Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Mingus, Charles (Charles Jr.)

Bassist, bandleader and composer Charles Mingus juggled an array of influences that ran from gospel and blues, through Ellington into modern classical music. His prolific career spanned many styles, but like his own moods, his music always spoke in sharp contrasts.

Charles Mingus Jr. was born on an army base in Nogales, Arizona on April 22nd, 1922, and died in Cuernavaca, Mexico on January 5th, 1979. He was raised in Watts, California, three miles outside of Los Angeles.

Mingus’s earliest musical exposure to the gospel music he heard at home and in church. As his 1956 album Better Git It In Your Soul demonstrates, the spirit of the Pentecostal church remained a part of his musical personality throughout his life.

Mingus was introduced to classical music through his older sisters, who studied violin and piano. Upon hearing Duke Ellington on the radio, however, he became immediately captivated by jazz.

Mingus’s first instrument was a trombone his father gave him. By his own account, his efforts on the instrument yielded little success, so his father traded the horn for a cello. Although Mingus had no choice in the matter, he ultimately fell in love with the cello, and switched over to bass in during high school.

Mingus studied with jazz bassist Red Callender, then spent five years under the wing of Herman Rheinschagen, a bassist who formerly played with the New York Philharmonic. Mingus also studied composition at this time with Lloyd Reese.

While still in high school, Mingus played jazz professionally in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1940, he replaced Callender in Lee Young’s band. A year later, he became the bassist for Louis Armstrong’s touring band, a position he held until 1943.

Soon after he found work with Illinois Jacquet, Howard McGhee and Dinah Washington. He went on to join Lionel Hampton’s band, with which he recorded his first bass feature, “Mingus Fingers.” During this time he also led various groups of his own as “Baron Von Mingus.”

Mingus briefly left music due to economic hardships and sought employment as a postal worker, an episode he recounts in his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. This non-musical stint was short-lived, however, and in 1950 he was invited by vibraphonist Red Norvo to join his trio with guitarist Tal Farlow. The group attracted attention nationwide and helped bring the West-Coast style of jazz, which became known as “cool jazz,” to a nationwide audience.

In 1951, Mingus relocated to New York City and began seeking work as a freelance bassist. During this period, he worked with the luminaries of bebop, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Billy Taylor and Art Tatum.

Duke Ellington even recruited Mingus at one point, but theirs was not a happy marriage. The combative bassist bore the honor of being one of the only musicians that Ellington personally fired from his band, a task the bandleader would do almost anything to avoid.

Ellington however must have retained a soft spot for the overtalented bassist. He, Mingus and drummer Max Roach joined forces in 1962 to record a suite of Ellington compositions, known as Money Jungle.

In 1952, Mingus and Roach established their own recording company, Debut Records. Both men were angered by major record companies’ unfair treatment of musicians, and so decided to take matters into their own hands. The experiment lasted only a few years, but set an important precedent for artist control.

In May of 1953, Mingus, Roach, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell performed a concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall. This was the only time that the five bebop masters recorded together, and this record, released on Debut, captures classics such as ”A Night in Tunisia.” Mingus, ever the perfectionist, decided that his bass was not well-recorded, so he overdubbed his part on the entire tape.

From 1953 to 1955, Mingus was a part of the Jazz Composers Workshop, a group of forward-thinking composers dedicated to creating new directions in jazz. This group included John LaPorta, Lenny Tristano, Teddy Charles and Teo Macero.

Mingus claimed the other composers in the workshop prevented the music from coming to life by placing too much importance on written parts. He therefore brought himself to the forefront as the sole composer and leader of the “Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop,” which he created in 1955.

The initial sessions for this group included the same cast of characters, only now Mingus had designated himself as the artist-in-chief. Later in the fifties, Mingus formed the Jazz Artists Guild to organize and produce concerts, another venture that did not last.

Always outspoken, Mingus’s workshops and recordings served as a soapbox from which he speak out about social issues, including racial discrimination on ”Original Faubus Fables” and the nuclear arms race, in”Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me.“

In the mid-sixties, Mingus suffered from deep depression psychological distress, which forced him to stop playing music for a short time. During this period, he wrote his long-winded and occasionally untruthful autobiography, which weighed in at over 1000 pages. Mingus was also evicted from his apartment in New York City in 1968, and lost much of his written music.

When he returned to music in June of 1969, he found that his status and recognition had improved during his hiatus. Random House published Beneath the Underdog in 1971, and he received the Guggenheim Fellowship for Composition that same year.

Mingus then took a part-time position as an instructor at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He toured extensively with his new workshop, composed music for film and collaborated with singer Joni Mitchell.

In 1977, Mingus became seriously ill and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He died less than two years later.

The musical legacy of Charles Mingus has been kept alive through repertory ensembles organized by his widow, Sue Graham Mingus. The Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Orchestra perform his music and include some of the alumni of his bands.

