting October 2008, plays every Monday at Jazz Standard in New York City, and often tours the rest of the U.S. and Europe. Elvis Costello has written lyrics for a few Mingus pieces. He had once sung lyrics for one piece, “Invisible Lady”, being backed by the Mingus Big Band on the album, Tonight at Noon: Three of Four Shades of Love.
In addition to the Mingus Big Band, there is the Mingus Orchestra and the Mingus Dynasty, each of which are managed by Jazz Workshop, Inc., and run by Mingus’s widow Sue Graham Mingus.
Epitaph is considered to be one of Charles Mingus’ masterpieces. The composition is 4,235 measures long, requires two hours to perform, and is one of the longest jazz pieces ever written. Epitaph was only completely discovered during the cataloging process after his death by musicologist Andrew Homzy. With the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, the score and instrumental parts were copied, and the piece itself was premiered by a 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller. This concert was produced by Mingus’s widow, Sue Graham Mingus, at Alice Tully Hall on June 3, 1989, ten years after his death. It was performed again at several concerts in 2007. The performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall is available on NPR. The complete score was published in 2008 by Hal Leonard.
Written throughout the 1960s, Mingus’s sprawling, exaggerated, quasi-autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as composed by Mingus, was published in 1971. Written in a “stream of consciousness” style, it covered several aspects of Mingus’s life that had previously been off-record.
In addition to his musical and intellectual proliferation, Mingus goes into great detail about his perhaps overstated sexual exploits. He claims to have had over 31 affairs over the course of his life (including 26 prostitutes in one sitting). This does not include any of his five wives (he claims to have been married to two of them simultaneously). In addition, he asserts that he held a brief career as a pimp. This has never been confirmed.
Mingus’s autobiography also serves as an insight into his psyche, as well as his attitudes about race and society. Autobiographic accounts of abuse at the hands of his father from an early age, being bullied as a child, his removal from a white musician’s union, and grappling with disapproval while married to white women and other examples of the hardship and prejudice.
Considering the number of compositions that Charles Mingus wrote, his works have not been recorded as often as comparable jazz composers. About the only Mingus tribute album recorded in his lifetime was baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams’s album, Pepper Adams Plays Charlie Mingus in 1963. Of all his works, his elegant elegy for Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (from Mingus Ah Um) has probably had the most recordings. Besides recordings from the expected jazz artists, the song has also been recorded by musicians as disparate as Jeff Beck, Andy Summers, Eugene Chadbourne, and Bert Jansch and John Renbourn with and without Pentangle. Joni Mitchell sang a version with lyrics that she wrote for the song.
Elvis Costello has recorded “Hora Decubitus” (from Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus) on My Flame Burns Blue (2006). “Better Git It in Your Soul” was covered by Davey Graham on his album “Folk, Blues, and Beyond.” Trumpeter Ron Miles performs a version of “Pithecanthropus Erectus” on his EP “Witness.” New York Ska Jazz Ensemble has done a cover of Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song”, as have Pentangle and others. Hal Willner’s 1992 tribute album Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus (Columbia Records) contains idiosyncratic renditions of Mingus’s works involving numerous popular musicians including Chuck D, Keith Richards, Henry Rollins and Dr. John. The Italian band Quintorigo recorded an entire album devoted to Mingus’ music, titled Play Mingus.
Gunther Schuller’s edition of Mingus’ “Epitaph” which premiered at Lincoln Center in 1989 was subsequently released on Columbia/Sony Records.
One of the ultimate tributes to Mingus came on September 29, 1969 at a festival honoring him. Duke Ellington performed The Clown at the festival. Duke himself did Jean Shepherd’s narration. As of this date, this recording has not been issued.
Personality and temper
As respected as Mingus was for his musical talents, he was sometimes feared for his occasional violent onstage temper, which was at times directed at members of his band, and other times aimed at the audience. He was physically large, prone to obesity (especially in his later years), and was by all accounts often intimidating and frightening when expressing anger or displeasure. Mingus was prone to clinical depression. He tended to have brief periods of extreme creative activity, intermixed with fairly long periods of greatly decreased output.
When confronted with a nightclub audience talking and clinking ice in their glasses while he performed, Mingus stopped his band and loudly chastised the audience, stating “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit.” Mingus reportedly destroyed a $20,000 bass in response to audience heckling at New York’s Five Spot.
Guitarist and singer Jackie Paris was a first-hand witness to Mingus’s irascibility. Paris recalls his time in the Jazz Workshop: “He chased everybody off the stand except [drummer] Paul Motian and me… The three of us just wailed on the blues for about an hour and a half before he called the other cats back.”
On October 12, 1962, Mingus punched Jimmy Knepper in the mouth while the two men were working together at Mingus’s apartment on a score for his upcoming concert at New York Town Hall and Knepper refused to take on more work. The blow from Mingus broke off a crowned tooth and its underlying stub. According to Knepper, this ruined his embouchure and resulted in the permanent loss of the top octave of his range on the trombone – a significant handicap for any professional trombonist. This attack temporarily ended their working relationship and Knepper was unable to perform at the concert. Charged with assault, Mingus appeared in court in January 1963 and was given a suspended sentence. Knepper would again work with Mingus in 1977 and played extensively with the Mingus Dynasty, formed after Mingus’ death in 1979.
Mingus was evicted from his apartment at 5 Great Jones Street in New York City for nonpayment of rent, captured in the film Mingus: 1968, by Thomas Reichman, which also features Mingus performing in clubs and in the apartment, shooting a shotgun, composing at the piano, and discussing love, art, and politics and the music school he had hoped to create.
Awards and honors
1971 Guggenheim Fellowship (Music Composition)
1971: Inducted in the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
1988: The National Endowment for the Arts provided grants for a Mingus nonprofit called “Let My Children Hear Music” which cataloged all of Mingus’ works. The microfilms of these works were given to the Music Division of the New York Public Library where they are currently available for study.
1993: The Library of Congress acquired Mingus’s collected papers—including scores, sound recordings, correspondence and photos—in what they described as “the most important acquisition of a manuscript collection relating to jazz in the Library’s history”.
1995: The United States Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor.
1997: Was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
1999: The album Mingus Dynasty (1959) was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
2005: Inducted in the Jazz at Lincoln Center, Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.
1959, Mingus contributed most of the music for John Cassavetes’s gritty New York City film, Shadows.
1961, Mingus appeared as a bassist and actor in the British film All Night Long.
1968, Thomas Reichman directed the documentary Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968.
1991, Ray Davies produced a documentary entitled Weird Nightmare. It contains footage of Mingus and interviews with artists making Hal Willner’s tribute album of the same name, including Elvis Costello, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and Vernon Reid.
Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog is a 78 minute long documentary film on Charles Mingus directed by Don McGlynn and released in 1998.