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Summary Article: Charles Mingus (1922–1979)
from African American Almanac
Bassist, Composer, Bandleader

Charles Mingus, born on April 22, 1922, in Nogles, Arizona, grew up in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Starting on trombone and cello, he eventually settled on the bass and studied with Red Callender, a noted jazz player, and Herman Reinshagen, a classical musician. He also studied composition with Lloyd Reese. Early in his professional career he worked with Barney Bigard in a band that included the veteran New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory, and he toured briefly in Louis Armstrong's big band; he also led his own groups and recorded with them locally. After a stint in Lionel Hampton's band, which recorded his interesting composition “Mingus Fingus,” he joined Red Norvo's trio, with which he came to New York in 1951.

Settling there, he worked with many leading players, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and he founded his own record label Debut. He also formed his first of many so-called jazz workshops, in which new music (mostly his own compositions) was rehearsed and performed. Mingus believed in spontaneity as well as discipline, and he often interrupted his band's public performances if the playing didn't measure up. Some musicians refused to work with him after such public humiliations, but there were some who thought so well of what he was trying to do that they stayed with him for years. Drummer Dannie Richmond was with Mingus from 1956 to 1970 and again from 1974 until the end. Other longtime “Mingusians” include trombonist Jimmy Knepper, pianist Jaki Byard, saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, John Handy, and Bobby Jones, and trumpeter Jack Walrath.

Mingus's music was as volatile as his temper, filled with ever-changing melodic ideas and textures, and shifting, often accelerating, rhythmic patterns. He was influenced by Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker, and his music often reflected psychological states and his views on social issues. Mingus was a staunch fighter for civil rights and wrote such protest pieces as “Fables of Faubus,” “Meditations on Integration,” and “Eat That Chicken.” He was also steeped in the music of the Holiness Church (“Better Git It in Your Soul,” “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”) and in the whole range of the jazz tradition (“My Jelly Roll Soul,” “Theme for Lester Young,” “Gun-slinging Bird,” “Open Letter to Duke”). Himself a virtuoso bassist, he drove his sidemen to their utmost, often with vocal exhortations that became part of a Mingus performance. He composed for films and ballet and experimented with other forms; his most ambitious work, an orchestral suite called Epitaph, lasts more than two hours and was not performed in full until years after his death. He died January 5, 1979, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease with which he struggled valiantly, composing and directing (from a wheelchair) until just before his death. Mingus was often in financial trouble and once was evicted from his home, but he also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition and was honored by President Jimmy Carter at a White House jazz event in 1978.

At its best, Mingus's music—angry, humorous, always passionate—ranks with the greatest in jazz. He also wrote a strange but interesting autobiography, Beneath the Underdog (1971). A group called Mingus Dynasty continued to perform his music into the 1990s.

Copyright © 2012 by Visible Ink Press®

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