Ten years after his death, the Mingus composition “Epitaph” was performed at New York’s Lincoln Center. The piece was discovered after he died, and was an 18-part suite, of almost 4000 measures in length. Though a grant from the Ford Foundation, it was prepared and performed by a 30-piece orchestra. Gunther Schuller, who conducted the piece, described the work to Time Magazine 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 as a Composer and Bandleader

Mingus’ compositional style matured in New York City during the 1950s. His recording ventures and regular “workshops” allowed him to thoroughly explore new musical territory, and to bring ideas to life that undoubtedly had been stirring in his mind.

Like Ellington, Mingus saw the need to develop extended forms in jazz. He began to experiment by modifying conventional forms and finding ways to create the sharp contrasts and variety that became trademarks of the Mingus style. Examples of Mingus’s range and eclecticism can be heard in ”Haitian Fight Song” and ”Ysabel's Table Dance.”

One of his trademark techniques as a composer was to create rhythmic contrast between sections of a piece by manipulating the time feel and groove. This technique can be found in many examples of his work, and can range from switching between walking bass lines to doubling every note, to more complicated metric modulations and superimposed rhythms.

An element of his compositional style is the blending of measured against unmeasured space in music, to extend forms and create contrast. He often followed precise written and rehearsed passages with sections of undetermined length, employing set musical cues to provide a malleable departure from an established section. This is an idea that is quite prevalent in contemporary compositions, and often one of the only ways for a composer to achieve the desired balance between improvised and composed elements without jeopardizing the cohesive flow of the music.

Another technique Mingus used often was layering many parts consecutively to build tension. In this practice, sections of a given composition consist of layered vamps or repeated musical phrases. One musician leads, providing an introduction, while the others gradually add their respective layers. This creates steady development and flow without departing from the original material. It also leaves standard devices for developing a composition untouched and reserved for other important moments. This technique can be heard on “Moanin’.”

Mingus used collective improvisations as a form of written texture. He would give his band members some kind of musical guidelines for a given situation, and essentially have them improvise counterpoint. While this technique may sound to some listeners as a contemporary device, it harkens back to the early forms of improvisation found in New Orleans jazz.

What make this idea seem so fresh in Mingus’s music are the arrangements and the musicians’ more modern approach to improvisation, sometimes in an atonal context with complex rhythmic variation. He used this to increase tension and support the progressive nature of his forms. Into the early 1960s, Mingus continued to experiment with incorporating free improvisation, rich textures and color and variety through orchestration.

As a leader, Mingus had a talent for bringing together talented musicians, and knew exactly how get the greatest playing out of both veteran and inexperienced players. At the same time, Mingus could be stubborn and an often difficult individual. Mingus was never short on words, and was a master at creating superfluous explanations, anecdotes, and stories. This tendency to embroider the truth, however, belied his boundless curiosity and depth of knowledge about many subjects.

The same traits that made him a difficult person difficult to work with were ultimately an asset to his control and authority as a bandleader. Mingus rehearsed his bands intensely, which enabled them to pull off many of the acrobatic maneuvers and cued entrances his challenging music required.

Mingus always got what he wanted from his players, and demanded that they do the impossible. This allowed the growth of his unique compositional style, as well the development of the ensemble. He was more or less in complete command of the musical output of his band. Mingus aimed to shape his style in such a way that could not be stolen from him, for he knew that only he could do it his way.

Select Discography

Jazz at Massey Hall (w/ Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach 1953); Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956); The Clown (1957); Tijuana Moods (1957, released 1962); East Coasting (1957); Blues and Roots (1959, released 1960); Mingus Ah Um (1959); Mingus Dynasty (1959); Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (1960); Mingus at Antibes (1960, released 1980); Money Jungle (1962); Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963); Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963); Town Hall Concert (1964); Let My Children Hear Music (1971); Mingus Moves (1973); Changes One (1974); Changes Two (1974); Mingus at Carnegie hall (1974); Cumbia and Jazz Fusion (1977); Three or Four Shades of Blue (1977); Something Like a Bird (1978); Me Myself and Eye (1978)

Select Bibliography

Santoro, Gene. 2000. Myself When I Am Real. New York: Oxford University Press.

Priestley, Brian. 1982. Mingus: A Critical Biography. London: Quartet Books.

Mingus, Charles et. al. 1991. Charles Mingus: More Than a Fake Book. New York: Jazz Workshop, Inc.

McGlynn, Don. 1997. Triumph Of The Underdog. (Video Documentary produced by Don McGlynn and Sue Graham Mingus.)

Coleman, Janet and Al Young. 1989. Mingus/Mingus: Two Views. Berkeley, California: Creative Arts Book Company.

Mingus, Charles. 1971. Beneath The Underdog. Edited by Nel King. New York: Alfred A. Knopf./Vintage Books. 1991. Mingus, Sue Graham. 2002. Tonight at Noon: A Love Story. New York: De Capo Press.

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Contributor: John DeCarlo